Will Titanic Quarter Sink?

The Titanic Quarter in Belfast was meant to signal the rebirth of the city, but a downturn in the property market has raised fears about its viability, writes Peter Geoghegan.

The Titanic sank on its maiden voyage, a century ago today, but in Belfast the ship’s memory is more alive now than it has ever been. On High Street, Titanic tour buses jostle for space. Around the corner, on Little Donegall Street, the newly minted Titanic Bar has replaced a dilapidated snooker hall. Titanic gimcrack, everything from t-shirts to chocolate, abounds in city centre gift shops.

The main attraction for maritime buffs and curious locals alike is Titanic Belfast, a £97 million ‘experience’ built in the shadow of the slipway on which the ship was launched into Belfast Lough on May 31 1911. Constructed by Todd Architects, working to a design by internationally renowned architect Eric Kuhne, the shimmering structure is a startling addition to the Belfast skyline.

The 125ft tall, glistening silver shell of Titanic Belfast consciously references the prows of four ocean-liners, the logo of White Star Line, the company which commissioned the ship, and, most surprisingly, the ice-berg on which the ill-fated vessel ran aground so fatefully.

Inside, original photographs, CGI animation, 3D imagery and a suspension ride through a mock-up of the Harland and Wolff shipyards tell the tale of the Titanic from its construction in then boomtown Belfast to its eventual demise. ‘Titanic Belfast is iconic not just in its design but in the story that it tells,’ Tim Husbands, CEO of Titanic Belfast Limited told the Sunday Business Post.

For decades after 1912, the Titanic was a source of shame for many in the shipyards and across Northern Ireland, seldom talked about and certainly never celebrated. ‘It was only when Dr (Robert) Ballard filmed the wreck in 1985 and then Mr Cameron made his movie (Titanic) that we had the confidence to do something like this,’ said Mr Husbands.

Titanic Belfast is the centre point of Titanic Quarter, a public-private development on a 184-acre site about a mile east of Belfast city centre. Formerly known as Queens Island, it was here that Belfast’s famous shipyards were located – Samson and Goliath, the iconic yellow Harland and Wolff cranes, still tower over the site.

Since 2005, Titanic Quarter Limited has been joint owned by Pat Doherty’s Harcourt Developments and financier Dermot Desmond, with land provided by site owners Belfast Harbour Commissioners. Ambitious plans for the Titanic Quality development have been stalled by the downturn in the Northern Irish housing market, but a number of apartment complexes have been built as well as a Premier Inn hotel, which opened in 2010. Belfast Metropolitan College, with over 17,000 students, and the Northern Ireland Public Records Office are based in Titanic Quarter too.

‘We think Titanic Quarter has the potential to pull people into Belfast to give them a reason to come to Belfast,’ said Michael Graham, Director of Corporate Real Estate, Titanic Quarter Limited.

Speaking from the renovated Edwardian director’s dining room of Harland and Wolff, which has become the headquarters of Titanic Quarter Limited, Graham outlined a dramatic vision for a sprawling site that remains largely brownfield. ‘It’ll take a little while but the overall cost of the project could be anything up to £8-£10 bn,’ he said.

A vast, scale model of the Titanic Quarter, featuring yet to be constructed waterfront hotels, business parks and residential buildings, dominates the ground floor of the company’s headquarters. For Graham, Titanic Quarter is a 100-year plan for the former shipyards, which were themselves built on land reclaimed from Belfast Lough in the 1830s.

Central to this vision of a new city on the banks of Belfast Lough is Eric Kuhne’s plans for a series of radial ‘villages’, comprised of apartment blocks interspersed with green spaces. ‘Ultimately we envisage around 30,000 people living here and around 25,000-30,000 working in the area,’ commented Michael Graham.

However, the Titanic Quarter development has struggled. Although most of the 600 or so apartments already built were sold off the plans, Northern Ireland’s housing market contraction means many properties currently lie empty. A string of retail premises on the site are completely empty, save for a single coffee shop.

The hope now is that Titanic Belfast will give the area a new impetus. Tim Husbands, CEO of Titanic Belfast, estimates that 600 jobs were created during the construction of the building and that the centre will provide 250 permanent jobs.

It is proving a popular attraction: Titanic Belfast has been sold out since it opened, with Mr Husbands estimating that 20,000 people visited in the first week alone. ‘Demand has been huge, we have had people coming from all over the world,’ he said.

Mr Husbands anticipates Titanic Belfast receiving 450,000 visitors this year. But doubts remain about the long-term viability of a centre with such a specific purpose and, at £13.50 for an adult, a high entry price.

A report published in December by the Northern Ireland Audit described the long-term future of Titanic Belfast as ‘doubtful’ and expressed concern that the 290,000 visitors needed every year to break even would not materalise. The report, which also drew attention to the exclusive development rights enjoyed by Titanic Quarter Limited in Titanic Quarter, concluded that: ‘Compared to other world class attractions, the Titanic Signature Building will be one of the most expensive relative to the number of visitors it expects to attract.’

Titanic Belfast was built with £60million of public funds. Mark Hackett, co-director of Forum for Alternative Belfast (FAB), is concerned that Titanic Quarter will become a ‘parallel city’, with Belfast’s less affluent residents effectively excluded. ‘More and more we’ve seen the division between rich and poor as the new division in Belfast,’ said Mr Hackett, one of the lead architects behind the newly MAC arts centre in the Cathedral Quarter.

Along with many conservation groups, Mr Hackett questioned the raising of the Titanic Quarter site in the early years of the millennium, which took place before development began. ‘We could have used the old buildings, fixed them, involved new objects to make an incredible post-industrial expo/conference centre/museum. But we didn’t do that,’ he said.

Glenn Patterson, one of Northern Ireland’s most celebrated novelists and an aficionado of Belfast history, is more circumspect about the new development: ‘As a building, Titanic Belfast is a very interesting addition to the cityscape. You can no more be against it than you can be against the weather. You can only take about it.’

Patterson’s latest novel, The Mill for Grinding Old People Young, is set in Belfast in 1831, at a time when the act to create the Victoria Channel was going through parliament. The channel, designed to improve access for ships to Belfast Port, created Queens Island, which was a public park before becoming home to arguably the world’s most famous shipyards.

According to Patterson, the unintended effect of dredging the Victoria Chanel – the creation of the shipbuilding industry – deftly demonstrates that ‘you don’t know what the consequences of something are going to be’. It’s a maxim that could be applied to Titanic Quarter today.

‘We don’t what the effect of all this redevelopment is going to be. The interesting question is “what will the effect of all this be in 100 years time”?’

This article appeared in the Sunday Business Post, April 15.