John McLellan: Empty buildings are opportunities to grasp

Some artists from Edinburgh Palette hope to set up home in shipping containers (Picture: Ian Georgeson)
Some artists from Edinburgh Palette hope to set up home in shipping containers (Picture: Ian Georgeson)
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With the big “To Let” sign, the empty car park and absence of people, you might think the empty office block at Crewe Toll is a symptom of a faltering economy, but it’s a sign of success when its occupants have outgrown the facilities.

Until the turn of the year, 525 Ferry Road was the Edinburgh base of Massachusetts-headquartered financial services giant State Street, but such has been its success that its 800 staff have now moved to the Quartermile.

The switch also illustrates how much blue chip firms still value a city centre location, but the flip-side is that finding a like-for-like replacement at Crewe Toll has not been straightforward.

So step forward the Edinburgh Palette and its energetic chief Dale Gibson, who signed a deal at the end of the month to lease the offices and turn them into a new home for the umbrella arts charity and the scores of creative businesses and community enterprises it supports at St Margaret’s House in Meadowbank.

While it hoped it wouldn’t happen, the Palette team always knew the tenure at St Margaret’s was temporary and would end when owners Caledonian Trust found a buyer. It took ten years, but finally a sale was agreed earlier in the year with the Drum Property Group.

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They wasted no time fretting about the future and got on with the job of finding a new home, and with the same resourcefulness which transformed the interior of St Margaret’s from a hum-drum office block into a warren of creative activity, they are now finding ways to work around the restrictions on what can be done with Ferry Road’s vast open-plan floors.

But it looks probable the Palette will not just have one new home but three, with another opportunity being explored at Heriot Watt University, to give its customers flexibility of accommodation and location.

Meanwhile it is developing its interest in the disused council depot at Stanley Street in Portobello, where it hopes to turn a collection of disused shipping containers into workshops and studios for the smaller arts businesses currently based in the Meadowbank block.

The only sign something is up are the yellow boxes peeping above the trees behind the Victorian cottages, the containers stacked on top of each other, with plans already afoot to create balconies and walkways around a courtyard.

The containers were originally to be used for additional workshops at Meadowbank, but when the sale of the building was announced the council agreed a six-month rent-free lease to give the Palette storage space on condition they undertook some site clearance work. Having marketed the site, council officers are set to announce a decision on its future next week, with the Palette hoping to fend off interest from a skip hire and scaffolding business.

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All this means the Palette’s plans for life after St Margaret’s are well advanced and the building will probably be empty within a year, well before the deadline for the sale with vacant possession.

That means Drum could be drawing up its plans for St Margaret’s at the same time as the council is completing its masterplan for the adjacent velodrome site, as instructed by the development management committee last Friday.

Last week’s committee vote to press ahead with the redevelopment of the stadium site came with a guarantee of a renewed community consultation, but local people have already made it very clear they did not support the dense housing and student flats indicated by drawings produced for last week’s application.

So there will now be two parallel proposals, both promising community benefits to a community which, by and large, don’t want the developments to happen. How the council manages this is anyone’s guess, but if ever there was a need for the private developer and the council to work together and with the neighbouring communities, then this is it.

After quitting Tories, Ashley Graczyk should resign seat

In the spirit of balance, I should mention the resignation of Cllr Ashley Graczyk from the Scottish Conservatives in protest at the DWP’s attitude towards disabled people. As a Conservative she was in a stronger position to campaign from within than as an independent, and as Heathrow illustrates it’s possible to have passionate policy disagreements but not abandon the people who voted you in. Little has changed since she put herself forward as a Conservative candidate and she should resign her seat.

Meadowbank needs City FC

A condition of granting permission for the new Meadowbank sport complex is the council continues to work with Edinburgh City FC to ensure the new facilities meet their needs. As it stands, the ground complies with the SFA’s “bronze” requirements for teams in League Two, including a 500-seater stand.

City’s average attendance in 2016-17 was 405, but this fell to 325 in 2017-18 after the flit to Spartans’ Ainslie Park ground in advance of the work at Meadowbank, with 464 the biggest crowd. A binding commitment from City to return to Meadowbank before any more work is done might be useful.