Linen Quarter hung out to dry?

The amplifying effect of dense on-street car parking and free circulation of vehicles drowns out street-level life in the Linen Quarter. Can an upgraded paving palette alone solve this?

Scheme consultations and analysis

Written by:

“Within the [Linen] Quarter cars (and car parking) have a detrimental impact on the pedestrian environment; the main north-south streets are busy and there is a steady flow that can make crossing the street difficult. This is exacerbated by the street width and layout, narrow pavements and space for parked cars means the pavement to pavement distance can be quite considerable.

Reducing this distance, as well as slowing traffic speeds will be an important objective in providing the Quarter with an appropriate pedestrian environment to encourage movement and activity.”

This is the key pivot point in Belfast City Council’s Draft Linen Quarter public realm analysis and vision prepared by Planit Intelligent Environments. One paragraph which hints that the consultants almost understood the main movement issues in the Quarter. And a second paragraph which instead of developing this analysis and following the logic, squanders the chance of a much-needed radical vision.

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The amplifying effect of dense on-street parking and free circulation of vehicles drowns out street-level life in the quarter. Will an upgraded paving palette and more trees solve this?


Parking the issue

First a clarification and a declaration of interest. The Draft Linen Quarter public realm analysis and vision looks well. It seems to have a good feel for the built environment and planning considerations – but this analysis focuses on movement and traffic issues. Also, I’ve worked in the Linen Quarter for 11 years, keenly observing the street-level problems and wrestling with potential solutions. I hoped this document would save me some effort there. It hasn’t.

Let’s jump straight to the first major point – on-street car parking chokes the Linen Quarter. Here’s what the vision says:

There is extensive on-street parking throughout, which makes roads hard to cross, and this also needs a certain amount of rationalisation in order to create an attractive street environment.

This doesn’t even scratch the surface. A little time spent analysing street activity in the Linen Quarter would reveal a high percentage of vehicle movements are circulating in the hunt for:

  1. a car parking space
  2. a better car parking space

It is a highly attractive area to park a car in and then walk elsewhere for shopping, which the vision fails to see as a problem – people leaving their cars to dwell in the Linen Quarter while they take their activity to the other side of the City Hall.

The vision only lands a glancing blow on this issue:

The east-west streets offer a significant opportunity .. with these streets becoming designed more as shared space streets that emphasise and encourage pedestrian movement while retaining the potential for vehicles to navigate their way through the street, for delivery vehicles to continue to service buildings and for car parking, albeit at a reduced level.

If read correctly, an unspecified “proportion” of on-street parking will be retained, with no indication of any reduction on the north-south streets.

If extensive on-street parking is listed as an asset and is intended to be mostly retained, then guess what? The area will continue to be dominated by on-street car parking and associated traffic. Is this Belfast City Council’s vision?

The solution is simple – cut the number of on-street bays inside the Linen Quarter from around 360 to around 50, all of which should be blue badge-only. Multi-storey car parks ring the area (Dublin Road, Great Victoria Street, Adelaide Street, Montgomery Street) and any worry about scarcity of parking should regard this picture, ironically taken from the 16th level of the 547-space NCP Dublin Road car park.

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Belfast is awash with parking, and the Council itself is working to package it up into neater, more attractive blocks:

“The total number of parking spaces in the city centre is just under 40,000, split roughly as 32% on-street, 41% off street (publicly available) and 27% off-street (privately available).

“It is also important to highlight that the recent City Centre Regeneration and Investment Strategy identified inconsistent pricing, poor signage and fragmented provision of parking in the city centre. It suggested that there could be a rationalisation of the spaces towards the inner ring within multi-storey car parks as well as improved signage, development of a city ‘app’ and more cycle parking.”

Belfast Car Parking Strategy and Action Plan (AECOM for BCC 10 Feb 16)

The vision records around 360 on-street spaces in the Linen Quarter. Take that to the surrounding streets of Ormeau Avenue and Bankmore and it’s around 500. Take private car parking and multi-storeys on the edge and we start to count in thousands.

