The town grew up on medieval origins as a Victorian seaport where the River Lagan becomes Belfast Lough. It is a smaller Baltimore, a center of industry that was export-driven, like ships and linen, or import-driven, like cigarettes, and is going out of style. It has dignity and gritty charm. But as elsewhere along the industrial coasts of the world, what remains of the port moved downriver, leaving derelict banks and quays.
Does Belfast need a Baltimore Inner Harbor? You bet. Does it have material to work with? You bet, including a vibrant downtown that after 20 years of bombing and inhospitable security screening remains a healthy shopping district. With the subsidies Britain puts into Northern Ireland, the government developed a riverside development plan not unlike others in Britain and America.
Now the Enterprise Development Co. of Columbia, the brainchild of the retail and new town developer and Inner Harbor visionary James Rouse, is taking on the centerpiece of that river development, a 14-acre site at Laganbank, east of the grandiose City Hall. If it works, it should be chock full of culture, retailing, hotel and office space. If it doesn't all get built, it would still be immense within the scale of Belfast.
The risks? To Belfast, that its success would drain rather than complement the existing retail area around Royal Avenue. To the investors, that the IRA would find it irresistibly easy to target, as it did the older parts of the commercial city center. As things stand, the Sinn Fein politicians that speak for the IRA seem to find the Rouse project as attractive as mainstream politicians do.
Laganbank promises jobs and entrepreneurial opportunities for people of all faiths in Belfast. Should its construction coincide with a subsiding of violence, it would become part of a regional economic expansion, long postponed by terrorism and communal strife.
Beirut isn't ready for a Baltimore-style Harborplace. Nor is the once-promising Phnom Penh on the Mekong. What a wonderful thing for all people of Northern Ireland if Belfast is.