McLellan: Council needs stomach to say yes to Royal High

The Royal High plans were submitted to the city council this week.

The Royal High plans were submitted to the city council this week.

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Bruce Hare is a passionate man. “No-one can say I’ve not done my best,” he said, his voice quivering as he unveiled the final vision of his dream to turn the old Royal High School into a world-class luxury hotel.

Appropriately, the location for revealing the new designs was the modern extension to the Victorian National Museum of Scotland, a much-loved building further adapted by award-winning architect Gareth Hoskins who has given shape to Hare’s dream.

The boss of Duddingston House Properties, the company which won the city council’s competition to transform the school, Hare looks intently at Hoskins’ images of the £75m project he hopes will become reality.

His voice reduces almost to a whisper: “We were told to come up with a plan to save a building which has lain empty for 47 years without using public money and no-one can say we’ve not done that.”

He feigns a lack of knowledge about the last-minute rival bid from St Mary’s Music school to take it over, but then with more than a hint of exasperation says: “Where have they been for the last five or six years? Nobody came up to me and said ‘Bruce, what about a music school?’”

It’s not surprising he’s angry. His company won the council competition fair and square, have unquestionably done everything to make an extremely difficult site work, but right at the death after the first designs for the hotel were revealed, up popped a well-funded alternative from nowhere.

Whether that concentrated minds or not, there is no question that Hare and Hoskins have listened to the concerns about the first impressions, taken on board some serious advice and produced a significantly different and improved scheme. The accommodation wings have been totally redesigned so as to frame, not overpower, Thomas Hamilton’s original Georgian school buildings. The historic frontage has now been left virtually untouched.

The stepped and terraced wings are undoubtedly modern, but in seeking to echo the natural contours and colours of both Calton Hill and Salisbury Crags, Hoskins has produced a skilfully sensitive blend with the setting. The drum design facing Old St Andrews House will attract the most criticism, but as a statement which at the same time doesn’t destroy its surroundings, it’s a stunning achievement.

Hoskins took particular care in producing impressions of the new buildings at dusk, claiming the computer generated image of the lighting is an accurate representation of how it will look. If it works as he says it will be a triumph, but of course we’ll never know unless it’s built.

Few here would deny that Calton Hill and the old school is a world-class location, and in the world of architecture there is no debate that Gareth Hoskins is a world-class talent.

And the company chosen to run the hotel, Rosewood, is an emerging global luxury brand in a business where luxury is a much over-used and devalued term, often applied to anything above four-star as operators try to woo customers with a bob or two to spend.

But there is nothing four-star about Hollywood-based Rosewood and its customers have more than the odd spare shilling. Its London property in the heart of the City at Holborn is a lavish conversion of the Edwardian Pearl Assurance headquarters and in Manhattan its refined art deco Carlyle Hotel has played host to presidents and royalty. And Woody Allen’s jazz band.

Its Hotel de Crillon in Paris, once an 18th-century mansion and currently closed for renovation, looks out on the Place de la Concorde at the foot of the Champs Elysee.

But all this will mean nothing if the city council rejects Hoskins’s revised plans for what is possibly Edinburgh’s most difficult available site. The drawings have been lodged and the decision is expected in December once planning officials have drawn up their recommendations.

If permission is granted, Hare expects the hotel to open for business in March 2018, if not he certainly expects the competition to be re-opened. If, as some might have come to presume, the hotel is rejected and the council simply asks the St Mary’s Music School team to bring forward its proposal, a legal battle is almost inevitable.

The councillors on the planning committee cannot pass judgement in favour of a rival project and must base their ruling only on the plan in front of them. Having met the requirements of the contest, it is now a question of whether Hare’s proposal is acceptable or not.

Some councillors will be implacably opposed, but having listened to the debates on the new St James Centre Hare has a fair chance of success because there is a mood amongst prominent councillors for creating momentum and sending a strong message that Edinburgh is a place to do business.

Edinburgh does not have an operator like Rosewood and apart from a handful who come at Festival time or for the odd round of golf it doesn’t pull in enough high net-worth individuals who can make a real difference to big investment decisions.

Bruce Hare and Rosewood president Radha Arora, who flew over from California, made a compelling case for drawing in those kind of people.

