This is the 15th and final story in a series on global property that examines the shifts and trends in the housing market on the international stage.
Chef Niall McKenna located his fourth restaurant in Belfast’s Titanic Quarter, betting that the emerging neighbourhood will have a longer and more successful voyage than the ill-fated ship that gives it its name.
Like many others in the Northern Ireland capital, the acclaimed chef and entrepreneur sees the quarter as a symbol of Belfast’s rebirth from its troubled past and a new frontier of opportunity.
“There’s no better place to invest in right now than the Titanic Quarter,” says Mr. McKenna, whose casual eatery Cast and Crew opened in May.
The Titanic Quarter is a 185-acre piece of land, just over the River Lagan from the city’s core but still very central. The plot was once home to the city’s world-leading shipbuilding industry and the RMS Titanic was one of the vessels drawn, manufactured and launched there.
Shipbuilding gradually waned in the decades after the Titanic met its unfortunate end in 1912 and the land was all but abandoned by the turn of this century. But private developers with long-term vision have moved in and are quickly transforming the brownfield area into a vibrant mixed-use neighborhood.
The quarter is anchored by a stunning new museum that is dedicated to the Titanic and is shaped on the exterior like the bows of ships. The £77-million ($149-million) museum, Titanic Belfast as it’s called, has been a huge hit. More than two million people have visited since it opened in 2012.
It’s that influx that appealed to Mr. McKenna when he was looking to expand his empire beyond his other three restaurants and a cooking school, all of which are located on narrow streets in Belfast’s historic core. “We’re really trying to hit the tourism market,” he says. “I see tourism as the key, not just for me but for Belfast.”
But to narrowly define the entire Titanic Quarter project as a mere tourism play immortalizing the past is to miss the wider scope of what might be one of the most ambitious regeneration projects in Europe. Beyond the architectural masterpiece of a museum is a growing commercial and residential scene that is attracting businesses and people from not just from Belfast and Northern Ireland but also the rest of the world.
The first sign of new life in the past decade was a science park, which has grown to 210,000 square feet of space over six buildings and is home to about 40 technology companies including SAP and BroadSoft. U.S.-based financial services giant Citibank subsequently moved in and now has more than 2,000 employees in its Titanic Quarter office building.
Other major tenants in the quarter range from the Belfast Metropolitan College, with its campus for 15,000 students, to a sprawling TV and movie studio that got its start as the set for Tom Hanks’s 2008 film City of Ember but now is more famously known as the indoor location for HBO’s popular Game Of Thrones series.
The quarter is also home to Northern Ireland’s public records office, a Chinese consulate, the W5 kids’ interactive science museum and the Belfast Giants hockey team. Retail shops, living spaces (mostly low-rise condominiums that are integrated into the streetscapes) and hotels are emerging. A landscaped boardwalk along the winding river has kept the waterfront accessible.
“The transformation to a variety of uses that are here now is a stark contrast to the century and a half of shipbuilding,” says Michael Graham, director of corporate real estate with developer Titanic Quarter Ltd., which is co-owned by Harcourt Development and billionaire financier Dermot Desmond, both based in Dublin. “Quite amazing in many ways.”
And this is just the beginning, if the long-term master plan reaches its full potential (up to £10-billion in investment). Mr. Graham says the number of residents in the quarter could soon grow to about 5,000 from the current 1,000, and the work force could more than double to 10,000.
He anticipates another four or five million square feet of business space will eventually be needed to meet demand.
Beyond the numbers is the type of people the quarter is attracting – younger, educated and more diverse. The latter is significant in a city of 180,000 that is otherwise fairly homogenous. “It’s probably the most cosmopolitan area of the city now,” Mr. Graham says. “There are people from all over the world. It’s quite a melting pot of different cultures.”
The quarter’s layout is pedestrian and transit friendly, and green spaces and common areas have been incorporated. “It’s very much about creating shared spaces in a city that has had challenges on that front,” Mr. Graham adds.
While the Titanic Quarter’s transformation has been dramatic, it’s not the only part of Belfast that’s resurging. The city, once mired in sectarian violence that peaked in the 1970s, has emerged from what it called the Troubles (not to mention the global recession of 2007-08) and is enjoying a peace dividend.
The stability has brought new investment, a rise in entrepreneurship and a move away from what Mr. McKenna calls the insular tendencies that once characterized residents.
The Cathedral Quarter, a 10-minute walk from the Titanic Quarter over the Lagan Bridge, is evidence of that as well. Buildings that were derelict and home to only pigeons just five or 10 years ago have been bought up, retrofitted and put to residential and commercial use. The quarter now boasts an astounding number of restaurants, for example, for a city this size and the University of Ulster is in the midst of locating a campus there.
Belfast is built on boggy land that wouldn’t support tall buildings – the seven-year-old, four-storey Victoria Square shopping mall is about as tall as it gets. Growing upward isn’t an option but growing from within is, because of the readily available source of unused buildings.
“I’ve been watching the city visibly gentrify around me in the seven years that I’ve been here,” says Amelia-Roisin Seifert, a 27-year-old graduate student at Queen’s University in Belfast who has travelled through Canada and the United States while pursuing her PhD in anthropology. “It’s like Portland without all the urban farming, rain and all.”
Ms. Seifert notes her South Belfast neighbourhood around Queen’s is changing, too, undergoing what she calls a “hipsterification.”
“My personal measure for gentrification is based on a count of indie coffee shops and yoga studios,” she says. “By that count south Belfast alone is scoring at least 90.”
As conditions improve and the local economy brightens, housing prices have started to rise – by almost 10 per cent over the past year, according to property market analysis firm Hometrack – although they remain below other urban centres in Britian and Europe. Two-bedroom flats in the Titanic Quarter typically range from £125,000 to £170,000, according to a Sunday Times story in March, quoting real estate agent Michael Chandler. In South Belfast, which has a wealth of great schools, detached homes go for £400,000 while three-bedroom semis are in the £155,000 range.
Parts of the city haven’t undergone such change – for example, the Catholic and Protestant neighbourhoods in northwest Belfast, where political assassinations and bombings were not uncommon, seem eerily frozen in time, peaceful now but still divided along religious lines and decorated with murals of those who died. But those areas feel like the exception in a city that otherwise has hoisted a new sail and set off in a different direction.
“It’s totally changed, and it’s never going back,” Mr. McKenna says. “It’ll never go back to where it was. It won’t be allowed to go back. It’ll never happen. We’re only going one way.”