Graham Birse: Date with destiny for city

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There will be no outpouring of public grief in Edinburgh when the old St James Centre is finally demolished. For too long its “brutalist” 1960s facade has defaced one of the most elegant city centres in the world.

This week the debate will focus on its replacement and some long-awaited good news. Tomorrow, Edinburgh’s planning committee will decide on replacing the St James Centre. To most of us, it seems a “no-brainer”. A shiny new replacement for the old monstrosity, nearly a £1 billion invested and thousands of jobs created.

Where’s the downside? Well, there may be one, and it relates to the materials that will clad its exterior. The obvious choice, traditional Scottish sandstone is not an option, because all of Scotland’s sandstone quarries have closed and sourcing materials from far afield would require an insurmountable effort in logistics and cost.

An alternative, call it a compromise, is limestone, which is not a “traditional” material in Edinburgh but is nonetheless acknowledged as high-quality, effective, durable and sustainable. In my book, it’s also a much more attractive option than concrete, which is what we have at the moment.

Now I’m no architect, but I do think that given the options facing the developers we need to be realistic if we are to get beyond the planning stage and see construction workers on site. And there are plenty of reasons for the people of Edinburgh to celebrate when that day comes.

Firstly, there’s what St James does for Edinburgh as a shopping and tourism destination. Historically Edinburgh has struggled with shopping, and the UK’s second city of tourism is nowhere near being one of the country’s best shopping locations. St James changes all of that and will boost Edinburgh well into the top ten in the UK shopping league table, and brands that have been mentioned like Abercrombie and Fitch will make Edinburgh a shopper’s paradise.

The second reason to celebrate isn’t perhaps as widely understood, and that’s about trams. There has been much discussion about the latest news on the city council’s proposals for extending the trams, but of course that can’t happen unless the junction at Picardy Place is completely restructured. Whatever people’s views on trams, and I appreciate there are many, it must be important for the council to have the option to extend the tram and that simply can’t happen without the St James proposals going ahead.

The third reason, and this is as important as any other, is what the proposals do for the city centre. Getting rid the current buildings will be the biggest improvement in the city’s World Heritage Site and city centre for decades. Initially outside the World Heritage Site, the St James area was included to facilitate the debate on what would replace it, and just look at what that debate could achieve. The proposals will transform the whole city centre, and make the heart of our great capital beat much, much stronger.

So get the Champagne ready. For these three reasons and many, many more, the Edinburgh St James development will change the Capital forever, and in the best of ways. The decision the planning committee is making tomorrow isn’t about something as mundane as a planning application, it’s about making one of the best cities in the world even 
better. And that really is something to celebrate.

Graham Birse is director of the Edinburgh Institute of Leadership and Management Practice at Edinburgh Napier University