Gap site vision is blind to needs of city’s residents

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We deserve more than yet another hotel and facilities for tourists to replace what was lost in the Cowgate fire, says Bill Cowan

Edinburgh has a bad history of everlasting gap sites, so we are all glad when it gets a step closer to filling one. However, what is proposed for the Cowgate fire site turns out to be a disappointment. Initially it was planned as a mixed development. The Development Brief even called for some residential dwellings, but the latest version is mostly all one huge hotel – another one.

You may have noticed that practically all new developments in the city centre, many initially promoted as including housing, now end up as just more huge hotels (or if not that then student accommodation that doubles as holiday apartments). It is a disaster in the making for the people of Edinburgh and the occupants of the Old Town in particular.

One of the greatest things about Edinburgh is that unlike most other UK cities, it is a living city with a significant number of people actually residing in the city centre – about 23,000; 10,000 in the Old Town. Yet this administration has followed the previous one in ignoring this special quality and along with it the needs of those people. Instead they have been colluding with developers to fill every space with cheap, ugly and oversized buildings designed only to maximise the tourist take.

Over the last decade or so the Old Town has seen a steady attrition of the number of homes available. Very many flats have become holiday rental or are now student accommodation. Not to mention the scandal of flats that are kept unoccupied, including those emptied by the council as part of the defunct Caltongate hotel scheme.

Over the same period we have also seen a huge reduction in the amenities for residents. In this case, what burned down all those years ago along with several small independent shops, was the 369 Gallery, an affordable local venue. Even the rather insalubrious nightclub supplied a local need. True, the proposal includes a ‘function suite’ but it won’t be the same thing. There is a retail space rumoured to be filled by another supermarket, or perhaps as in the case of the Apex or Scotsman hotels, it will soon be turned over for more restaurant space.

Architecturally the development is another matter. Generally the elevation to South Bridge and the visible gable are reasonably sympathetic but the effect is marred by an unsympathetic and ugly box-like extension sticking up above the roof line. We understand that the original building had a dormer-style extension in that position. That was ugly too, but at least it was part of the roof and not part of the facade. Whatever is built here should represent an improvement, and not just an attempt to fill up all the airspace available for the maximum economic return.

Then we come to the building proposed for the Cowgate, facing Blair Street. It is a real eyesore. It is not what we or any visitor would want to see looking across from the Royal Mile. It is the type of development that threatens our status as a World Heritage Site, and indeed the very sort of thing already condemned by Unesco.

It is as if architects cannot help themselves; not contented in doing something harmonious, they just have to produce a ‘statement’ or a ‘landmark building’, ie a sore thumb.

This particular facade is every bit as ferocious as a 1960s government building and is crammed with tiny cubicles for the poor tourists. Then on the street is a ‘dedicated lay-by’, woefully inadequate for servicing such a large hotel, so look forward to even more jams on the Cowgate.

Perhaps the most disappointing thing is the new streamlined planning procedure. Although the developer did, of course, undertake the proper ‘consultation process’ it seems it just ticked the box.

The PR consultants dutifully presented the outline plan to various organisations and the public, then totally ignored most of the issues raised. Edinburgh deserves better.

* Bill Cowan, pictured left, is planning secretary of the Old Town Association

What they said

Marion Williams, director of heritage watchdog The Cockburn Association: “What is being proposed at the moment would be totally out of place.”

Graham Birse, managing director of the Edinburgh Chamber of Commerce: “A prominent gap site can be developed in an attractive way, rather than remaining like a broken tooth.”

Artist Hugh Buchanan: “Would you replace the broken leg of a Chippendale chair with something you had found at MFI?”

Film director Douglas Rae: “If we can’t save the buildings we have become world famous for, what is there?”

Architect Malcolm Fraser: “Underwhelming and dull is just not good enough.”