John McLellan: Waterfront cultural quarter shows vision

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It’s still at the earliest stages, but award-winning Glasgow-born architect John McAslan has just revealed North Edinburgh is set for a new sculpture trail. Not the most earth-shattering news you might think, but it’s part of a project which could transform the troubled Waterfront district.

Four months ago McAslan was appointed by the National Galleries of Scotland to draw up proposals for the uninspiring-sounding National Collections Facility, but this is a £75m home for the hundreds of paintings and sculptures the NGS keeps in its Granton Arts Store, but doesn’t have the room to put on public display.

modern one:  John McAslan + Partners is currently concluding a masterplan for the Scottish National Gallery of Modern Art, looking at how they can maximise the potential of the two sites on Belford Road. Picture: Ian Rutherford

modern one: John McAslan + Partners is currently concluding a masterplan for the Scottish National Gallery of Modern Art, looking at how they can maximise the potential of the two sites on Belford Road. Picture: Ian Rutherford

The NCF will also house arts impresario Richard Demarco’s huge archive charting the development of the Edinburgh Festival, plus the records of the Royal Scottish Academy and Historic Environment Scotland.

Depending on what McAslan produces – and his track record, including the King’s Cross station concourse, is strong – a brand new cultural quarter with Edinburgh’s answer to Dundee’s transformative waterfront V&A museum at its heart could arise from an unremarkable industrial estate.

In fact, this estate is home to not one but two vast troves of treasure; not just the Galleries’ store but also the National Museum’s Collection Centre and research base.

According to brief details published by McAslan’s firm this month, public sculpture trails would be part of a vision to open up access to the Galleries’ collection, with libraries, research rooms and lecture theatres as well as display areas in a new campus on West Granton Road. A planning application is expected by spring next year.

There is also the B-listed Madelvic car factory, way ahead of its time when built in 1899 to make electric cars. It narrowly avoided demolition eight years ago and is ripe for reuse as an attraction to give the site genuine historic context.

The Granton revival has stumbled along after coming to a juddering halt in the financial crash 10 years ago, and discussions usually revolve around the kind of housing the area needs, how the new population will get to work and go shopping, and not so much about why they’d want to live there in the first place.

“It’s not the Green Belt” is one of the top reasons for its development, hardly a compelling message for prospective residents.

Creating sustainable employment opportunities to reduce commuting is easy to say and difficult to do, and a couple of museum stores with research facilities won’t make much difference. But with a wider vision and the involvement of the universities, a significant focal point could redefine the area.

It might even include another prominent listed building, the infamous Gasometer; Scottish Gas parent Centrica has been headquartered there for some time, after all.

A discussion in the City Chambers this week touched upon the future of the area and immediately threw up a challenge, because its proudly working class history has led to presumptions that New Granton would be dominated by social housing. That’s certainly been the strong demand from homelessness campaigners.

But the counter-argument, that the city should be creating mixed communities not ghettos, would suggest that what the area needs is premium housing as well as high volumes of low-cost accommodation.

Call it gentrification if you want, but a cultural and educational centre would provide a focal point for all types of housing, and more importantly challenge negative preconceptions.

Greens’ circular arguments…

No spleen has been knowingly unvented in Green circles about the plan for the Picardy Place junction and pressure is mounting on council officers for a re-think.

Given the tram extension looks all but certain to go ahead, at the heart of the process is the need for the track to run seamlessly on to Leith Walk from York Place while ensuring the bus network is not held up every time a tram is due.

There also must be an acceptance that having banned traffic from Princes Street vehicles still need to be able to go from East to West and making driving through a key junction more difficult will only displace traffic onto narrower streets.

What has been proposed seems like a sensible compromise which at least gets rid of one of the city’s most confusing roundabouts.

Ramping up regulations

Them’s the rules… A lady with difficulty walking recently asked me to help have a ramp installed so she could get her wheelchair over the substantial front door threshold.

Straightforward you might think, but she’d made the mistake of trying to be self-sufficient and went ahead and bought herself a wheelchair.

Why is that a mistake? Because she hadn’t been medically assessed for wheelchair use, and therefore work to install a ramp couldn’t be authorised because she is not an authorised wheelchair user .

Nobody is at fault here… except whoever who drew up such rigid regulations.

Boundary changes don’t add up

The proposed changes to Westminster parliamentary boundaries revealed this week were designed to cut the total number of seats by 50 to 600, so it’s inevitable that with a rising population compromises would be needed.

Outside of London, few places are growing as fast as Edinburgh and so if population is a key test, then cutting the number of seats here seems premature.

Three of the four fastest-growing Scottish council areas are Midlothian, Edinburgh and East Lothian, which by 2039 are predicted to expand by 25, 20 and 18 per cent respectively.

Even with the potential for Brexit to slow immigration, Edinburgh is still expected to be home to over 600,000 people in the next 20 years.

That means the city electorate could have approximately 450,000 voters and given the Boundary Commission limits each constituency to 78,500 people there will soon be enough to warrant six seats, never mind effectively dropping to four.

While a plan to lump a large chunk of West Lothian in with Edinburgh West has been shelved, sticking Wester Hailes and Sighthill with Livingston seems strange, especially as another goal is to avoid crossing local authority boundaries wherever possible.

There is now a further two months of consultation, but given the howls of protest it’s possible the changes will never see the light of an election day.

But isn’t it ironic that the most vehement criticism of the plan to cut Scottish representation is from the party whose main aim is to leave Westminster altogether.