After a decade of peace in Northern Ireland, construction is under way to turn the derelict shipyards of Belfast, the region’s capital, into a mixed-use urban development similar to Atlanta’s Atlantic Station, with the added tourist benefit of being home to the famous ocean liner Titanic.
The Atlanta and Belfast developments are similar in that both are former industrial sites near urban centers, but Michael Graham, the Titanic Quarter’s director of corporate real estate, said that the former shipyard could draw 400,000 tourists a year by utilizing its Titanic connections.
The ship and its sisters, Olympic and Britannic, were designed and constructed in Belfast shipyards owned by Harland and Wolff. Billed as “the unsinkable ship” because of its size and the advanced technology aboard, Titanic hit an iceberg and went under on its maiden voyage in 1912, resulting in over 1,500 deaths.
Mr. Graham said Belfast could benefit from the ship’s legacy in the same way Atlanta gains recognition from international companies based there, like Coca-Cola Co.
“Atlanta is synonymous with Coca-Cola and its global brand strength,” he said. “Belfast and this project in particular have a huge brand strength in the link to Titanic.”
Robert Ballard and Jean-Louis Michel found the sunken ship in 1985. All artifacts recovered from the shipwreck belong to RMS Titanic Inc., a subsidiary of Atlanta-based salvaging company Premier Exhibitions Inc., which takes the pieces all over the world as a traveling museum.
The Titanic Quarter is steeped in shipbuilding history. Sites include the dock where Titanic was launched, buildings where ships’ parts where built, and the former Harland and Wolff headquarters, now the Titanic Quarter’s offices.
Mr. Graham added that there are 120 Titanic memorials and museums around the world, but Titanic Quarter’s initial phase of construction is to include Belfast’s first monument to the famous ship.
Construction in the 185-acre Titanic Quarter is already under way—the first phase is to include 475 apartments above a marina, a 150,000-square-foot office building, retail space and a new campus for Belfast Metropolitan College to accommodate about 17,000 students.
The centerpiece of the development is to be the Titanic Signature Project, a museum designed in four steel and glass sections to look like ships’ bows projecting out of the ocean. It is to be complete by 2012, in time for the centennial of Titanic’s launch.
Harland and Wolff had not built a ship in the yards since 2000. Many of the buildings lying empty since the 1980s, when the company began manufacturing other industrial items, including wind turbines.
The company sold the land to the local port authority, Belfast Harbour Commissioners, who contracted London-based architectural firm Eric Kuhne and Associates to design the new development.
Dublin-based Harcourt Developments Ltd. is building phase one and phase two, including more apartment and office space and a renovation of the docks where Olympic and Titanic were launched, is up for approval by Belfast’s City Council.
Due to the Titanic’s tragic sinking, Mr. Graham said that it is sometimes a challenge to get a positive message out of the ship’s story.
“I’ve given presentations to sales and marketing people around the world, and you get sort of quizzical looks as to how you get a positive marketing message with anything to do with Titanic,” Mr. Graham said. “In Belfast, we have a simple way of addressing that—it was perfectly fine when it left us.”
The quarter, occupying most of the Queen’s Island area, northeast of Belfast city center, is already home to the Northern Ireland Science Park, a business generator for high-tech companies, Northern Ireland Screen film studio and Queen’s University Belfast’s Institute of Electronics, Communications and Information Technology.
Within the Science Park, Titanic Quarter is also hosting the European Centre for Connected Health, an initiative launched in January to develop high-tech health solutions such as in-home monitoring devices that could allow out-of-hospital treatment and replacements for x-ray machines.
Georgia Gov. Sonny Perdue visited Titanic Quarter during a European tour last year and Mr. Graham said the visit encouraged prospects for trade between the two regions.
“The governor was very keen as we are to see those links coming to both sides of the Atlantic, to see companies here break into the U.S. market, but also for companies who want to break into the European market to come here,” he said.
Mr. Graham said that development in the quarter could continue for 15 to 20 years, housing between 25-30,000 people and providing 25,000 jobs.
He added that an important aspect to the quarter’s new housing is the opportunity for Belfast’s formerly rival political and religious communities to live side by side.
“This is a physical manifestation of the new Northern Ireland,” Mr. Graham said. “This area will require all people to buy into it. We aren’t going to have any tribal ghettos here.”
Many of Belfast’s older neighborhoods bear signs of hostility toward other groups living just blocks away.
Before signing of the Belfast Agreement by Northern Ireland’s major political parties in 1998, the province was divided between Catholics, who predominantly want to join the Irish Republic, and Protestants, the majority of them favoring remaining in the United Kingdom.
The parties agreed to a power-sharing deal that brought local government back to Northern Ireland in May 2007, and political stability has brought new development and increasing opportunities for the two communities to live together.