Thursday, March 06, 2008

Victoria Square opened

Voctoria SquareVictoria Square car park

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?

(Small) queue outside House of Fraser at Victoria Square 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.

Victoria Square

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.

Still some construction to complete at Victoria Square

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.

Viewing gallery set against the ceiling in Victoria Centre

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.

Quick facts:

  • 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.

Ulster Orchestra kick off the opening of Victoria Square

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.

Slam! at Victoria Square opening

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!

Slam! and their escalator antics at Victoria Square opening

They also demonstrated some escalator behaviour that the center's security may frown on after today!

Aerialists Bolo and Gema from Cirque Bijou at Victoria Square opening

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.

Tap Dogs ... not top dogs at Victoria Square opening

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.

Confetti rains down on crowds attending Victoria Square's opening

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.

Empty stage covered in glittery paper - Victoria Square opening

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!


Anonymous said...

"Victorious" Lots of info and the pictures clearly detail the whole project.

Anonymous said...

I love it when you do these thorough picture posts Alan!

Haven't been to the City Center in absolutely ages, but I've watched that gleaming dome from afar and wondered about getting around it at some point.

The big question remaining is, should CastleCourt just give up now? Should they flatten it and make a nice new multi-storey for the Victoria Square customers to park in?

Ruth Strong said...

Wow, all those opening displays just seem rather OTT but fun too!

Anonymous said...

It's knitpicking, I know, but to my eyes the geometry of the dome has always looked a little inelegant and clumsy. It's ok until about halfway up, then it goes a bit wrong. They've tried to do a Norman Foster and ended up looking a bit Norman Wisdom...

Great blog, by the way...

Anonymous said...

Great post alan. I really wish I could have been there for the opening having seen yours and a few others' shots.

I was there yesterday lunchtime and after work and I really like it a lot.

Blog entry to come.

dr. adder said...

Hi Alan,
must admit I was a bit disappointed by the first day opening - took me 20 mins to find the toilets (even with the aid of the map) - ground floor set were flooded and there are no signs pointing you in the right direction. Also disappointed at the lack of freebies - thought there might have been the odd baseball cap. Finding my way from one level to the next was a feat in itself. I do like the concept of a covered street and have suggested on occassion that they should cover over Royal Avenue and Donegall Place. It's probably old age and I just don't like our Irish weather.
And it's a shame the Jaffe fountain hasn't been plumbed in.

Anonymous said...

i went to Victoria Square today. Very nice. Although they only have 2 lifts and most of the time these are hovering between L2 and the Dome so its a bit silly but lots of funny street performers too.

Anonymous said...

my review on victoria square

Anonymous said...

Glitter blowers,aerialists,orchestras - sounds like they pulled out all the stops - where was all this in The Mall Plymouth? I don't even remember them cutting so much as a ribbon! Trust Belfast to do it in style!