Plans revealed for iconic Edinburgh concert arena

The crumbling Ross Bandstand could be replaced after a design competition. Picture: Bill Henry
The crumbling Ross Bandstand could be replaced after a design competition. Picture: Bill Henry
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AN ICONIC new concert and events arena would be built in Princes Street Gardens under plans put forward to the city council by a leading businessman.

Norman Springford, founder of the Apex Hotels group and a former owner of the Edinburgh Playhouse, is offering to plough several million pounds of his own money into a replacement for the crumbling Ross Theatre.

The award-winning developer said he would be happy to pay for an international design competition to come up with designs for a building he hopes will become as iconic a symbol as the Sydney Opera House or Bilbao’s Guggenheim museum.

The 70-year-old has offered to help put together a task force of industry experts to set up a charitable trust to pursue a new building, which would be used throughout the year.

Mr Springford, who met senior officials earlier this month, has produced a glossy brochure outlining his proposals. His vision, sent to council chief executive Sue Bruce, envisages a new arena with an overall capacity of 5000 but which could also be adapted to host smaller events.

Mr Springford admits the project could cost as much as £30 million, but has suggested financial backing could come from some of Edinburgh’s biggest corporate firms, philanthropic trusts and public funders including the Scottish Government, Creative Scotland and the Heritage Lottery Fund.

Mr Springford said: “I was born and bred in Edinburgh. I’ve known the Ross Bandstand all of my life. I’ve wanted to see it developed for around the last 20 years. Every time its condition is raised my interest has been piqued. It’s only now that I believe there is something deliverable and there seems to be a bit of enthusiasm about it within the council.

“This proposal is about improving the visitor experience of Edinburgh, as well as having a decent venue that puts the city back on the cultural map. It’s not about a white elephant that’s used once or twice a year.”

Although the new facility is expected to help bring events to Edinburgh for the first time, it would need the council to agree in principle for much greater use of the Gardens for commercial purposes than it allows at present.

His eight-page blueprint states: “One of the key objectives is to ensure that the replacement facility is extensively used, so it becomes an attraction in its own right. Smaller and local events would certainly be required to meet that objective, ideally operating every day of the year.

“The facility will become the catalyst that showcases a number of major events, including the Edinburgh International Festival fireworks, Hogmanay and the Fringe. Existing uses are easily identified, but it also needs to act as the draw to allow the city to win bids for other major sporting and cultural events.”

The local authority was forced to shelve much-publicised plans for a replacement bandstand six years ago due to funding problems, despite drawing up a detailed design. And the council pledged action in the wake of the cancellation of the Hogmanay celebrations in 2013-14, after part of a temporary arena was ripped off by high winds.

The condition of the existing venue, which dates back to 1935, is said to have declined badly over the last decade.

Mr Springford, whose family business was recently valued at £152 million in the Sunday Times Rich List, has gone public with his own bid to kickstart action after reading that one of Scotland’s leading concert promoters was urging action over the bandstand, which he compared to “a bombed-out shelter.”

Mark Mackie, managing director of Regular Music, suggested the council should hand over responsibility for the project to an outside trust if it could not afford to carry out a revamp itself.

That is the model which has been proposed to the council in the dossier, which sets out a possible timetable which could see the new arena up and

running by the end of 2017. However, there are a number of major obstacles, not least legislation preventing any new buildings being created in the Gardens.

The National Galleries is having to seek special permission from the Scottish Parliament for a second time to carry out a redevelopment of its site on the The Mound, as it will encroach on to the east gardens.

A bold new design for a concert arena is almost certain to come under intense scrutiny from heritage bodies, who campaigned against previous plans for an underground shopping centre in the Gardens.

The blueprint also states: “An iconic building needs to be delivered to make a statement that Edinburgh not only has a historic and traditional image, but is also a modern and vibrant city. Clearly the protection of the Gardens is a key element in any proposals. Visitors to Scotland do not come for the weather and the design of the building should be such that it protects the main auditorium from inclement weather.

“The procurement of the design becomes an important issue. An international competition could fulfil the architectural role, or a beauty parade of leading architects may be an acceptable solution to identify a suitable firm.”

A council spokeswoman said: “We are open and keen to work with all partners for the benefit of the city and discussions like this are to be warmly welcomed. Norman Springford has led an esteemed career developing venues in Edinburgh and the tourism industry. We look forward to discussing these suggestions with him in more depth to consider the feasibility of his ideas.”

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