Gina Davidson: We’re crying out for family homes

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WHO knows how long it might take, but in a few years’ time there could well be tourists gazing from the windows of their plush bedrooms in the new Royal High School Hotel, looking down on the view of Edinburgh laid out before them from Regent Road.

And what will they see? Certainly a revamped Waverley Station, the green of the Calton cemetery, the council headquarters and the higgledy-piggledy mix of old and new buildings that make up the historic heart of Edinburgh: the Old Town.

Perhaps they will also still be able to look at the gap site which is the old New Street bus station.

While not everyone will be delighted that the old school, which was once suggested as the home for the Scottish Parliament, and then later as a National Museum of Photography, will become yet another hotel as was revealed this week, at least it will be back in use. And won’t still cost the council £250,000 a year to maintain empty. It’s a solution to what has been a too-long drawn out affair which has left a building which is truly iconic – in the correct sense of a much overused word – with too much past and not a lot of future.

Here’s hoping then the new plans will also galvanise the council and others to have a serious think about the future development of the Old Town itself – which has stalled since the collapse of the controversial Caltongate plan.

The Old Town is a huge tourist draw – despite all the “tartan tat” sold in many of the stores which line the Royal Mile. Its innate vibrancy though stems from the fact that it’s still a place where people want to live, although, judging by the many schemes which have been drawn up for its “holes in the ground”, developers, city planners and councillors seem to believe that its future lies in interminable numbers of hotels, offices, conference centres, restaurants and shops.

Already the plans for the SoCo site in the Cowgate – the site of the fire of 2002 –have been described as dull and underwhelming, because once again there will be the same mix of use as always in a style of architecture which feels, well, soulless. Or as one critic put it, there will be “a big lump of pale stone”.

It was the same with the Caltongate plans – which were to be the largest development in the Old Town’s history. Rather than try to incorporate the listed buildings already there, history was to be demolished to make way for glass and more pale stonework. The kind of buildings which many architects like for their simplicity, but which have been found to have negative effects on people’s mental health.

And then there’s the Advocates Close plans, yet another scheme of shops, flats and offices. Oh, and of course, another hotel.

The problem, though, is that Edinburgh is a city which is crying out for affordable housing – and that’s not one-bedroomed flats, but family homes. The high rises in Sighthill which have just come down became eyesores in recent years, but inside they were spacious, family flats.

It’s the kind of thing the Old Town needs. It is the original site of high-rise living, after all. But it needs well-designed, well-built, spacious and affordable family housing, not just the run-of-the-mill glass and concrete blocks. Let’s think about what we really want the Old Town to look like rather than just try to corkscrew any old design into the smallest of spaces.

And let’s hold back slightly on the rush to keep building more hotels for the tourists, and think about the needs of the residents. Keep the massive office blocks on the city’s outskirts and the people in the heart of the city – and there you go, a business case for a tram.

Blooming great

THE Suntrap Garden at Gogar is a place I’ve written about before, but it seems that there could well be a silver lining to the dark clouds of closure which hang around it thanks to the National Trust for Scotland’s desire to flog the land for development

Those fighting to save the beautiful garden, which was gifted to the Trust by its original owner and designer, George Boyd Anderson – as was his eco-house Millbuies, which is also on the site – have a real plan of action.

Not only have they managed to acquire the resources of a surveyors firm at a reasonable cost to produce a new business plan, but they now have the support of local councillors who are beginning to ask questions about the legality, the history and moral position of the selling of Suntrap. It’s now likely that a motion will be raised in the council, which could delay the sale.

Even more interesting is the news that the George Boyd Anderson trust fund which the council manages, and which is being used to boost services at Hillend – another of the philanthropist’s gifts to Edinburgh – could be open to the Garden’s volunteers as a way of helping fund their proposals.

On top of all that Historic Scotland is looking at the potential of listing the Millbuies house, which the Friends of the Garden want to transform into a museum, while the Garden will continue to offer educational and therapeutic functions.

More power to their green fingers.