Old Town fire: Years of pain for Cowgate

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THE rubble from Edinburgh’s Old Town fire was cleared swiftly from the scorched landscape as building after charred building was demolished amid fears of collapse.

After the ruins were cleared – and amid a PR campaign to convince foreign tourists Edinburgh’s historic heart had not completely burned down – attention turned to how the Cowgate should be reborn and what should rise from the ashes of disaster.

Demolition of the block began on December 21, 2002. Picture: Andrew Stuart

Demolition of the block began on December 21, 2002. Picture: Andrew Stuart

• SoCo video: Exclusive look at development at Cowgate fire site

This quandary took almost ten years to resolve as planning wrangles and a banking crisis kicked blueprints into the long grass.

Designs did get on the starting blocks in 2006 – three years after the blaze – when property investment firm Whiteburn skilfully navigated a complex legal transaction to wrap eight separate ownerships into a single holding.

The plans included a concert hall, gallery, cinema or theatre as part of a £40 million development that was scheduled for completion by 2010.

It was hoped the designs would transform Cowgate into a “vibrant cultural centre”.

Months later, it emerged a huge glass dome would tower above the hotel and leisure complex perched on the corner of Chambers Street and South Bridge.

It was designed by Edinburgh architect Allan Murray and inspired by the great domes of Robert Adam’s original plans for South Bridge’s Old College and Register House, in Princes Street.

In March 2008, detailed plans were finally published and a major consultation launched.

But work never began despite gaining planning approval in March 2009.

A year later, Jansons Property struck a deal with Whiteburn and moved to get the project back on track. It came months after a similar deal with another property company fell through.

Hoxton Urban Lodge, the chain run by Pret A Manger’s co-founder Sinclair Beecham, was announced in 2008 as the occupier of the hotel on the site, but the company pulled out of the scheme one year after planning consent was granted as the economic slump continued.

Within months, the project hit another hurdle, with reports it was under threat because of the city’s tough rules restricting the number of pubs and clubs. It was feared licensing chiefs would impose a cap on new premises anywhere in the Grassmarket/Cowgate area.

Opposition to the licence was later dropped amid fears it may derail the project.

Heritage groups and architects then condemned plans as “underwhelming and dull”.

Malcolm Fraser, who designed the Scottish Storytelling Centre on the Royal Mile, said he was “trying hard to be dull, so not to scare anyone”. Marion Williams from the Cockburn Association branded it “very uninspiring” and in danger of becoming “just a big lump of pale stone”.

By the end of 2011, planners were recommending the complex be approved, while an archeological dig unearthed buildings dating back to the 16th century as well as artefacts including combs and a primitive board game.

Experts described the finds as among the most important yet uncovered in the Capital.

Jansons Property chiefs say the planned 259-bed hotel, retail units and walkways will help “gentrify” and breathe new life into the South Bridge area.

Andy Jansons, managing director of the firm, said the new complex would attract “quality retailers” to the area. He said they were on target to hand over to retailers despite a four-week slip in the timetable.

The News revealed in November how two flagship stores would be open in time for the Christmas rush.

And this week invitations for a launch party at the South Bridge Cowgate (SoCo) development were posted.

Faulty fuse sparked Old Town horror

December 7, 2002: It began with a faulty fuse-box and ended with an entire block of the Old Town being razed to the ground.

It was 8.11pm when a small plume of smoke was first spotted emanating from Hastie’s Close in the heart of the Old Town.

Two minutes later, fire alarms sounded in closed stores up and down South Bridge, with the first fire crews from Tollcross arriving on the scene moments later.

Thirteen buildings were gutted in the blaze.

The fire raged for 52 hours and – at its height – saw around 150 firefighters battling the flames.

Thankfully, no lives were lost as more than 100 people fled from their homes.

But scattered among the scorched remains, was debris from popular Fringe venue Gilded Balloon, La Belle Angele nightclub and Edinburgh University’s School of Infomatics.

Heartfelt messages of condolence poured in from across the world including offers to help rebuild the fire-ravaged area by Good Samaritans as far afield as Japan.

The Mayor of Paris, Bertrand Delanoe, even offered the advice of architectural experts in the French capital and told of his sadness at the loss of buildings used in the Edinburgh Festival, which he described in his letter as “superb”.

Big names from the world of comedy also pledged to line up for a benefit concert to help the famous Gilded Balloon club bounce back.

The devastating fire grabbed the headlines and dominated Edinburgh’s media coverage for weeks.

Reports emerged questioning whether a sprinkler system protecting a department store at the heart of the blaze could have prevented the flames spreading so rapidly.

It was reported that the sprinkler had seized up because it had not been used for several years.

The nearest parallel in Scotland’s recent history was the fire that swept through the Old Town near to St Giles’ Cathedral in November 1824.

Thirteen people died, 400 families were made homeless and 26 Old Town tenements, extending down from the High Street to the Cowgate, were destroyed after a fire started in a printer’s shop and spread rapidly.

The cleared ground has been a hotch-potch of development ever since.

razed: The Gilded Balloon goes up in flames; left, our story on December 9, 2002