John McLellan: Meadowbank plan lacks ambition

The-death-knell for Meadowbank ­Stadium has been ringing for ten years but the latest bid to transform what has become a crumbling millstone represents not a triumph but a missed opportunity and a failure of ambition.

Friday, 16th January 2015, 11:45 am
The rebuild at Meadowbank will place a limit on space. Picture: Neil Hanna

The outline scheme for a ­£43 million revamp revealed this week is a compromise which, while ­admittedly bringing much of what’s currently on offer up to scratch, does little to take sport and leisure to the level a city like Edinburgh deserves.

The council’s original plan was to sell the whole site for housing and build a new sports complex at Sighthill but that was held up by local objection to both the loss of amenities and worries about a population explosion.

Shortly before the local elections of 2007, the then Labour administration caved into pressure and ordered a review but the plan was killed off altogether when Labour lost control of the city and the new Lib Dem-SNP administration opted instead for a refurbishment of the old stadium funded by a limited sell-off of land for housing.

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It was certainly not a victory for the wider sports community, denied what would have been a major purpose-built facility with excellent transport links, but it was a big win for the locals who held onto their big sports centre. It was definitely a triumph for anti-change politicians who exploited an electoral opportunity but saddled the city with a problem.

Former athlete Alison Johnstone, now a Green MSP, cut her campaigning teeth at Meadowbank, teeth which were once again bared in the fight against the Craighouse development this year.

Then came the banking and ­property crash of 2008, after which house building practically ceased and the cash for redevelopment ­evaporated. And so here we are today with a sports centre falling to bits.

Meadowbank is undoubtedly still well used, but for the simple reason it’s the only place of its kind in the Lothians. The stadium may well be “cherished” by locals and athletes, as council leader Andrew Burns claimed this week, but that doesn’t mean it is any more fit-for-purpose because of it.

As Councillor Burns well knows, politics is the art of the possible and for two reasons what is possible here is a limited redevelopment on a scale appropriate for an average size town, not a capital city like Edinburgh. Firstly, the council doesn’t have the cash for anything more ambitious and in fact hasn’t even got the dosh for the scheme now under consideration.

Secondly, there are elections for the next three years – UK in May, Holyrood next year and council in 2017 and having seen the stink kicked up the last time there is no appetite to pick another fight on ground which has already proved a quagmire.

So what will we get? A replacement running track, a couple of replacement sports halls, replacement artificial games pitches and possibly a home for Edinburgh rugby. Only possibly – as it stands, the council is at least £11m short of the amount needed.

Even if the SRU is able to pitch in and turn it into a new home for ­Edinburgh Rugby, presumably with a running track round it like Glasgow Rugby’s Scotstoun base, then it will still give fans a poorer view than ­currently available at Meggetland.

The installation of Edinburgh Rugby will be essential if the suggested sale of stadium naming rights is to come to anything because it only works if the sponsor is repeatedly mentioned in mainstream media to a wide audience. Without a high-profile tenant like a pro rugby side, the main exposure would be to the tenement dwellers on the other side of London Road and for the purchaser it would be more an act of philanthropy than a hard-headed marketing deal.

The main source of income will be from maximising the land sale, which on this site will be a mixture of flats for students, private sale and some affordable units. No doubt there will be the usual clamour for it to be given over entirely to affordable housing, which would only widen the funding gap.

Meanwhile, the genuine need for a proper arena goes unmet and the Sighthill plot, now even bigger since the demolition of the derelict flats, remains undeveloped. We should be able to do a lot better than this.

No limit to money wastage

OF all the pointless gestures, voting to turn practically the entire city into a 20mph zone with absolutely no means of policing it, has got to take the jam sandwich.

Despite widespread protestations that imposing the new limit was almost certainly a waste of time without proper enforcement and counter-productive on main roads, the councillors of the transport and environment committee duly voted it through, with the notable exception of the Conservative group.

So money will now be spent erecting signs across the city in the next three years for something which will go unpoliced at the same time as the city faces a £260m pothole backlog.

As I said last week, you soon won’t be able to drive any faster than 20mph because of the state of the roads.

I’m not one for the “all cooncillors are dunderheids” school of thought so prevalent in Edinburgh these days, but for failing to listen to reason and opting for what will be little more than a vain marketing stunt, I’ll make an exception.

St James Centre deserves a grand entrance

I DOUBT I’m alone in being underwhelmed by the design for the entrance to the new St James Centre at the east end of Princes Street.

The other facades by Allen Murray Architects (AMA) revealed this week are a huge improvement on what is there just now, but then again a five-year-old with a box of Lego could come up with something better than the current concrete monstrosity.

But with the previously revealed vision of wide and airy covered walkways and the sweeping streetscape up from Leith Walk, maybe there was an assumption that the main entrance on Edinburgh’s most renowned thoroughfare would be, well, worthy of renown.

Instead, it is the now familiar combination of blue metal, glass and blonde stone, now apparently a prerequisite for every new city centre development, soon to be going up on St Andrew Square, at Caltongate and already on show in places like Fountainbridge, the West Port and at Murray’s award-winning Missoni Hotel.

On a square site like the corner of the Lawnmarket and George IV Bridge, the angular approach works well, but at what is a more difficult position at the St James Centre entrance, the square glass plates and angled flat planes are not much more inspiring than the Stalinist carbuncle they replace.

The wide boulevard to draw pedestrians up to the heart of the development is a definite improvement on the current uninviting narrow walkway, but for such an important aspect of the whole redevelopment I’d say a rethink is necessary.

So too, at first glance, does the view up Elder Street from York Place, which seems heavy and industrial, rather than elegant as a New Town location deserves.

Others have complained in the past of the seemingly onward march of the

Murray-style approach to new buildings, and his original plan for Caltongate involving an ugly construction coming out from Jeffrey Street had to be rethought. Even now, the foot of Cranston Street is one of the weak points in, unfashionable though it is to say so in polite Edinburgh society, what is an otherwise exciting and

long-awaited improvement.

Controversial though it undoubtedly is, Caltongate has been improved considerably since the first plans were revealed in 2006, especially the High Street frontages, so AMA has shown it can go back to the drawing board when necessary.

Now we are seeing these St James images for the first time, some adverse reaction is to be expected and having to take public reaction on board should be built into the development timetable. Hopefully developer TH Henderson Real Estate will do so willingly.

They have put a huge public relations effort behind their scheme, knowing it is too important to the city to be mired in a prolonged aesthetic debate. Reacting positively to constructive criticism should be part of that effort.