A GROUND-BREAKING plan to thrust George Street into the heart of the festival calendar by introducing an open air “cultural corridor” promoting Fringe acts and the arts, could be established by August.
Under the ambitious plans, traffic would be restricted to cultivate a continental-style atmosphere encouraging al fresco dining and on-street seating amid pockets of vibrant entertainment.
The George Street Festival would be bolstered by anchoring the Book Festival in Charlotte Square and relocating the famous Spiegeltent to St Andrew Square.
It is thought book-ending George Street with two proven attractions will help to drive visitors along the Festival Mile corridor – providing traders lining the route with a welcome fillip.
With the street split horizontally, traffic would operate in a contra-flow system. It would switch at Frederick Street to the side where the bulk of bars and restaurants – at the St Andrew Square end – are located.
The central reservation would still be used for parking while an emergency access lane would be introduced on the pedestrianised side.
Mooted by Essential Edinburgh, the body representing 600 city centre traders, the blueprint could present a challenge to the Old Town’s dominance of the Festival programme.
Andy Neal, chief executive of Essential Edinburgh, said: “The thought of the whole street celebrating all aspects of the Festival is getting people very excited.
“I think we would definitely become a must-visit destination throughout August and people would be saying ‘You have to go to George Street this year’. The idea is to make it energetic but appropriate for George Street with more input from the International Festival, Arts Festival and Book Festival rather than jugglers and fire eaters.”
Mr Neal said Fringe acts would be given pitches to perform along George Street – but said there would be common sense behind the way they are rolled out. “You don’t want a banging bass drum outside the lawyers’ offices and things during the day so you can have Arts Festival and Book Festival stuff: statues there or poetry readings. At night there would be a difference and I’m sure everyone would be happy after 5pm for the noise to go up.”
Key businesses along George Street have welcomed the plans with a consensus the historic thoroughfare must evolve if it is to flourish.
Tony Bryer, treasurer of the George Street Association, said the plan was “worth pursuing”.
“People would want to do some fine tuning on certain aspects but as a way to maximise opportunity, I think it’s trying to benefit the whole street.
“As ever, from a retailing perspective, there’s always an issue of parking. The main thing is to ensure George Street benefits from being part of the festival. There’s a terrific concentration of stuff in the Old Town but we want to make the best out of the venues on George Street.”
Peter Heggie, store manager at Brooks Brothers, backed the plans and said reducing traffic to a single side of the street would boost visitor numbers. “I’m in favour of anything that draws people back into the city centre. It makes sense to have contra-flow traffic when we have peak visitors in the city. It would be more obvious that you can travel up and down it.”
He added that retailers could extend opening hours to capitalise on the festival buzz.
But the positioning of the Spiegeltent, which led to major traffic diversions last August after being pitched outside the Assembly Rooms, is a bone of contention among some business chiefs who believe the huge marquee – which closed one block of George Street – disrupts the flow of the street. David Welch, general manager of the George Hotel, echoed the views of several traders.
He said: “The opportunity to create entertainment zones will increase footfall. The flow should be a mixture of activity opportunities, entertainment and chill-out zones for people to sit and enjoy the arts.
“What I’m in agreement with is the flow of pedestrian areas along the full street which is why I’m not supporting Speigel Terrace because it didn’t benefit the whole street.”
Essential Edinburgh’s Andy Neal said having the Spiegeltent last year “broke the taboo that you can’t really do anything in George Street”. “We are very keen to ensure we don’t lose it because it’s a great venue that attracted great acts and people into our side of the city. But 20 metres in diameter on a working street is too big so we want to move it a block and a half to St Andrew Square.”
Promoter Tommy Sheppard, who runs the Assembly Rooms, said some neighbouring businesses had voiced concerns about traffic flow which were “being dealt with”.
Asked if he would back the Spiegeltent’s relocation to St Andrew Square, he said: “Never say never, but I think the Speigel Terrace was extremely successful and allowed us to operate the Assembly Room as a major festival hub which had been lacking in this part of town.
“I’m cautious about throwing the baby out with bath water. We should look at what we did last year and improve on it.”
Essential Edinburgh’s Andy Neal said offering the Assembly Rooms their own marquee in St Andrew Square may soften the blow of the Speigeltent’s relocation.
Festivals champion, Councillor Steve Cardownie, believes the Festival Mile plan is an exciting prospect.
“The Old Town has dominated the Festival over the last few years and this presents the opportunity to have it in both the Old and New Towns.
“The opportunities are fantastic and I’m pleased we are taking a serious look at it.”
The Edinburgh International Book Festival is held in Charlotte Square in August every year.
It is the biggest of its kind in the world, with more than 700 events for both adults and children taking place over three weeks.
Last year more than 115,500 people attended ticketed events with the opening day proving the busiest ever, with a footfall of 17,500.
Originally staged biannually, the festival began in 1983 and took place in a tent.
St Andrew Square
A mainstay of the Edinburgh Festival, the Spiegeltent, moved to George Street last year.
The popular venue had previously been erected at George Square Gardens on the Meadows during the Edinburgh Festival Fringe.
After the Spiegeltent moved to its new home near the Assembly Rooms, George Street was closed to traffc, which caused diversions.
Under the proposals, the Spiegeltent would serve as an anchor point for the Festival Mile.
Parking would be retained along the central reservation but with live acts and open-air dining there would be an inevitable loss of some bays.
Access is vital to venues such as the George Hotel and St Andrews & St George’s Church. Provided there was a minimal loss of parking bays, traders are unlikely to offer much opposition when weighed against the potential benefits. Essential Edinburgh cannot yet confirm how many would be lost.
Traffic-free zones outside bars and restaurants would see eateries spill out on to the street, creating a continental atmosphere similar to that found in Barcelona and Paris.
The Essential Edinburgh traffic plan has been specifically designed to keep vehicles away from eateries – and encourage al fresco dining in the heart of the city centre. The car-free zones (shown below) are enabled by the contraflow system.
Single-side traffic flow along George Street makes the Festival vision possible. One side of the street would be pedestrianised with the other open to vehicles, ensuring the length of street remains accessible by car. Removing the Speigeltent from outside the Assembly Rooms would create a more fluid traffic environment.
Literary exhibits and Fringe acts would be allocated pitches along the street, with the Book Festival expected to spill on to the stretch of George Street nearest Charlotte Square. It is thought Fringe organisers may be drafted in to help organise and book “appropriate” performers for the George Street Festival. Performers may separated into “day” and “after-dark” acts to ensure office workers are not disturbed by loud music.
Retailers, bars and restaurants are broadly in favour of the plans to “evolve” the street but the location of Speigeltent could be controversial. It is moving from outside the Assembly Rooms to St Andrew Square. There is likely to be a backlash from New Town residents who could face increased traffic through their streets as a result of the new contra-flow traffic system on George Street.