The current level of on-street parking in the Linen Quarter is not necessary, and does far more harm than good to the street environment. It is only an asset in the sense of being a public commodity which can be displaced to a multi-storey development.

We don’t even have to build a new one. Northern Ireland’s Infrastructure Department is based in the Linen Quarter and has its own 260-space multi-storey car park tacked on to the side of Clarence Court, providing free parking to staff. Now THAT’S a sweet deal.

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So let’s create a bold vision – staff working on infrastructure and public transport in Northern Ireland, in the most connected city in the country, don’t need fully-subsidised car parking. Either sell or lease this car park (benefiting the public purse) to a car park operator and we have the capacity to displace and consolidate the Linen Quarter’s on-street car parking. Who could say no to that?

Three good points about the vision

Great Victoria Street

The proposed super-crossing between Great Victoria Street Station and Amelia Street is most welcome.

Courtesy of Belfast City Council / Planit IE

This sense of arrival to Belfast and a welcome into the Linen Quarter is essential for city growth, and moving a Belfast Bike Station to the new Transport Hub entrance should be an easy decision too.

Blackstaff Square

Turning Blackstaff Square and Amelia Street into a civic square is another welcome recommendation, if not a new idea. It can be dark and scary (even in daytime) and could offer some relaxing space. But look closely at the plans – vehicles will continue to exit onto Great Victoria Street, right onto the new super crossing. Really?

Courtesy of Belfast City Council / Planit IE

Give an inch and drivers will take a mile. Close it off properly to cars and taxis (who should be granted a huge integrated rank in the new Transport Hub across the street) and allow service and delivery vehicles to turn around Blackstaff Square – this is the only sure way to filter unwanted through traffic from valued ‘destination’ traffic.

Linenhall Square

This is an excellent idea, coupled with a wish hack off the hideous extension to BBC Broadcasting House. But does it go far enough?

Courtesy of Belfast City Council / Planit IE

It makes sense to attempt to humanise the junction in front of the BBC, with its confusing four-phase lights and uncontrolled crossing beside the Clayton Hotel.

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This can be achieved by extending the proposed Linen Square all the way to the the Thomas Thompson Memorial Fountain and prioritising light phasing for traffic going between Dublin Road and Ormeau Avenue.

OrmeauAvenue

Unravelling a dedicated cycle route from this junction would go a long way to encouraging more cycling in the area.

You lost me at “Vehicular priority street”

The second major point not addressed – retaining unrestricted vehicle access across the Linen Quarter is a huge mistake.

Courtesy of Belfast City Council / Planit IE

The current street network is fully permeable for vehicles. The effects are pronounced – journeys between the north and south of the city are still fast and reliable using Ormeau Avenue and Bedford Street (northbound) and Wellington Place and Adelaide Street (southbound).

Add to this the circulation of parking space hunters as well as the vehicles which need access to the area, and the environment is anything but pleasant at junctions:

From the vision document:

The north-south streets in particular are relatively busy with vehicle traffic.

Extending across the southern edge of Belfast City Centre, the Linen Quarter comes under significant pressure as a link between the main city core and the surrounding neighbourhoods and districts to the south of the city centre.

The extent to which traffic continues to use the Linen Quarter as a connecting route, as opposed to a destination, will dictate the nature and quality of the Quarter and how it feels; how pleasant and attractive the streets are and how easy it is for pedestrians to move around.

This is a simplified diagram of current access arrangements – note how few restrictions are in place:

LinenQ_before

What I didn’t expect in this vision was for the movement patterns to remain untouched, bar removing traffic from beside the BBC building (the diagonal one-way street in the middle) to make way for the new Linenhall Square.

It says a lot for the consultant’s engagement with road planners that the planned cycleway in Alfred Street (now being constructed) was missed in the vision document.

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Will nice paving and unfettered vehicle movement tackle this problem?

Traffic is ridiculously heavy between the Linen Quarter and East Bridge Street via Hamilton Street, which should be little more than a Markets residents’ access street. At night this becomes a favoured rat run for taxis from City Hall to East Belfast.

