John McLellan: Caltongate compromise can help all

The chosen design includes homes, businesses and a hotel. Picture: comp
The chosen design includes homes, businesses and a hotel. Picture: comp
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So work will begin in weeks on the 40 affordable homes on the Caltongate site, now the controversial £150 million Old Town scheme has been given the go-ahead.

The rest of the housing, some 145 assorted two and three-bedroom flats, will follow soon after and the whole thing could be finished by Christmas 2015, according to Lukas Nakos, managing director of Artisan, the South African development firm behind the scheme.

We have, of course, been here before. “Work can finally get underway on the massive £300m Caltongate scheme after it was given the final go-ahead – again” ran the Evening News story of 2008.

Nowhere but Edinburgh could generate the levels of dismay and anger shown over the years by a plan to bring homes, shops, bars, hotels and offices to a derelict industrial site, much of it on the basis that it fails to reflect something which hasn’t been there for the best part of 200 years.

The council meeting which granted permission on Wednesday was predictably packed with anti-development campaigners, to the extent that several members of the public couldn’t get in. Why the meeting wasn’t held in a bigger room, as was the same committee’s hearing into Portobello High School a few weeks ago, beats me.

But while a few opponents of the plan dutifully carried little placards, the mood of the protests was one of resignation and although each speaker voicing opposition was met with enthusiastic applause, by the end of the meeting they all quietly filed out when the vote went through. There was certainly nothing like previous raucous protests, such as when ex-planning convener Trevor Davies gave demonstrators the finger back in 2006.

Protest leader Julie Logan, who lists Save our Old Town, the Canongate Community Forum and the recently defunct Old Town community council in her battle honours, has long argued for a mixture of affordable housing and an artists’ quarter, but the basic problem with her plan is commercial viability.

Everyone in this bitter debate uses the same buzz-phrases like sustainability and viability, but for the antis affordability only seems to apply to the cost of social housing to the occupier, not to the entirety of schemes like this.

A development with little other than a few artists’ workshops and affordable housing will look like Dumbiedykes, because that is all the likely return can sustain. No offence to Dumbiedykes, and I think the tall flats backing onto Holyrood Park are actually very good, but would something like that make the Cockburn Association happy? I doubt it.

Affordability lies at the heart of all developments; what can the developer afford to build, what can potential occupiers afford to pay, how long can a city like Edinburgh afford to keep a derelict site right at the heart of the historic town centre?

Just as returning tourists enjoy a laugh at the lack of a tram service (and you’ll hear all the old gags in city centre bars next week when the England rugby fans hit town) so will they wonder at why on earth nothing happens with such a prominent hole in the ground.

This week’s meeting heard quite a few glib phrases, among them “Good enough isn’t good enough for our city” and the most ridiculous of them all, “How long can the Old Town be called old?”. So what are you supposed to do with the site then, Marco Biagi MSP, get Doctor Who to regenerate the gentry’s 17th century gardens. There was much criticism of the overall design, and I too expressed misgivings about some elements in last week’s article, but they focused as much on the fact it was one scheme from one architect.

And it was all too “blockular”, which is a new term on me.

But if several architects had been asked to produce different designs for the various segments I suspect it would have been condemned as architectural anarchy, unbefitting a World Heritage Site, etc.

Contemporary design will never be without critics and I suspect that no matter what was proposed here feelings would run high. Even the always impeccably polite author Sandy McCall Smith was borderline intemperate when he claimed the plan threatened to “destroy” the Old Town.

And as a perfect illustration of beauty being in the eye of the beholder, another critic, Euan Leitch of the Architectural Heritage Society, expressed admiration of the hideous Argyll House on the West Port.

Now if there is any building which scars the Old Town it is the dreadful “blockular” Argyll House; a no-go zone for anyone except civil servants, loved by architecture tsars as if it is a badge of just how much more they understand such things than the rest of us. Why not tear that down and see if a developer wants to put up some architecturally-stunning affordable housing? Oh, that’s right, it’s a fine example of 1960s brutalism so it needs to stay.

The truth is that to create signature buildings, someone must want to do it and someone has to have the cash. Glorious cathedrals were only built because our ancestors all went to church and paid their tithes.

Today the Gherkin, Shard and the new landmarks of the City of London are only possible because the money is there and the investment will produce a return. What would London be like if there had been years of argument over every bomb site?

