Neil Simpson: Hotel plan damages future of Central Library

Central Library. Picture: Michelle Logan
Central Library. Picture: Michelle Logan
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THE lack of public debate about the effect of development on this landmark is a serious cause for concern, writes Neil Simpson.

OUR Trust advocates a balance between competing interests in the Old Town with the aim of protecting and enhancing a “living city”. In a dramatic lack of creativity and stunning misdirection of energies, substantial publicly-owned land is being sold off by our council for development as yet another hotel. At what cost to our Old Town?

A key decision by the development management sub-committee tomorrow on the proposal for a 225-bedroom “India Buildings Hotel”, currently recommended by the planners for approval, would permanently shackle the Andrew Carnegie-endowed Edinburgh Central Library, not only blocking light and views from popular public rooms but also hampering transformation of the building for future users.

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The proposed hotel stretches from Victoria Street to the Cowgate and includes the sale of the Cowgatehead Church, currently a much-needed NHS clinic for the homeless.

But it is the publicly-owned gap site at the Cowgate, directly to the west of the Central Library, that provides the majority of the land for the nine-storey hotel which will sit as close as five metres from the library’s west wall. Many of the city’s residents believe this piece of land had been reserved for the library expansion.

Alarmingly, the impact of the proposed hotel on this asset is happening without any public debate.

Some will remember the competition-winning proposal by Benson and Forsyth architects for a substantial new library and children’s cultural centre which completely re-animated the Cowgate frontage. Wishful thinking perhaps, but serious assessment of the building followed.

In 2002, a conservation plan for the library produced by LDN Architects stated that: “It would be a hugely wasted opportunity if the [Cowgate] site was developed for other uses ­without seriously considering re-inventing the Central Library in a form relevant to 21st century needs and aspirations.”

A follow-up investigation in 2006 reiterated the necessity of the gap site for expansion and concluded: “As the first city in the world to be awarded Unesco City of Literature status, the Central Library should have a profile in the public mind which reflects and contributes towards Edinburgh’s international status.”

In 2011, the city proposed a major redevelopment project incorporating the library, India Buildings, and the gap site which included a literary-themed hotel and a new literature centre: “The surrounding area hosts a vibrant literary life including the National Library of Scotland. This and its prominent position between the galleries on The Mound and the museums in Chambers Street makes it ideally suited as a key resource in the literary and cultural landscape of Scotland’s capital city.”

More recently, in 2013, Bennetts Associates were commissioned to study the Washington Browne-designed building, and shared spaces in the arches with the National Library, though the Council won’t reveal the results of this study.

So why have the supposed guardians of the library been so quiet about the current proposals which, had they been private owners, would have resulted in an almighty stramash?

The absence of public debate at such an important moment for our Central Library is surely to be lamented.

• Neil Simpson is director of Edinburgh Old Town Development Trust (www.eotdt.org)