WORK on a huge new district for the heart of the Old Town will begin within weeks – after Capital leaders narrowly passed one of the most controversial developments to hit the city in decades.
Work on the £150 million Caltongate project – boasting three hotels, three offices and 185 homes centred around a civic square – is expected to begin this summer, with the first completed units expected one year later.
The split decision on the blueprints has been hailed by South-African developers Artisan Real Estate Investors as an endorsement of the 600,000 sq ft retail, leisure and residential plan. Artisan says it will introduce a vibrant new quarter in Edinburgh’s landscape and become an “international benchmark for sensitive and innovative development”.
Losing the vote eight to six, critics were dismayed by the small margin of their defeat following a decade-long campaign to thwart a project that had been revived by Artisan after the original developer Mountgrange Capital went bust in 2009.
In one of the most stinging barbs, Edinburgh Greens councillor Nigel Bagshaw said the development was “alien” to the character of the Old Town and “wouldn’t be out of place on the surface of the moon”.
It comes a day after best-selling Capital author Alexander McCall Smith warned that Caltongate would be a “disastrous prospect for our beloved city” and “destroy the very thing that brings people from all over the world to Edinburgh”.
A 5000-strong petition opposing the designs was also submitted to the City Chambers while protestors picketed planning chiefs before the meeting began.
When it came, the crunch announcement was met with stony silence from a packed public gallery who had earlier cheered and whooped every spoken argument against the development.
Many campaigners said they were “not surprised” by the decision but saw a brief glimmer of hope extinguished after several councillors pledged to oppose the project during the debate. In a bizzare moment, Councillor Joanna Mowatt drew exasperated gasps from the gallery when she said the designs were “not hideous enough to reject”.
Developer Artisan appeared relieved at the ruling – dubbed by one source as “a little close for comfort” – and is set to release detailed plans for the site in the coming weeks.
It is understood the Caltongate brand is now thought “toxic” with a new name for the Old Town landmark under consideration.
Lukas Nakos, Artisan’s managing director, said he was committed to completing the project and aimed to create “one of Europe’s most exciting and vibrant mixed-use communities”.
He said: “Today marks a significant milestone in the evolution of one of the most challenging city centre developments in the UK, and we now have the opportunity to deliver on our promises made when we first started this process, more than two years ago.
“Our proposals are the result of an 18-month consultation process bringing together local people, businesses, civic partners and heritage bodies.
“This has led to many facets of the area’s unique Old Town setting being retained to preserve the character of the development, including the retention of the Canongate Venture building and the façade of the Old Sailor’s Ark.”
He added: “Artisan will now bring international capital investment of £150 million to the table, coupled with the vision and commitment needed to complete what has already been started.
“This has been an exceptional planning approval for an exceptional development.”
Business chiefs agree, with David Birrell, chief executive of the Edinburgh Chamber of Commerce, claiming the plans could “breathe much-needed life” into a notorious gap site that has lain derelict since 2006.
He said it was also “exciting” to see “how the Royal Mile and the Old town will evolve” and stressed there was now “a clear opportunity for existing and prospective businesses to make the most of these changes”.
Ploughing around £43m a year into the local economy and creating 1750 jobs, planning convenor Councillor Ian Perry said the new district would bring a “real boost to the Old Town community”.
But Labour MP Sheila Gilmore – who was absent from the meeting – later launched a scathing attack on Edinburgh’s planning department, insisting their policies “fail to serve local communities”.
She said the Caltongate site would be built into a “bland haven for office workers and tourists staying at budget hotels” who would deliver “short-lived bursts of vitality before they all head off home”.
And she added: “Old Town residents wanted more housing, to see the community grow and take ownership of any new district. A vibrant, prosperous Old Town has thrived when permanent residents build stable communities.
“With only 185 apartments being built on a five-acre site, any growth in the community will be minimal.
“Development at this site is much needed, but these plans have been waved through regardless of the fact it is within our World Heritage Site. Bland, square, blocked buildings with flat roofs, the offices and hotels will bear no likeness to the organic medieval architecture of the Canongate and could be any site, in any city across the country.”
Edinburgh World Heritage expressed “disappointment” and said it was a “lost opportunity” to enhance the Old Town.
Marion Williams, director of the heritage watchdog the Cockburn Association, said: “For me it’s entirely obvious that it’s the wrong development in the wrong place.
“To hear the convenor of planning say that he likes the architecture when it’s just glass and rubbish, really doesn’t bode well for the future.
“I am now really worrying for the next ten years in the city if they allow this to happen in its heart.
“In 30 years’ time we will see what we have got because I don’t think we will get the development that has been promised.”
Echoing her views, Euan Leitch, from the Architectural Heritage Society of Scotland, said he had never seen such public opposition to a planning application – other than Craighouse.
He said: “No-one seemed to say the plans were excellent and it’s disappointing to see planners pursue the lowest common denominator in terms of design and use for the site.
“This is unlikely to leave the public with any confidence in the planning system.”
The Caltongate plans will transform the New Street gap site that has lain derelict since the flattened plot – formerly home to a bus depot turned popular nightspot – was finally demolished eight years ago.
Critics previously accused developers of treating the historic environment of the Old Town with “contempt” and threatening its unique character with “foreign” features out of keeping with the area.
They said the huge swathe of barren land next to Waverley Station faced being turned into “Nowheresville” and dominated by a “sad collection of concrete boxes”.
‘We need jobs for young people’
The original ambitious plan for Caltongate ran out of steam and money but this one appears to be far more sensitive both to the historical context of the Old Town and to communities.
Nonetheless there was opposition and politicians need to respect that.
We do need to do something with this eyesore gapsite that sits next to council headquarters in Waverley Court and we also need to create jobs for our young people in an environment where youth unemployment is still almost double the adult rate.
There is a real challenge to create jobs for that dispossessed generation of young people and developments like Caltongate shouldn’t be seen purely as new-build development versus traditional.
We do need to take into account what these developments contribute to the local economy and jobs for young people. In the tourism sector there are accessible jobs for youngsters who may not have degrees and who can, at entry level, get involved and build a career.