The biggest project in Edinburgh in recent years, the parliament, only came about because there was a desire to make a statement and to hell with the cost. There was an apparently bottomless pit of government cash, except it was our cash. How well that turned out, even after an international design competition.

And now we know that Edinburgh council has no money for any new development. The tram has emptied the coffers and so too did the retrospective equal pay legal action, the bill for which had to be met by the sale of the Haymarket goods yard. Yes, that’s the site where the plan for a high-end five-star hotel, which some protesters say is lacking at Caltongate, was thrown out after a campaign by the great and good of the West End.

The great developments of the past like the New Town came about because city fathers and wealthy individuals came together to meet a need. And the New Town was primarily constructed so the gentry could escape squalor, not some altruistic gesture to allow the poor folks of the Old Town a bit more room.

No matter who develops Caltongate or anywhere else for that matter, the perfectly reasonable expectation is that those doing it can make some money. If there is a reason the tram project became so mired, it was because the tram company lost sight of that and expected the construction firms to become charities as problems mounted.

It is not as if the Caltongate developer Artisan has not listened to concerns; it could have followed the original blueprint but instead it preserved important views and listed buildings. What is coming is affordable housing, new homes for families, new businesses, new social spaces and new hotels right next to Waverley. What do we lose? The derelict site of an old bus garage.

It’s clearly not what everyone wants, but everyone gets something out of it. And not before time.

Be thankful we don’t have a ghost town

In the disgruntled mutterings around Caltongate opponents and on the propaganda now being circulated by those fighting the Craighouse development is the apparently spine-chilling tale of what happened to the poor old Royal Infirmary.

The basic story is this: rapacious capitalists take over wonderful old hospital building, rip it to shreds, make squillions flogging new apartments to Russian oligarchs and dynastic Arabs, and leave the old buildings to rot. Believe that if you want.

But here are the facts about the old Infirmary buildings and the Quartermile development: of eight listed building sections, five have been fully developed into 130 homes. You can see the interiors on the Quartermile website.

There are 174 affordable homes in the Chalmers Street block which were completed last year and are administered by the Hillcrest Housing Association.

Construction on two of the three remaining listed sections left starts this year, to include the preservation and conversion of historic buildings in the main square at the heart of the whole project.

The main surgical building you can see on Lauriston Place will be the final phase of the whole development and should be completed by 2018. It will have 174 new homes, 125 of them in the old buildings.

Sure that’s four years after the original completion date, but that includes the global banking and property crash out of which we are now thankfully emerging. The developers should be congratulated for keeping going through the downturn and not leaving Edinburgh with its own version of the Irish ghost towns.

A prime example of devil-may-care developers’ worst excesses? I think not.

Wrong turn

It’s not often a Lothian bus takes a wrong turning and it’s certainly never happened to me before, but this week I benefitted from a surprise trip down Lothian Road to Charlotte Square on the 27 to Hunter’s Tryst.

Regulars on this service will know it comes down through Lauriston to Tollcross and then turns right at the Kings Theatre onto Gilmore Place. Thinking he was a 47, at Tollcross the driver took off down Lothian Road.

Hey we all make mistakes, and the poor driver looked very sheepish when confused passengers went up the aisle to ask him if it was they who’d got on the wrong bus. Admitting his error, most of the passengers scrambled to get off before Fountainbridge.

I’m presuming they didn’t have to buy another ticket to get on the next bus going their way; I wouldn’t like to think this was a new way to boost Lothian Buses’ impressive passenger numbers, now up to the highest level since 1988?

Or a means of introducing more people to the delights of the tram line?

Reckoning he’d have to get on the right track eventually, I stayed on for the ride and so off he went for a circuit of Charlotte Square which unfortunately is blocked outside the First Minister’s home.

And so after a three-point turn it was back round the square, onto Princes Street and the return up Lothian Road.

Such fun. So maybe it was worth not having the right money and having to pay £2 for a £1.50 ticket.

Maybe one or two services running up Leith Walk simply marked “Mystery” would be a retro way of getting people to enjoy parts of the city they rarely reach.

It wouldn’t be any worse that the mystery of how many locals will benefit from the tram service, now we know there is zero chance anytime soon of it becoming a genuinely useful network.