A simple and effective designation of street types should see all through-traffic routed around the “inner ring” and May Street, allowing drivers with a destination with the Linen Quarter to access where needed.

LinenQ_General

A cellularised approach to the street grid should be favoured by any consultant who has a genuine feel for the area. Vehicles which enter the Linen Quarter should be sent back out the way they entered.

The key is not to drastically reduce access – the revised proposal has seven entrance points instead of the current eight – but using one-way streets (for vehicles only) to limit the options of travel within the Linen Quarter. This deters rat-running, and can also make whatever on-street parking which is retained less attractive due to the extra time needed to circulate the area.

LinenQ_after

Dedicated cycling infrastructure isn’t necessary inside Linen Quarter if all but the most essential vehicle traffic is designed out and cycling is allowed against the flow of (now un-busy) one-way vehicle streets. It should be provided in a ring around the quarter as traffic volumes and speeds increase, and on Bedford Street.

It’s surprising that the top of Linenhall Street at the back of Belfast City Hall wasn’t favoured for a new public square – given the obvious boost this would give to Ten Square Hotel, cafes and restaurants, the Belfast Bikes station, connectivity and the look of one of the Belfast’s better vistas.

No street in the area needs to have more than a single lane in each direction – one-way Adelaide Street is a prime target for vehicle lane reduction, as is the Bedford Street boulevard:

The wonderfully detailed set of articles on the Linen Quarter by NI Cycles (links at the end of this article) reported on Belfast City Council’s ambivalence towards changing movement patterns at a public meeting:

“The road layout, structure and orientation are responsibilities of Transport NI. This means that Belfast City Council are aiming to propose improvements to enable social and economic growth to the quarter, but ultimately Transport NI has a saying over any change.”

Unfortunately Belfast City Council and Planit IE can’t have it both ways here. Masterplans such as this have a habit of becoming sacred texts. In discussions with Transport NI folk over the last four years I’ve gleaned an understanding that a cellularised approach is favoured for the Linen Quarter. Did they consult with Transport NI before making recommendations for future Transport NI  priorities?

As for the materials palette for the upgraded paving and all of the street-level niceties? Earn the right to design these elements by first having the courage to tackle the traffic issues. Otherwise they feel quite irrelevant.


Summary

Belfast City Council want to create a “vision” for the Linen Quarter, but expecting high-quality paving materials and the odd tree to regulate driver behaviour tips into utopian thinking. No thought has been put into the amount of traffic using these streets which “has no business being there”.

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Prioritising buses, service and delivery vehicles, private office and residential car park access and blue badge on-street parking would drastically reduce unnecessary circulation of motor vehicles in the Linen Quarter.

On-street car parking is the arterial plaque slowly stifling the flow of life in the Linen Quarter.

Removing all but the most essential on-street parking bays (consolidated into better provision on the edge of the area), creating a new public plaza to the rear of Belfast City Hall, cellularising the whole Linen Quarter into a street network with no speedy cut-throughs for vehicles WHILE retaining access for those who absolutely need it – these are the most basic and obvious steps to making this a more attractive area.

Paving won’t solve the traffic problems, but the application of strike-through might..

Reducing this distance, as well as slowing traffic speeds will be an important objective in providing the Quarter with an appropriate pedestrian environment to encourage movement and activity.

It reads so much better with eight fewer words.

When Joe Berridge presented to the Future Belfast conference on parking strategy and some challenging ideas to create new public spaces by shooing away vehicles, it was like a double shot of espresso for Belfast. The Planit IE vision is more like lukewarm Ovaltine.

While the vision aims to strike a balance between “flow through the quarter” and “dwell along the streets” it fails to recognise that a fully permeable street grid which doubles as an up-market car park will mean continued dominance of both objectives by motor vehicles, not people.


Get involved in the Linen Quarter consultation

Whether you agree or disagree with the analysis above, it’s important that Belfast City Council has as many views as possible on their vision. The closing date for submissions on the Draft Linen Quarter public realm analysis and vision is Friday 11th March 2016.

You can give feedback by:

Download the public consultation questionnaire (Word – 221KB).


More Linen Quarter information and analysis

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