Northern Ireland

New tunnel past fire-damaged Primark store

Shipping containers have been placed in front of the burnt-out building
Image caption Shipping containers have been placed in front of the burnt-out building

A new tunnel will allow shoppers to walk past the fire-damaged Primark shop in Belfast, with shipping containers in place in case the building collapses.

It will reconnect Donegall Place and Royal Avenue, which have been separated by a cordon since a major blaze gutted the listed building in August.

The man overseeing attempts to save the building admitted it is "hanging in the breeze," according to the Irish News.

But officials said the covered walkway will protect the public's safety.

Eight neighbouring shops which have been closed for months due to concerns over the structural safety of the Primark building will be able to trade from next week.

It is hoped the new walkway will drive up footfall, which fell significantly after the 28 August fire destroyed the historic Bank Buildings site.

Plans have been approved to salvage and rebuild much of the external structure but the B1 listed building is more than 200 years and its interior structure is in very poor condition.

Those working on the restoration have said there must be a 45m (50yr) safety zone in front of the building, to allow for the possibility of the damaged clock tower falling over.

Image caption The damaged building is in the middle of Belfast's main shopping thoroughfare

Joe O'Connor, who is leading the project to restore Bank Buildings, told the Irish News it has been complicated by the presence of the River Farset below the construction site.

Mr O'Connor said workers were "pretty much building on a swamp" and admitted that "basically the building is hanging in the breeze".

However, both Belfast City Council and Primark have said the tunnel offers full protection, according to the newspaper.

The new tunnel will be 3m (10ft) wide and 3.2m (10ft 6in) high and is expected to stay in place until spring next year.

Compensation

It will be constructed from scaffolding but shored up by a pile of weighted shipping containers.

The walkway will be fully lit where it has a ceiling and police are considering whether to install CCTV inside the tunnel.

Other city centre businesses which saw their trade damaged by the Primark fire were offered compensation and to date almost £570,000 has been shared out among 95 businesses.

The amounts varied but for shops inside the cordon which were forced to close for months, the compensation ranged up to £19,000.

At the time of the fire, Primark was building a multi-million pound extension behind Bank Buildings, in Commonwealth House.

The four-floor extension survived structurally and Primark said it will be opening its doors on 8 December, with access through Castle Street.

It is understood the eight businesses which can reopen next week have been able to access their premises for the first time since the fire.

They include McDonald's, Spar, DV8 and Argento.

Media playback is unsupported on your device
Media captionDrone footage shows the extent of the destruction caused by the fire at the Bank Buildings

Peter Boyle, the chief executive of Argento, told the BBC's Good Morning Ulster programme he is relieved to get his store back up and running.

"We just couldn't imagine not trading out of that store, our flagship store in the UK, before Christmas," he said.

"We have opened a temporary store which has helped us get ready for Christmas and we are trading at about half our normal turnover.

"We tried at the start of this to stress the urgency of getting the cordon down much earlier than this and start trading in November.

"I don't think things will be normal for a while, the city is still very quiet, but look we'll make the most of it and we just want to get on with it."

While some businesses will be able to reopen, others including Tesco and Zara will remain closed until spring.

'Steady progress'

Primark and Belfast City Council have extensive plans in place to continue to secure Bank Buildings.

Glyn Roberts, the chief executive of Retail NI, said the tunnel opening will help the city.

"This is steady progress and we've worked very hard with council to reanimate the city centre and obviously it was vital we did this.

"I think taking down Bank Buildings is a slow process and we've still a lot of work to do.

"This situation is affecting Northern Ireland because Belfast city centre is such a huge contributor to the economy and this is the biggest thing to hit Northern Ireland since the ending of the Troubles.

"I met with the chancellor last week and he took an interest and it's an issue which has gone right to the top of the UK government given the seriousness of it."

As part of the recovery plan, Belfast City Council has organised a range of events and activities to encourage people to visit all parts of the city.

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