DEVELOPERS behind a controversial bid to turn the old Royal High School into a luxury hotel have dramatically scaled down their proposals as they battle to win planning permission.
Duddingston House Properties and the Urbanist Group want to turn the iconic, A-listed Calton Hill structure into a world-class offering aimed at wealthy tourists.
But their £75 million proposals were narrowly rejected last year following a mammoth, all-day planning meeting – and heritage groups have so far proved hostile. Now new images, exclusively revealed by the Evening News ahead of today’s public consultation, detail their latest attempt to secure planning permission for the historic site.
Blueprints set to be submitted to the council early next year show a vast reduction in the size of the “Inca-style” stepped extensions planned for either side of the 19th-century structure.
The move means the wings – which were previously the source of strong criticism from heritage watchdogs – will be smaller and set further back from the road, opening up views blocked off under the old scheme. Artist’s impressions show the western extension has undergone the biggest change, with a substantial reduction in height.
At last year’s planning meeting, councillors said the scale of the Hoskins Architects-designed development was “ultimately too great” to allow it to go ahead.
David Orr, co-founder and chairman of Urbanist Group, said the team behind the scheme “really believe in this project”.
He said: “Significant modifications have been made to the scale of our plan.
“We have made changes to the scale of the hotel following a series of design workshops with planning officials, taking careful consideration of heritage aspects and public comment from our previous proposals.”
He said the new hotel, set to be operated by luxury chain Rosewood, would draw upon the “worldliness and ambition” of the Scottish Enlightenment in creating a space “in which all that is truly excellent in Scottish food, culture and music can be celebrated with the rest of the world”.
Crucially, public venues and bars planned as part of the luxury offering will remain in place under the new proposals.
Bosses previously told of their aim to create upmarket eateries, bars, lounges and reception areas – as well as “the mother of all whisky bars”.
Speaking to the News, Mr Orr said the number of hotel rooms contained in the building’s wings would now be less than the 147 pencilled in under the old plans, but declined to reveal any further detail.
However, it is understood the reduction will not be more than 27 rooms in total, with large, “gallery” corridors taken out instead to save space.
Mr Orr said: “The number of rooms will be reduced as part of the revised proposal, with the final total decided following the public consultation.
“However, it is unlikely to be fewer than the number mandated in our original brief from Edinburgh council.”
Developers claim 250 jobs will be created in the hotel alone, “combining cultural and social benefits with direct economic and career opportunities for local people”.
The overall cost of the project is expected to remain roughly the same.
Mr Orr said giving the hotel the go-ahead would send a strong, pro-tourism message in the aftermath of Brexit.
He said: “I think it would be a very strong signal that the appeal of our country for international visitors is absolutely there.”
And he compared the controversy over the proposed hotel to that which surrounded the Scottish Parliament building – criticised at the time but now lauded around the world.
He added: “[Our] design combines the sensitive, fully-funded restoration of an architectural masterpiece, currently at risk, with the creation of a world-class place for people from around the globe to experience the best of Scotland.”
Duddingston and Urbanist Group previously appealed last year’s decision to knock back their earlier plans, but the appeal has been put on hold while fresh proposals are considered.
In the meantime, alternative blueprints to turn the old Royal High School into a new home for St Mary’s Music School have been approved by councillors.
But St Mary’s is currently unable to press ahead with its vision due to an existing contract between the council and the hotel developers, which was signed in 2010 after Duddingston won an open competition to transform the site.
Hotel bosses argue the contract gives them until 2022 to come up with a viable plan.
Built in the early 19th century, Thomas Hamilton’s celebrated neoclassical building has lain largely unused since 1968, when the school it once housed moved to Barnton. It is widely regarded as one of the finest buildings of its kind in Scotland.
Historic school’s 50-year wait for purpose
The old Royal High School has lain largely unused since 1968, when the school of the same name relocated to Barnton.
Since then, there have been many attempts to find a new use for Thomas Hamilton’s 19th century masterpiece – and all have failed.
The A-listed Calton Hill structure was even mooted as a future home for the Scottish Parliament in the late 1970s – but it was not to be.
Then, in 2010, Duddingston House Properties won an open competition to develop the site into an “arts hotel”.
Along with the Urbanist Group, the company spent five years drawing up their vision – releasing detailed images to the public last year.
But their plans caused a storm of protest and were finally knocked back by city councillors in December of that year.
World heritage body Unesco even cited the £75 million project as an example of the “deeply worrying” quality of new developments in the city, which it believes are being pursued “without due consideration for conservation”.
Meanwhile, heritage groups have championed an alternative bid to turn the site into a new home for St Mary’s Music School.
Their plans would feature a concert arena and classroom space for young musicians.
Hotel developers will be hoping their latest scheme will win the backing of the city’s planners once and for all – paving the way for building work to begin.