John McLellan: Plans float my boat

The development of the Lochin Basin at Fountainbridge is set to be continued. Picture: Neil Hanna

The development of the Lochin Basin at Fountainbridge is set to be continued. Picture: Neil Hanna

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One of the most interesting plans to bite the dust in the banking crash was the extension to the canal at Fountainbridge.

Shiny new flats were to overlook a new stretch of water behind Tollcross Primary School, but instead the site is now being taken up by new student accommodation.

A hint of what might have been is contained in the newly unveiled masterplan for the 11.5 acre brewery and rubber works site on the other side of the basin, with a narrow strip of water running from the canal edge to within splashing distance of Dundee Street.

Indeed the architect’s drawings show kids (and a mum for some reason) paddling about in an optimistically busy streetscape. It’s hardly Venice, but it’s a nice touch and it’s a shame more of the canal basin isn’t extended like this to make the most of what would be a very different quarter to anywhere else in the city.

Few will be aware that the canal originally went round to Morrison Street and Lothian Road, finishing at what was known as Port Hopetoun.

With railways replacing canals for freight transport, the nearby Caledonian goods yards meant it became virtually redundant and Port Hopetoun was closed in 1922, the Odeon cinema now marking the spot.

Fast forward 80 years and it was Scottish and Newcastle’s turn to shut up shop in Fountainbridge and there was a very different vision for the area – as old manufacturing industry moved out the new global industry of financial services was all set to move in.

This was to be the world headquarters of Halifax Bank of Scotland, which would consolidate scores of offices across the Capital into one urban banking village to rival the home of its great competitor RBS at Gogar.

But badly (and ironically) exposed to wild speculative investments as the global crisis gathered pace, HBoS collapsed before the first shovel could be turned. With the exception of a travelling Festival circus, it has lain empty ever since.

No-one, least of all me, objected to the HBoS plan, but from a look at the plans now on display at the Dundee Street library what could take its place cannot but enhance the district.

A reworking of a previous Allan Murray vision, with shops, flats and community facilities down one side of the water between Viewforth and the Lochrin basin, it’s certainly big but local reaction seems positive so far.

In fairness there isn’t much that looks threatening in the proposals, although that usually causes trouble too because the designers haven’t come up with the Hanging Gardens of Babylon. And if they do there’s usually trouble anyway.

It’s nowhere near the middle of town so the Unesco World Heritage card can’t be played, there is no high-rise (although there is one tower-like thing poking up near the Leamington Lift Bridge which will attract attention), and no hint so far of fantoosh hotel so the anti-capitalism radar has yet to be activated.

Perhaps because the scheme is the work of the city council’s arm’s length development company EDI, the design description sounds like something straight out of the Save Our Old Town play book.

According to their architects 7N, the plan is “celebrating access to the canal, as well as creating more city centre homes, places to work and places for culture and enjoyment.” What’s not to like? It’s a veritable Shangri-La on the Union Canal.

At its heart is what’s left of the North British Rubber Company’s plant, which once employed a staggering 8000 people and churned out 1.2 million Wellington boots during the First World War for troops in the trenches.

And a newly announced £5m grant from the Heritage Lottery Fund will help turn the offices behind the old main entrance offices into a creative arts and print-making centre and break up the uniformity of steel and 
sandstone.

The scale of change in this part of the city in the last 20 years is not quite as dramatic as the Waterfront, but it is significant nonetheless. Yet I can’t help but feel that the future pupils of Boroughmuir High School are being short-changed with their much-needed new premises being built on such a restricted site bewteen Viewforth and the newly-built flats.

And amidst all this modernism what is going to happen to the Kwik-Fit?

Also outwith the masterplan is the shell of St Kentigern’s Church facing the canal at Viewforth, last used for worship in the 40s and for which there was a plan four years ago to turn it into student flats and a restaurant.

It’s not unfair to call it an eyesore but the proposal met the kind of objections now being raised against more student accommodation in St Leonards. Surely it’s time for that to be revisited.

