The diminished demand for ‘old fashioned’ shopping is in part the result of the emergence of endless online retail opportunities in recent years. This leaves us with a bricks vs. clicks situation which is not likely to change any time soon as we continue to embrace the digital world.
However, retail property is still property and yes, whilst vacant at present, should most certainly not be written off!
Altering the use of these properties should be encouraged. For example, converting from a retail premises to a residential or leisure premises could be the key.
According to the Northern Ireland Housing Bulletin published in May, house sales (totalling 4827) in the final quarter of 2013 were the highest number of quarterly sales recorded here since 2007.
The Council of Mortgage Lenders (CML) also reported that lending for house purchases in Northern Ireland in the first quarter of 2014 was up 35% compared to the first quarter of 2013. To supplement this, one of Northern Ireland’s leading estate agents last week reported a 24% increase in house sales year to date compared to the same period last year and with this statistical evidence conversion to residential cannot be ignored.
In the last 12 months there is evidence in the planning application register that some property owners have already been considering a change of use in their buildings, which is presumably driven by the fact that for the first time in a number of years, there is actually a shortage of residential property in Belfast City Centre.
Evidence of a changing world is seen in a building near the Albert Clock in Belfast, which was previously used for industrial purposes but now has planning permission to be developed as apartments. This action should assist in catering for demand for student accommodation driven by the development of the new university. Another example of a potential opportunity for conversion to residential, office or leisure space could be the former Parsons and Parsons building that is currently on the market on Wellington Place, a location which is in transition.
Furthermore, a former solicitor’s office on Montgomery Street has been the subject of a planning application for residential use, and a site on Dublin Road which was previously used for commercial use has recently been purchased and has received planning approval for residential use. It is thought the new owner will maintain the ground floor for retail use.
Given the evidence so far, it is important that landlords take time to look beyond ‘vacant’ space and re-consider their options for the use of properties.
*This article first appeared in the Irish News on 1st July 2014