The company behind the stalled George Best Hotel, Signature Living, are facing calls to complete the project, amidst concerns the spot has created an eye-sore in the city.
South Belfast SDLP councillor Gary McKeown, formerly a Belfast City Council Planning Committee member, said: “It’s extremely frustrating to see such an iconic city centre building lying empty. As more and more visitors return to Belfast and spend time around Donegall Square, it’s frankly an embarrassment that the old Scottish Mutual Building is boarded up and serving no purpose.
“I also have concern about its long-term welfare, as a historical listed building of this type needs care and attention.
“Clearly this well-known building, which couldn’t be closer to the city centre, is a prime location for a hotel or other similar business. If this doesn’t happen, then we should be looking at how it can be put into public use for community benefit.
“The bottom line is that this building needs to be regenerated and given a new lease of life as a landmark piece of our built heritage that has so much still to offer.”
This week it was confirmed that a group of 50 local businessmen had agreed to work with Signature Living’s owner, Lawrence Kenwright, to save the development and their investments.
They have formed the George Best Hotel property company with the aim of gaining new funding to complete the hotel. The group is led by County Antrim businessman Stephen Kearney, with Mr Kenwright acting as CEO.
In January 2020 Belfast City Council’s Planning Committee approved Signature Living’s application for the Scottish Mutual Building on Donegall Square to be converted to a 63 bedroom hotel.
The committee voted by eight councillors to two in support of the plan, with the Green Party and People Before Profit members voting against.
The “boutique” hotel was planned to have a restaurant and bar on the ground floor, a function room, bar, bridal suite and kitchen on the fifth floor, and bedrooms on the first, second, third and fourth floors. The main entrance to the hotel was planned for Donegall Square South, with an entrance to the restaurant and bar on Bedford Street.
The week the plan was finally green-lighted, the developers announced the target date for completion would be June 2020. By April that year work was halted, when the owners, Bedford Hotel Ltd, a subsidiary of Signature Living Hotels Ltd, went into administration, with investors owing millions.
Over ten million pounds had been spent on the George Best Hotel project up to that point already.
In January 2020, Green Party Councillor Aine Groogan told the Belfast City Council Planning committee that the project’s planned use of dry lining, also known as internal cladding, inside the building was contrary to guidance for listed buildings, and said the structural and architectural integrity was “seriously at risk.”
A representative from Stormont’s Historic Environment Division at the Department for Communities said the applicants had a scheme that “slowly met demands” but added they would continue to object, on grounds that a planned ground floor suspended ceiling would cover too much detail of the original building.
Signature Living were asked for an update on the plan for the hotel but did not respond.
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