Try better, Tribeca: Why Belfast needs a new approach to urban development

Belfast’s iconic buildings have long defined the image of the city & reflect its cultural heritage (Image credit: Pinterest)

“A new destination for Belfast. Bringing together a new way of working, living and shopping in the heart of the city.” Tribeca, a £500 million scheme planned to redevelop part of Belfast city centre, recently received planning approval by local councillors. However, its developers, Castlebrook Investments, would be wise to check the definition of the word “new”.

Nothing about their development is new: not its design, not its concept, not even its name. It repackages the capitalist dream of a city centre dominated by multi-story offices and white-collar workers, so bland that it seamlessly erases any resemblance of what once made a city unique.

Belfast has been heading this direction for some time, of course. So much so that it’s often difficult to decipher between the capital’s centre and the shopping and working districts of a host of UK cities. Be it Birmingham, Glasgow or Liverpool, the continued process of architectural homogenisation means that it is the same fast food outlets, chain stores, betting shops and luxury apartment blocks that line the streets and make each city centre as interchangeable as the next.

Parts of Belfast are, unquestionable, in desperate need of regeneration. But why waste this opportunity to breathe new life into the city on a project that not only values banality over cultural originality, but prioritizes business interests over urgent social needs?

The Tribeca development has been lambasted, campaigned against and ridiculed from pillar to post since it was first presented in November 2018. Initially proposed in 2003 as the North East Quarter regeneration scheme, planned efforts to reinvent the area have rarely been welcomed by the wider public.

Over the years, opposition has been levelled against proposed developments’ evident lack of care towards both existing built heritage and the interests of local businesses. In 2019 alone, over 450 written objections from concerned members of the public were directed at the most recent proposal, the Tribeca development. In support of the project, there were only 5. As others have noted, it can at least take pride in a rare achievement, its ability to unite Belfast residents behind a common cause.

A visualisation of what the part of Tribeca development will look like following development (Image source: Tribeca Belfast)

Save the Cathedral Quarter, an advocacy group calling for equitable urban development in Belfast, have worked tirelessly in recent years to ensure something like Tribeca could never be granted permission. Unfortunately, following some slight revisions, it has. But this isn’t the end of the fight. Tribeca will be followed by more of the same across the city, unless campaigning is continued and viable alternatives are developed. That is the challenge.

Urban development isn’t just about the physical construction of buildings or the financial potential that they offer, it is a means of responding to civic needs and creating socio-economic opportunities. This is where Tribeca appears most unbalanced.

It is exclusive in its very nature, shows little promise of supporting integration and ignores the importance of developing space in a sensitive, sustainable and just manner. To put it bluntly, Tribeca is an inappropriate scheme for Belfast to follow. Its successes are dependent upon both increases in demand for retail space, something which has been dwindling for many years, and private investment in its residential stock. There is no mixed tenure housing nor providence of social or affordable housing provision. It puts two fingers up to those who want a more equitable future for the city centre and dampens aspirations of future prosperity for the many.

What makes Tribeca look all the more unsuitable is its lack of flexibility. Even before it is has been built, it is difficult to envisage how it will efficiently manage the disruptive impact that COVID-19 will have, and to some degree already has had, upon city centre life. There is little in the way of sustainable-thinking and resiliency embedded within the development, rendering the capability of the scheme to adequately respond to a financial crisis uncertain.

As suggested, Tribeca is dependent upon private investment, yet long-term interest in this type of development may lessen drastically as the new normal reveals itself. In the space of a couple of months, the Coronavirus pandemic dramatically changed city life across the world. In Belfast alone, thousands of office workers quickly shifted to working from home with city centre footfall plummeting. Whilst shops have re-opened and some office staff have returned, newly implemented COVID measures will disrupt this momentum.

The initial lockdown period revealed the many benefits of home working, including dramatic reductions in harmful emissions and improvements in people’s work-life balances, and has promoted the idea of scaling down city centre working in the long-term. Whilst we will inevitably be bombarded with government- and business-led initiatives that claim offices are needed for innovation, collaboration and learning, there is a real chance that a post-pandemic world will slowly move away from densely packed working districts and dilute the office-centric mentality of business.

Whatever the future holds, it is unlikely that Tribeca will reveal itself as a new, innovative reality that will drive Belfast forward. The design and concept behind the development was outdated prior to COVID, it seems ancient now.

It is difficult to put a price on the social outcomes of large-scale developments and this is, perhaps, why decision-makers can be easily seduced by economic projections and forecasted job opportunities. The kind of job opportunities proposed by the Tribeca developers, by the way, would do little beyond catering for highly skilled and qualified workers.

We have seen a host of sustainable, creative and inclusive alternatives put forward in recent years, none more so than from members of Save the Cathedral Quarter. Merging these ideas with the critical need for socio-economic recovery plans that support the development of affordable housing, improved public transport networks and enhanced green space within the city centre, Belfast must advance a pathway to its future that is focused on social equity.

Accessibility, be it to housing, healthcare, education, employment or leisure activities, is desperately uneven throughout the city. The pandemic and the likely economic devastation that it brings will extend such inequities even more so. The need for just urban development is, therefore, critical. We are tired of the same old landscapes in Belfast and developments like Tribeca will do very little to successfully transition the city out of the COVID-19 crisis and into a bright, more sustainable future. The city needs better.

Research assistant at Queen's University Belfast

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