John McLellan: No time to stand still on key sites

Artist's impression of the Craighouse development. Picture: contributed
Artist's impression of the Craighouse development. Picture: contributed
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If there is one man who knows what a fight is like in Edinburgh, it is property developer Manish Chande. Bruised but undaunted by the collapse of his plan to redevelop the Caltongate site in the Old Town, he now leads the controversial scheme to redevelop the old hospital complex on Craighouse Hill.

Now that Caltongate has been revived by a new consortium, both plans are reaching a critical phase and both are in the teeth of fierce local opposition.

The Caltongate scheme. Picture: contributed

The Caltongate scheme. Picture: contributed

As someone who has worked in the Old Town for more than 20 years and also as one of the regular dog-walking crowd on Craighouse Hill, it’s no surprise to me that both plans have created so much local concern.

Now the Friends of Craighouse Hill suspect Mr Chande is being granted unfair access to government ministers and that ways are being found to get round objections so his scheme can proceed.

It should be no surprise to anyone that such an experienced property developer as Mr Chande knows his way around government and will do all he can to ensure the best outcome for his company and investors.

Nor should it be a surprise to government or council officials, or indeed to Mr Chande, that the people living around Craighouse are equally well-informed and organised.

Manish Chande. Picture: TSPL

Manish Chande. Picture: TSPL

Craighouse is a lovely place and a wonderful local amenity which needs to be treated with sensitivity. But a sustainable future must also be found for the beautiful old buildings or demolition will become inevitable.

The sad truth is that residential redevelopment is in all probability the only way forward. Edinburgh Napier University tried to make a go of the old buildings only to find out how expensive and inefficient they were to run.

But converting Victorian buildings to modern residential use is expensive and the only way to make it viable is to create new, cheaper buildings on the site which generate sufficient profit to make the preservation and conversion of the old ones viable.

That’s why the old Royal Infirmary site is now dominated by modern apartment blocks, with the prime penthouse suites snapped up by investors from the Middle and Far East.

Now I’m told there is a strong chance the Scottish Government will intervene to call in the development and take the decision out of the city council’s hands, similar to the way in which it enabled Donald Trump to move ahead with his golf development in Aberdeenshire.

Whatever happens at Craighouse, some sort of additional development to the existing buildings is unavoidable or the conversion of the historic buildings won’t add up.

If the Scottish Government does get involved it should be to find a workable compromise. They won’t be able to please everyone, but as it stands creating the likes of an eight-storey block near the top of the hill is an idea too far.

Meanwhile, trenches are being dug once again down at Mr Chande’s old battleground on the Caltongate site, with the Cockburn Association at its strident best in slamming the revised proposals as inappropriate for the medieval footprint of the Old Town.

With its open plaza, the plan will, says director Marion Williams, “impose New Town-like neo-classical spaces and buildings over the previous medieval pattern”.

In particular, the Cockburn Association cites the 1647 map of the city drawn by James Gordon of Rothiemay, probably the city’s first properly detailed plan and one which clearly illustrates the densely-packed herringbone of tenements down the spine of the Royal Mile so wonderfully preserved to this day.

But it also shows the Caltongate site, east of what is now New Street, was not occupied by dark alleys and mysterious pends but by the gardens of the larger houses of the gentry at the more fashionable end of town closer to 
Holyroodhouse.

Yes, the pattern was linear stretching down the slope from the Canongate to the rocks of Calton Hill but it was much more open than the seething mass of humanity further up towards the Castle.

By 1850, after the Nor Loch had been filled with the rubble from the New Town and replaced by the railway and what was to be Waverley Station, the site was occupied by the Edinburgh Gas Works. By 1877, Leith Wynd disappeared to make way for the expanded railway lines and Market Street linked to St Mary’s Street by the sweeping curve of Jeffrey Street.

The gasworks eventually gave way to the New Street bus garage in 1928.

It is therefore pushing it to argue that the creation of a square is an impost on the Old Town. There were open spaces, it’s just that they were the preserve of the rich.

And I’m not sure which bit of “New Town-like neo-classical spaces” I’m supposed to dislike.

With the population of the Old Town area continuing to grow, it seems to me that open, social spaces are what the Old Town needs, especially in a place where hundreds of people now work and hundreds more will be living in the very near future.

Since the city council moved its main offices to Market Street, some 2000 people work in an area with limited services nearby. On the other side of the Canongate, accommodation for around 1500 students is either newly completed or under construction and they will need room to breathe.

And when the students go home, the Holyrood Road complexes become apart-hotels in peak season so the flow of people will be all year round.

Accommodating visitors remains an ongoing challenge, and the one benefit the trams should bring is to form part of a sales pitch to travellers.

It’s not difficult to imagine: Edinburgh is one of the most beautiful cities on the planet, with a swanky airport and a fantastic transport system to whisk you to the heart of the action. But that means providing places to stay which match that expectation.

The city’s Tourism Strategy for 2020 observed that planning constraints were continuing to make new hotel developments difficult. Caltongate, with several hotels in the blueprint, is a perfect illustration of the problem.

The arguments about the Caltongate site have been well played out and it’s time to get moving. The New Street eyesore, so horribly visible from Regent Road, has been there for too long already.

NEW OLD TOWN SHOWS ITS CLASS

Never mind the whole of the city, the Old Town is in line to scoop a string of gongs at the Scottish Property Awards early next year.

Supported by Scotsman Publications, the shortlists recognise several developments within a hod-carry of each other.

The SoCo hotel and shops complex which rose from the ashes of the 2002 Cowgate fire is nominated in three categories, including commercial development of the year, as is Malcolm Fraser’s Edinburgh Centre for Carbon Innovation in Infirmary Street.

Up for two awards is the Advocate’s Close office development and a little further afield the Quartermile is shortlisted in the regeneration category.

ROOD AWAKENING

After The Evening News and Scotsman Publications moved to Holyrood Road in 1999, and the subsequent move of the Scottish Parliament, it’s fair to say it failed to become the vibrant new media and political district predicted.

But gradually the district is coming to life, thanks in large part to Edinburgh University. The Sugar House close development, now home to 330 students, opened last year and next year more than 1000 rooms for postgraduate students will be available in two new developments, together with new shops, offices and an education centre.

Just up the road, a further 330 rooms will be created at the old Deaconess Hospital at the Pleasance, formerly the HQ of NHS Lothian.

It’s been a long time coming, but finally a genuine buzz is coming to Holyrood Road.