Published: 01 May, 2007
Belfast has a new landmark. A skyline long dominated by the cranes of the Harland & Wolf shipyard and the Victorian splendour of City Hall now has a new focal point - the elegant glass dome of the Victoria Square shopping centre.
With the glazing nearly complete, the structure is a visible sign to the people of Belfast that their first major city centre mall for three decades is nearly complete and the developer, Dutch-based Multi Development, has set a firm opening date of 6 March 2008.
Managing director Paul Sargent admits that development seems to have taken a long time. "To start with we dug a huge hole for the 1,000-space underground car park. The car park alone cost us £35m," he says.
But now construction is well enough advanced for the layout of the scheme to become apparent. The scheme exploits a natural fall across the site so that it has a two-level mall. "We have two ground floors" is how Sargent puts it.
The lower will target aspirational fashion brands in standard units. For example Coast, one of the Baugur stable of fashion brands, will take a 2,200 sq ft store next door to Lunn's jewellers. Tommy Hilfiger and Clockwork Orange have also signed.
Meanwhile the upper level has larger floorplates providing double-height units for the mainstream high street brands. H&M is taking 26,000 sq ft; River Island is tripling the size of its Belfast representation; and Urban Outfitters is to open a three-storey Northern Ireland flagship store.
House of Fraser is anchoring the development with a 250,000-sq ft store trading over five levels. Since it bought the store group last year Baugur has been looking to exploit synergies with its other brands, and it has decided to devote 6,000 sq ft in the store to its toy brand Hamleys.
There's been a deal of confusion in the market about the centre's second anchor. Marks & Spencer was long linked with an 80,000 sq ft unit in the scheme but opted to refurbish and extend its existing city centre store. "That 80,000 sq ft was only ever 50,000 sq ft. We extended it specifically for M&S," explains Sargent. "Over the life of the scheme it's been M&S twice and Next once, but now we've agreed a deal and it'll be signed before the end of May."
The new occupier - a global fashion brand - will have a dominant position right on the main entrance to the scheme. Now this key deal is in place Sargent says he's happy with leasing progress. "We have 25 of the 50 units in solicitors' hands," he says. "Another 15 are already signed and sealed and we're in talks on the remainder."
Richard Green, Multi's UK leasing manager is equally satisfied. "Retailers now see Belfast as a regional destination," he says. "We're now established as the opposite end of a a dumb-bell from Castlecourt."
Above the malls the Odeon cinema is taking shape. The eight-screen cinema will have capacity for 1,800 seats and around it will be the catering offer. "There will be a 'pit-stop' area for fast food at first floor level, and that will lead up to the likes of Yo! Sushi and Pizza Express by the cinema foyer. And then there will be more destination catering above that," explains Green who expects the restaurants to serve more than just the shoppers. "It will draw off the Waterfront Hall and the law courts, which are opposite."
This means the centre will trade on five different levels, and this is where the dome comes into play. "It's not just a landmark - it houses all our vertical circulation," says Sargent.
Visually the dome space will be dominated by three 'lily pads.' The lower two are essentially functional, allowing shoppers to cut across the dome, but the third is purely for fun. Perched high in the dome it can allow 100 people at a time to enjoy the spectacular views across the city and Belfast Lough to the hills beyond. It will be accessed by two glass lifts and a vertiginous spiral staircase.
Although the scheme is massive, at 800,000 sq ft overall with 670,000 sq ft of retail space, Green points out that it already has an intimate feel to it. The architects - Multi's in-house design practice T&T with BDP as executive architects - have achieved this by using 17 different architectural styles. There's lots of Belfast's trademark red brick, and the House of Fraser store has an imposing sandstone facade.
But Victoria Square is about much more than just new shopping facilities. It is a tangible sign that Belfast has rejoined the economic mainstream after decades of blight during the Troubles. "The Department of Social Development is our partner in the development," says Sargent. "We've targetted the long-term unemployed for both the construction and retail jobs."
And corporately it's also important for Multi Development, which since last year has been owned by Morgan Stanley Real Estate Funds. The company ranks in the top three developers across Europe with 120 schemes in the pipeline in 19 countries. But in the UK it was an unknown quantity until it won Belfast.
Now that it has shown what it can do in Belfast it has gone on to start on site at Southgate in Bath and is awaiting a CPO decision at Summer Row in Wolverhampton. And it's looking for more. For instance it's just bid for its first scheme in the Republic, the 32,000-sq m Station Quarter in Galway. Clearly Multi is here to stay.