And so too should the suggestion of canal access at Yeaman Place be reviewed, having previously been rejected because of costs. Although access is now much better than it was when there was no towpath access between Viewforth and Harrison Park, it seems odd that with so much investment going into the canal that there are no steps at such an obvious place.

The city has had a canal strategy since 2011, some of which has been acted upon but significant elements remain on the drawing board, like the new rowing centre at Meggetland.

Here I must declare an interest because I am a canalside dweller. Intriguingly, the strategy looks like it contains a new boat mooring at the end of my garden, which is a bit like the council planning a caravan stop outside your front gate.

But not to worry, I like barges. Better than the house-breakers known to skulk around our way.

As for the Fountainbridge scheme, the plans are on display for another week, or you can see them on the 7N website and then the consultation can begin in earnest.

Will it be plain sailing? Somehow I doubt it.

Objections are recipe for stagnation

I owe Greens Councillor Gavin Corbett an apology.

He didn’t call ex-council leader Donald Anderson myopic; that was a headline writer summing up his letter in which he described the views of the ex-Labour chief as “hollow”.

Nor, apparently, does he like muesli or know how to weave a basket. However, like me, he does ride a bike.

But it still doesn’t get away from the fact that Cllr Corbett went on the offensive against a perfectly reasonable expression of support for job-creating economic development.

Of course Cllr Corbett and others in the conservation/environmental lobby are entitled to their view, but there is a danger that those whose first reaction to any development is suspicion are seen as representing mainstream public opinion when that is not necessarily the case.

The conservation movement is very adept at marshalling the forces of localised conservatism for wider political aims and it deserves scrutiny, especially as a reputation for a “can’t do” attitude in a competitive world is a recipe for stagnation.

Is it not ironic that those who complain loudest about the tourist “tat” on the Royal Mile are the same people angered by projects like Quartermile, Caltongate, and Craighouse?

Because if this city throws up objection after objection to every reasonable plan in the city centre then the only viable businesses left will be those pandering to visitors to a glorified theme park.

Tram boost not instant

Any tram route dweller expecting to cash in after claims there could be a boost of up to 15 per cent in property prices along the line should put away their ESPC paper. It ain’t happening any time soon.

The estimate is based on the experience of Dublin, where the Luas lifted house prices along its routes after opening in 2004.

The most obvious difference between Dublin then and Edinburgh now is there was at least three years of headlong property speculation in the Republic to go in 2004.

If Edinburgh people thought the market had gone bonkers here, then estate agents windows in Ballsbridge or Donnybrook was the place to go for real madness.

But secondly, both routes were entirely through places where people lived, stretching for miles through the suburbs right into the heart of the city. Here, as I’ve pointed out before, hardly anybody lives along the line and where they do it can be awkward to access the station.

I’m sure there will be one or two places which will see a benefit, like the flats at Roseburn or around Haymarket and Shandwick Place, but until such times as the line to the airport becomes a network the boom will have to wait.

Whether the Council can get its hands on the £80 million estimated to be needed for the completion of the line to Ocean Terminal from the European Investment Bank remains to be seen.

But that might do wonders for property prices in Coburg Street

Accelerate rebuild programme for keane’s sake

No-one will have been unmoved by the needless death of Keane Wallis-Bennett and while safety tests at Liberton High and every other similar school must obviously be completed as a matter of utmost urgency, now is not the time for recriminations.

Whatever happened to cause this unbearable tragedy, one thing is blindingly obvious; no children should ever go to a school where there is even the remotest chance of fatal failure of the environment around them.

I lived in the estate next door and despite its grim 50s appearance, it was a school which successfully worked hard to lift its sights and those of its pupils. But while other schools, like nearby Gracemount High, had their facilities transformed, Liberton had to wait in line.

No longer. If any good is to come out of this awful incident it should be the acceleration of the school rebuilding programme to ensure there is not even the slightest possibility of this ever happening again.

And if that means Liberton High is razed to the ground, so be it.

And when Liberton pupils march in every day to new, inspiring, optimistic and happy surroundings far sooner than might otherwise be the case, then maybe Keane’s death will not have been entirely in vain.