Bit o' Baltimore planned for Belfast Harborplace-style project sought for Northern Ireland.

March 17, 1992|By Gilbert A. Lewthwaite | Gilbert A. Lewthwaite,Staff Writer

The export of the Harborplace concept as a model for revitalizing depressed port cities around the world is about to face its toughest challenge yet -- in strife-torn Belfast.

The Enterprise Development Co. of Columbia is set to develop a 14-acre site on the banks of the River Lagan in the Northern Ireland capital, which was recently described by a Northern Irish politician as "the killing fields of Europe."

The company is wholly owned by The Enterprise Foundation, which Harborplace developer Jim Rouse founded in 1981 after retiring from day-to-day management of the Rouse Co. All profits from the Columbia company's development operations are funneled back to the foundation to develop low-income housing.

It may seem strange to plan a $437 million project -- Norther Ireland's largest single urban development -- in the midst of a trans-Atlantic recession and in a place renowned more for its bloodshed than its business opportunities.

But Robert F. Barron Jr., xresident and chief operating officer of The Enterprise Development Co., believes Belfast is ripe for development.

"There are more feasible and plausible investments in Belfast's downtown than you would find in various American cities. I think the opportunities you would find there are very good," Mr. Barron said.

He hopes to sign an agreemmnt with the Laganside Corp., the development agency for Belfast's waterfront, this month, with initial construction under way by year's end.

The master plan for the project calls for a 2,500-seat concert hall and a 200-room hotel to be keystones. The center, to be known as Laganbank, will include a 120,000 square-foot retail area and 500,000 square feet of office space in three blocks.

Belfast has one advantage Baltimore did not have when Harborplace was developed -- a vibrant downtown, which remains the center of the province's retail and business economy.

"There's a market that's still active and viable, unlike Baltimore, where we were looking to draw people downtown. It is more active and vibrant than most downtown areas in the U.S. Once you get inside Belfast, it is really a good place and a good opportunity for development. You are actually safer in downtown Belfast than you are in downtown Baltimore, and that's not only ** in the evening," said Mr. Barron.

Barron said that while office blocks in other cities stand empty, Belfast has continued to have "a fairly active demand" for business space. The company will develop the three-block site over eight years.

"We feel there will be opportunities to get major users for each of the office sites," he said. British Telecom, a major British telecommunication company, has shown interest in relocating to the Belfast waterfront area, he said.

"We are not planning to do any 'spec' building," said Mr. Barron adding that the company is looking for other office occupants before construction starts. Retail development, on the other hand, will be financed "on spec," but with as much pre-leasing as possible, Mr. Barron said.

It has taken nine years since Mr. Rouse first stood beside the Lagan and decided Belfast had mistakenly turned its back on its decaying riverfront for the development package to get off the drawing board.

"Traditionally one would have seen the waterfront as a working waterfront. You didn't think of it in terms of offices, shops and residential accommodation," said Jeremiah E. Casey, the Irish-born president of First Maryland Bank. Mr. Casey, who is also chief executive for the U.S. operations of the bank's parent Allied Irish Banks Group, recently held a lunch for the Belfast project's U.S. and Irish planners.

While the $29 million riverside concert hall will be financed mainly by government grants and the adjacent hotel has already attracted the interest of Bethesda-based Marriott Corp., financing for the rest of the project is uncertain.

"Our biggest concern is attracting investment," said Mr. Barron. "There are financial resources within Northern Ireland, but this project, because of its size, won't be done exclusively through Northern Ireland. We will have to seek investment elsewhere."

"We have no [financial] commitments," he said. "It will be a while before we are at that stage. I doubt it's going to come from the U.S. The U.S. markets are so depressed. It's hard to find people making investments in the U.S."

The major block to outside financing is the ongoing sectarian violence that has gripped Northern Ireland as the outlawed Irish Republican Army has struggled to end British rule.

"Certainly how things go in terms of IRA activity in Northern Ireland will have a bearing on our ability to attract money from outside in order to proceed with this project," Mr. Barron said. He added that the project won all-party support, including from Sinn Fein, the political arm of the IRA, during a Belfast city council vote.

Enterprise Development has other overseas developments completed,under way or planned in Australia, Japan, Spain, England, Germany and Kuwait.

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