Kevin Buckle: The missed opportunities Edinburgh will regret

Edinburgh Castle ' from every possible angle ' is a magnet for tourists taking holiday snaps. Picture: Craig Stephen
Edinburgh Castle ' from every possible angle ' is a magnet for tourists taking holiday snaps. Picture: Craig Stephen
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Last week when discussing the refusal of advertising drums for Castle Terrace and St Andrew Square, I mentioned that I had read the Grassmarket drum had been approved. It was pointed out to me that was not the case so I decided to watch the Development Management sub-committee meeting held on January 10 to see what had happened.

I know this space very well indeed as I looked out on to it from my shop for over three years not that long ago and then was involved in plans to attract people from that space to walk down King’s Stables Road.

What I would say straight away is that it would have been nice if the council had been as concerned about their abandonment of the Grassmarket after its pedestrianisation as they were about the placement of an advertising drum.

After spending many millions of pounds on pedestrianising the Grassmarket, the council, in the wake of the tram fiasco, then said it had no money to promote the area and proceeded to allow residents to successfully object to any activity the businesses organised through the Grassmarket BID, leaving the place deserted even at Christmas.

Listening to the committee discuss other areas, the view to the Castle was obviously the most important thing to be considered. Visitors had to be able to photograph the Castle from every conceivable angle and having to take a couple of paces to the right or left to get a good shot was clearly unacceptable.

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In theory the castle end of the Grassmarket should be mobbed with folk desperate to see and record the view but as I know to my cost instead it could easily be empty for hours at a time. The Lot, a church converted into a bistro and venue, closed not long after I arrived due to lack of custom and it has lain empty since, only recently being refurbished.

What I did notice as soon as I moved in though was when people did make it to the space they would stand on the bollards. For the first three days I was there I watched this until I finally realised what was happening. If you stand in front of the Castle to have your picture taken the Castle is so high up you can’t get person and castle in the picture. However stand on a bollard and the angle was just right!

When the Grassmarket BID first started, this I thought would be my contribution as an idea. If a small platform could be built then visitors could safely stand on it to have their picture taken. We could even make a thing of it and have a competition for best photo and publicise what a great view there was.

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Other businesses thought it a great idea but immediately informal talks hit a brick wall. Who would pay for it and even more importantly what about health and safety? Ironically I had actually said that the small structure would be perfect for advertising and that would more than pay for things and given the BID was meant to spend money surely that would be an answer too. Sadly it was deemed better to let tourists wobble on bollards at their own risk than offer them a solution. Footfall in the Grassmarket plummeted year after year and now there are no records even though new counters were installed. The previous counter was based at the top of the Grassmarket so anybody just poking their head in was included and those walking through to get to the Cowgate were counted too. Even so the footfall figures were abysmal.

Luckily I had a break in my lease after three years which I took and in the end even Helios Fountain, the world famous children’s gift shop, that was next door to Avalanche closed. Jos the owner had been there over 30 years.

However a solution was finally at hand. The large council-owned site at the top of King’s Stables Road which led from the castle end of the Grassmarket to Lothian Road and then Princes Street was to be sold and the council knew exactly what was needed.

Reports on creating an arts hub given the proximity of the Usher Hall and Filmhouse among others had already been commissioned as had the need to attract footfall down King’s Stables Road from the Grassmarket with interesting retailers. If anybody had had time to contemplate what was needed it was of course myself. I was approached by several bodies for an opinion and asked to write an article for this very paper on what I thought.

Consequently a variety of people who had been involved got in touch and for once it was clear everybody seemed to agree on what was needed. In fact the council then contacted me and asked if I would advise the developers on the planned arts centre and “interesting retail”. They later even upped the requirements wanting a popular visitor attraction too.

All of this was unpaid of course but there was no doubt that the plans would transform the area and I was happy to help. The more involved I got the more certain I was that everybody was on the same page. The council had already agreed to widen the pavement to encourage seating outside the shops and hopefully a café.

They even wanted little retail pods to be visible from the Grassmarket to entice folk down the road. The pods never convinced me but the idea of needing to draw people towards the site was a good one.

Given how dreadful things were in the Grassmarket, the good news was that the council had done all the preliminary work so there could be no stalling by the successful developers. Only those whose plans were already acceptable in principle would be considered and the sale would be concluded very quickly, allowing demolition and building to take less than two years so everything would be ready, oh, about now!

Of course a completely different story unfolded. Developers with no interest in an arts centre were awarded the contract to concentrate on building a hotel and student flats. When I asked last month for details of the deal, I was told it still hadn’t been concluded and on walking by there was still nothing but rubble.

So a completely inappropriate development has been allowed on one of the most important redevelopment sites there has been in decades, despite everybody knowing exactly what was needed, while an advertising drum that even the planners didn’t object to is stopped because it’s deemed “too close” to the castle.

The Grassmarket drum decision can always be reversed but the opportunity that was available in King’s Stables Road has been lost forever.