“Edinburgh is an authentic destination for our clients and they spend a lot of money. Edinburgh will be coming to life as part of a group of global destinations and I’m super excited,” said Arora.

While the decision cannot be based on the operator’s clientele – and Rosewood would not be considering Edinburgh just because of the Royal High – nevertheless timing is crucial to the scheme and its options are actually quite limited.

The St James Ribbon/Walnut Whip/Mole doesn’t look like it would fit with Rosewood’s portfolio. Donaldson’s School might appear ideal, but there is another plan for that and the size of the conversion means it probably wouldn’t stack up financially. And it’s not city centre.

So lose the site and the chances are Rosewood will look elsewhere. After all, they have 14 other sites under development on top of the 18 they currently run.

On the face of it, the safe thing will be to reject the scheme and let the council’s lawyers deal with the consequences. But will that be the right thing to do?

The new Hoskins plan is not the cultural vandalism its detractors will inevitably claim and the question will be whether councillors have enough stomach left to say yes.

MONDAY’S TOO MUCH OF A DAMP SQUIB FOR FIREWORKS

THOSE demanding the switch of the Festival Fireworks to a Friday or a Saturday have either got short memories or should be careful what they wish for.

When the event was last staged on a Saturday it was blighted by drunken aggression. Rutting young males squaring up to each other and people throwing up in the gutter amidst the broken glass was wrecking what had always been a happy occasion. Nor was it an image Edinburgh wished visitors to take with them back across the world.

It’s fair enough for people to want to take their children to see the fireworks, but those same people would not take their little ones down Lothian Road at 2am, which is what the Saturday display began to resemble.

Then there is the practical consideration that it brings down the curtain on the International Festival so it needs to be at, well, the end of the Festival.

So for it to be on a Friday or Saturday would mean either ending the Festival in the middle of the Bank Holiday weekend or extending it to the end of the following week after the Fringe had finished. That’s after the two have only just been brought together after years out of sync.

Where I have sympathy is staging of the display on a Monday night. It just didn’t feel right.

Sundays worked well before and I don’t think there would be much of a problem in a return with a tweak to the schedule. The official opening could switch back a day to a Thursday, the full programme would start on the first Friday and the final shows could wrap up at 9pm on the last Sunday.

New MP Tommy Sheppard, the comedy impresario, has suggested moving the Festival season forward another week to match up with the Scottish school holidays and in principle he has a point.

But the logistics of moving everything would mean pushing events like the Jazz Festival back into July when Scottish people traditionally try to get away before the English school break pushes up holiday prices.

As is often the case with complex arrangements, trying to solve one problem just creates others.

DONALDSON’S ‘BANANA FLATS’ PLANS

The team behind the plans to convert Donaldson’s School into 200 homes are confident they will not face the same intensity of opposition as faced the Craighouse and Edinburgh Accies plans.

And maybe unveiling the plans for a crescent of 84 flats around the Playfair landmark in the same week as the revised Royal High School scheme was revealed means conservation attention will be elsewhere.

The front of Cala Homes’ curved terrace behind the old building looks not too dissimilar to the much-derided Banana Flats in Leith (which I actually quite like) so I’m not so sure they will get off as lightly as its advisers hope even though local concern is so far said to be minimal.

Like Edinburgh Accies, opposition will rest on the attitude of people living nearby, on Magdala Crescent and Wester Coates Gardens, but the developers do have some advantages, however.

Firstly, it has never been regarded as a public park in the same way as the Craighouse grounds and secondly the back might overlook the Water of Leith but not any houses.

There will be those who will mount the same arguments as at Craighouse – that there should be an alternative development which doesn’t need any new buildings, and look at all the hotel operators falling over themselves to come here – but the result is likely to be similar.

The sale of the site to fund the new deaf school in Linlithgow just as the property market crashed nearly broke Cala Homes and while the listed building regulations must be met, it is a purely commercial project whether the anti-development lobby likes it or not. All the community use, not-for-profit, all-affordable arguments used in the trenches of previous planning wrangles will founder.

But like the original Craighouse plan and the first Royal High hotel images, the designs revealed this week are a first pass and a considerable amount of revision might be needed before it gets through the planning process.