Kevin Buckle: The horse has bolted at King’s Stables Rd

King's Stables Road is an uninviting proposition
King's Stables Road is an uninviting proposition
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It was disappointing if not surprising to read in the paper that the last vestiges of the original arts plans for the old council site at the top of King’s Stables Road had been scrapped.

The developers were putting a brave face on things saying there would be affordable housing in the space and that the arts facility was not lost but simply moved to be part of the hotel complex. This is however just the endgame in what has been the U-turn of all U-turns by the council. Nobody would argue against affordable housing and it was a surprise to many that it wasn’t included in the original remit for the site but while there were other places in the city centre that this could be achieved it was felt that the King’s Stables Road opportunity was unique in that it finally gave the council the chance to address two problems it had identified previously.

There are probably sufficient cafes, bars and restaurants in Edinburgh to cope without the need for pop-ups. Picture: Neil Hanna

There are probably sufficient cafes, bars and restaurants in Edinburgh to cope without the need for pop-ups. Picture: Neil Hanna

First of all, as I know from my time at the Castle end of the Grassmarket it was a real issue getting people to circulate around the city centre rather than walking back on themselves. Those who did make it to the far end of the Grassmarket would invariably turn back even if they intended to return to Princes Street as they were reluctant to walk down King’s Stables Road, which was basically made up of a derelict site, an uninviting tunnel and a large car park.

With the car park lease soon to end and the council site for sale there was a chance to transform the whole area and the council had commissioned reports both on the improved footfall and the establishment of an arts hub some years ago. With the art college as neighbours and the Filmhouse and Usher Hall minutes away there was clearly the core of an arts hub already in place that would be a great help in establishing the site as a place to go to rather than turn back from.

All of this made perfect sense – boosting footfall through the Grassmarket, supporting the arts and bringing back to life an area that had long been ignored by the public. However inexplicably the council sold the site to a developer with no arts centre plans and who had failed to engage with the Grassmarket businesses or residents.

As somebody who had been asked to write about what was needed in the area I was invited to meet the developers whose bid had been successful and they admitted they had nothing but “a blank piece of paper” for the arts centre but they would consult with relevant bodies to see what was needed.

The arts centre quickly became an arts facility and shrunk in size to something that was clearly no more than a gesture. It was that gesture that was finally announced as being scrapped and now we are to believe it will somehow become part of the hotel complex.

I’m not sure whether the “improved frontage to King’s Stables Road” will be at the expense of retail space but it did remind me of one comment from a friend used to the workings of developers and their “arts offerings”, made early on in the proceedings, that the arts facility would probably end up as a cafe with a few bits of art on the wall.

That again there is still no detail on what hotel will be on the site has to be viewed with suspicion. Developers promised at the consultations that such a prestigious site deserved a top-quality hotel and that a budget hotel was out of the question. There is no doubt that for any hotel chain this is a fantastic opportunity so it is more than surprising that after all this time they are still unwilling or unable to name their hotel partners. On the other hand, the fact that they have entered into a forward funded agreement for a 166-bed premium student accommodation development with Empiric Student Property for King’s Stables Road will surprise nobody whatsoever.

So after two-and-a-half years all we know about the site for sure is that there will be a lot of student flats. No news on the quality hotel, no details on what the arts facility will comprise of and no “interesting” retail partners announced to help with footfall.

This was a unique opportunity to address the footfall issues and support the arts and yet unbelievably the council have done exactly what they said they wouldn’t do and ended up with exactly what they said they didn’t want!

Popped up, sold out – but the rest take a hit

Wandering around Edinburgh during the week Princes Street and George Street were absolutely mobbed with folk eating and drinking at all the various pop-ups and yet as soon as I got to the back of the station on to Market Street the cafes were quite quiet.

As I walked along The Arches one or two were indeed empty and nobody was busy. I popped up to see friends in St Mary’s Street and again the same was true. Later I had a meeting in Stockbridge and there was only one other customer in the cafe.

A couple of years ago I was buying a coffee on The Mound and the lady serving me who had no idea I had any opinion on such things started telling me how she was now quieter during the Festival and at Christmas/New Year than normal.

She had spoken to the council and they had explained all these pop-ups were necessary to stop people having to queue for too long. She had pointed out to them that in her many years in business the busy times had certainly been busy but not unbearably so.

In fact, most of the queues she saw now were in the street while the nearby shops remained empty.

Maybe next year the council could try not having all these pop-ups and see if indeed the cafes and pubs of Edinburgh manage just fine to cater for the increase in visitors.

Amazon option’s not open to council as Royal High decision looms

The revised hotel plans for the old Royal High School go before the council again next week and this time it appears that having been given what it wanted the council has changed its mind.

A lot of time has passed since the initial plans for a hotel so it is no great surprise that some circumstances have changed.

Most sensible folk wanted something to be done with the building rather than see it rot and a hotel was the only viable option at the time.

The fly in the ointment now is the offer from St Mary’s Music School, which is not the perfect solution some make it out to be but is certainly an alternative.

When the council first examined the possibilities the best part of a decade ago I’m sure if the music school option had been available then it would have been accepted with open arms.

The thing is it wasn’t, and the developers have delivered what was asked of them albeit very slowly but within the terms of their contract.

Unlike King’s Stables Road, on this occasion the council has to a large extent been given what it asked for but appears to have had second thoughts. Now if the council had ordered the hotel from Amazon it could simply have returned it on the basis that it had changed its mind but given that Amazon’s terms and conditions and codes of practice are thankfully yet to be universally adopted councillors will certainly need to consider their position carefully.