John McLellan: Get ready for a second Battle of Meadowbank

Artists could be evicted from St Margaret's House by developers
Artists could be evicted from St Margaret's House by developers
Have your say

Now that the asbestos-ridden concrete carbuncle of New St Andrew’s House has been turned to hardcore for construction in London, few would lament the demolition of the other 1970s government monstrosities which have disfigured the city.

However, most of them have been put to good use, like the supremely dreadful Argyle House, the former tax offices on the West Port now home to the Codebase incubator for technology start-ups. Its twin on Jeffrey Street is now Jury’s Inn.

Then there are the ugly sisters of London Road, Meadowbank House and St Margaret’s House, the former still occupied by the Registers of Scotland. The latter is home to a hive of artistic activity in 200 rooms and studios under the umbrella of the Edinburgh Palette charity. It’s a teeming affordable hub for arts and crafts businesses which might otherwise struggle to find viable bases and, like the Codebase tenants, benefit from pooled resources and shared experiences and expertise.

READ MORE: Why Meadowbank will always be much more than a ‘venue’

The Edinburgh Palette is so successful there is a waiting-list for units, but the building is not theirs. The owner is a property investment firm, Caledonian Trust, run by three veteran local businessmen who, although content to see the building fully occupied and running costs covered for now, want to maximise its potential.

In 2014 a master plan was drawn up for the whole site, including the Jock’s Lodge corner, but it was abandoned when it became clear the Registers of Scotland had no intention of moving out.

Now a throwaway remark in an article in The Scotsman this week by ex-Rettie partner Will Scarlett suggests all might be about to change. Scarlett, who has recently launched his own property business, mused that “perhaps” St Margaret’s House could once again be part of a wider regeneration of the Meadowbank area following the stadium redevelopment.

READ MORE: Will Scarlett: Why wise investors are looking to Edinburgh’s east

He has just struck a deal to sell a site on nearby Marionville Road, currently occupied by the Taoist Tai-Chi Society, for around 125 new homes so he knows exactly what the going rate is for residential development in the area. And sure enough, the Caledonian Trust’s annual report published just before Christmas reveals it still intends to redevelop the site and has commissioned two surveying firms to look at options.

“The redevelopment prospects for St Margaret’s have improved considerably,” says the report. “Site values for flats for sale, for flats for the private rented sector and for student accommodation have continued to rise rapidly as an increasing demand remains unsatisfied. The City of Edinburgh Council perceives there is an acute shortage of a wide range of accommodation, particularly near the city centre.” All is not lost for Edinburgh Palette, however, as one of the options is to continue to run the building as it is, with the report pointing out “we are also considering recycling the existing building … and building on the most valuable West Point of the site and, quite separately, the possibility of achieving full market rents either with the existing tenants or by alternative serviced or charity uses.”

The bad news for Edinburgh Palette is the caveat that it is “in the unlikely event of the redevelopment prospects seeming less desirable”.

Caledonian, which made just over £1m profit last year, says it will wait for the completion of the stadium redevelopment, which could be as far off as 2023 by the time the housing scheme on the east of the site is finished.

One way or another, the arts ventures face either higher costs or eviction and it has all the makings of another Battle of Meadowbank.