FRESH images have been unveiled showcasing new plans to transform a huddle of historic buildings in the heart of the city’s Old Town into a luxury four-star hotel.
The £65 million development would see the India Buildings at the top of Victoria Street regenerated alongside neighbouring structures – breathing new life into an often neglected area of the Capital.
Developer Jansons Property argued the scheme would “gentrify” the block and attract footfall and investment into nearby shops and businesses.
But critics have condemned the development as a “hideously bad idea [with] no redeeming qualities whatsoever”.
A planning application for the 235-bed hotel was lodged today, with work set to begin as early as next summer if the scheme gets the go-ahead – and the entire complex is expected to be completed by the end of 2017.
The hotel will be operated by leading brand Leonardo Hotels – making it only the company’s second property in the UK after Heathrow Airport – and will sit alongside bars, restaurants and cafes, with a spacious public area centred around the India Buildings’ entrance foyer.
Jansons Property, which also delivered the £35m SoCo development that regenerated part of the Old Town following the 2002 fire, argued its plans would bring an extra £5.3m in visitor spending every year and create hundreds of new jobs. But heritage groups and community leaders are more wary – with one even branding the proposals a “monstrosity”.
Built in the 19th century, the A-listed India Buildings are often seen as one of the city’s hidden architectural gems, boasting a range of stunning original features as well as the former registry office that hosted Scotland’s first ever same-sex civil partnership.
The new plans would retain most of these details – including viewing galleries, a three-tier domed rotunda and the facade facing on to Victoria Street – and would see the building brought back into full-time use for the first time in more than ten years.
Overall designs include restoring the nearby B-listed Cowgatehead Church and turning it into a bustling function space and venue, as well as saving a further C-listed building.
The complex would be linked with a new structure built on a current gap site on Cowgatehead, with the rundown closes that link Victoria Street and the Cowgate cleaned and opened for public use, and a square and pavilion installed to complete the “vibrant new quarter”.
The India Buildings are currently in a state of crumbling disrepair following years of neglect.
Andy Jansons, managing director of Jansons Property, said the company was “determined to make sure that these proposals transform this fantastic area of the city centre”. He said his vision was to lift the quality of Victoria Street and nearby Cowgate while saving important buildings that are otherwise being left to rot.
“Victoria Street is undoubtedly a real gem for residents and visitors alike, and these proposals will help the shops and the street to thrive,” he said.
“Our proposals will also lift what is one of the most rundown frontages of the Cowgate, while – along with the proposals for King’s Stables Road – helping to restore the fortunes of the Grassmarket as a distinctive shopping centre in the city.”
And he openly admitted the company recently objected to doomed plans to turn a former Indian restaurant on the street into a £2m Wetherspoon superpub – arguing the proposals would have “detracted” from the changes his firm is trying to bring in.
“The debate in the area has moved on in recent years from hostels to hotels, and I feel the balance should move even further from ‘drinking dens’ towards shopping and leisure,” he said.
“That way some of the rundown closes can fully realise their potential and make a great place to live and visit, even better.”
The India Buildings site is one of the Edinburgh 12 – important gap sites earmarked by the council as key areas for development. It is understood city chiefs pushed for the plot to become a high quality hotel.
But Bill Cowan, chair of the Old Town community council, said locals were “opposed” to the plans – and would rather it was used for housing.
He said: “The population of the Old Town is declining very rapidly, and it’s being replaced by holidaymakers and students.
“What we need is more residents – the people the council is supposed to represent. But we object to it architecturally as well. It’s hideous – it doesn’t fit in with anything. The whole thing is a monstrosity. ”
Jansons Property insisted it had made a number of changes to accommodate previous feedback and criticisms, including scaling back designs and reducing the height by four storeys.
But Marion Williams, director of the Cockburn Association, also said the “brief” to turn the site into a hotel was wrong – while adding she was “grateful” for the time developers had spent in discussions with the heritage lobby,
She said: “The Old Town needs some affordable housing, not endless hotel and student accommodation.”