Cathedral Quarter (CQ) has established itself as the cultural, creative and social heart of the city.
The idea of regenerating the oldest part of the city as a cultural quarter, with its significant history and unique architectural heritage, had been around for decades. The home of the Belfast School of Art from the 1960s, the 1970s onwards saw champions for the area from the arts, community, business and government sectors formulate plans to help the area realise its potential. It was not until 1997, however, that the then Laganside Corporation formally established the Cathedral Quarter, with the magnificent St Anne’s Cathedral at its heart.
In the intervening years CQ has undergone enormous change and has been subject to the many shifting economic, societal and political tides that have continued to shape Belfast, not least the announcement of Ulster University’s plans to relocate its Jordanstown campus to the area. The Cathedral Quarter of 2019 is a very different place from that of 1997 and is poised for even bigger changes in the next few years with the arrival of the new Ulster University campus, major capital developments and the ever-increasing popularity of the area as a cultural, leisure and tourism
Now, the area is home to some of Belfast’s most innovative and exciting cultural spaces, festivals and events, a wealth of creative and entrepreneurial talent and an internationally renowned selection of hotels, restaurants and bars – all creating a uniquely vibrant, lively and distinctive part of the city.
Alongside the vibrant richness of all that CQ has to offer, however, the area also faces a number of challenges, some new, some old, some universal, some unique to CQ. Most visibly, many of CQ’s historic buildings lie vacant and derelict as a result of protracted development plans. This has impacted negatively on the attractiveness and usage of the wider area.
Meanwhile, the arts and creative sector in CQ, one of the main drivers of the area’s original regeneration, faces a growing set of challenges. Cuts to public funding for the arts have become increasingly severe and threaten the viability of many of the Quarter’s key cultural organisations. Simultaneously, they are increasingly vulnerable to a common challenge for cultural quarters – at risk of being squeezed out as the area becomes more popular, rents go up and the pace of development increases.
Finally, it is very clear that there has been a considerable shift in the economic mix and dynamic of the area, especially over the last five or so years. The number of businesses, bars, restaurants and venues in the area has proliferated and, while the economic benefits of the increased footfall this brings is welcome, it has also resulted in an increased perception that CQ is becoming more commercial and is losing its authenticity and identity.
Addressing these issues, preserving and promoting CQ’s unique character and heritage, and protecting the area’s rich cultural offer, whilst at the same time welcoming investment and development and growing the local economy will be a key challenge as the area continues to develop. This challenge will be at the centre of the Cathedral Quarter Trust’s work over the next three years.