It was an ominous start.
On the way into work this morning, I noticed an extra solar-power road sign on East Bridge Street stating that there were still car park spaces at Victoria Square.
The radio traffic report broke the news that the expected traffic chaos ahead of the shopping centre’s opening had not materialised.
Déjà vu of the Ikea opening?
Later, nipping out of work for a very early lunch, there was another bad sign as around fifteen people queued outside House of Fraser. And the underground car park wasn’t queued out.
Victoria Square is basically a covered street. There are no door or shutters on the main walkway, and the intention is to keep it open 24 hours a day. Bet it gets cold at Christmas.
The Jaffe Fountain has the covers off, though no water flowing.
There was a lot of last minute polishing, cleaning and painting going on, getting rid of the VIP fingerprints from Wednesday night’s opening party, and plenty of fluorescent-yellow-jacketed construction workers taking an hour off to join the opening.
One guy looked particularly worried when he noticed smoke coming out from the side of the stage. Less so when he realised it was the smoke (dry ice) machine, and not a fire. Turned out he’d commissioned the centre’s sprinklers.
It’s undoubtedly a beautiful building. Whereas Castle Court is straight and boxy, Victoria Square meanders with curves and angles, escalators weren’t stacked on top of each other like a Lego construction, but fan out at intervals from a central point.
The glass roof and dome are spectacular, and the views from the upper gallery are going to be fun on a clear night. All well worth an explore over coming lunchtimes.
- Built on 14 acres.
- 98 shop units over three floors.
- 35m high glass dome, with iconic panoramas over Belfast.
- 106 apartments, which were sold on day they were released.
- Basement parking for 1,000 cars.
- 800,000 sq ft (75,000 sq metres) of retail space, sustaining approx. 3,000 jobs.
- By the opening, 92% of the space has been let, though some stores and restaurants won’t open until summer.
- Built at a cost ~£150 million by joint venture between Farrans and Gilbert Ash, involving ~6,000 people.
- Over 17 million people are expected to visit Victoria Square every year, making it one of the top ten shopping centres in the UK. (Think some people will have to visit more than once to prevent queues at the airports!
By ten o’clock, a fair crowd had gathered inside (except it’s actually outside, but under a glass roof) to witness whatever had been planned. The island’s press had pre-recorded their interviews with shoppers, store owners and architects. Even Denis Murray had turned up, presumably to sell the opening as an example of Belfast regeneration on the network news.
The opening ceremony was strangely elaborate for ten o’clock in the morning. The Ulster Orchestra’s percussion section together with a strong brass ensemble kicked of at 10:05 on the dot (!) with Fanfare for the Common Man.
The difficult-to-track-down-on-the-web Slam! drumming group proved a real spectacle as they ran around looking like a reformed and expanded S Club 7!
They also demonstrated some escalator behaviour that the center's security may frown on after today!
Aerialists elegantly climbed up and slid down curtains, while the Bolo and Gema performed a double straps act, holding on tight as they swung about above the crowd’s heads. (Looks like they hailed from Cirque Bijou and not Cirque du Soleil like the original advertising suggested.)
If only it had stopped there.
The big disappointment was Tap Dogs. No top dogs. Maybe we’ve been all Riverdanced out as one person standing beside me suggested, but ten or more minutes of tap dancing (even if it was high quality street tap) was ten minutes too much.
In the end, huge blowers showered the area under the dome with glitter and the shops were allowed to open. A lot of expense over half an hour ... but then I suppose the owners and retailers had just spent £400 million getting the place ready, and a few pounds to create a good backdrop for today’s blitz of media reports was an investment.
As openings go, it felt unusual not to have the big name politicians or celebrities on stage. (Northern) Ireland’s very own Chuckle Brother tribute act were in attendance at the VIP party the previous evening, and it was left to Belfast’s Lord Mayor Jim Rodgers and his wife to be present this morning.
As the opening show started with an empty stage, so it finished.
I expected to hear a call over the tannoy – “cleaners to ground floor escalators” – but it has already been anticipated, and soon the confetti was brushed away and the only glitter was from the shiny surfaces and the gold/platinum credit cards being swiped through eager retailer’s tills.
It nearly turned into an impromptu Northern Irish Blog Awards/Flickr Meetup with more than a handful of local onliners turning up. Lots more pictures over at Flickr.
Victoria Square open for business. Now to put my feet up with a book ... it is World Book Day after all!