'Reimagined' Princes Street Gardens would host 15 major events a year under new business plan

Large-scale all-ticket events would be allowed to be staged in Edinburgh’s West Princes Street Gardens on up to 15 days every year under plans for a £25 million revamp to transform it into a "world-class" year-round performance arena.

Wednesday, 22nd January 2020, 1:38 pm
Updated Wednesday, 22nd January 2020, 5:22 pm

A business plan for the long-awaited Quaich Project would see the redeveloped park used as a catalyst to “reimagine” Princes Street and the west end of the city in the next few years.

There will be no limit on the number of ticketed events which do not restrict wider access to the gardens in future.

The cap only affects concerts and other major events which close off all or part of the park to non ticket-holders during normal opening hours.

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The business plan, which is due to be discussed by councillors next week, would effectively give the green light for major events like the Summer Sessions pop and rock concerts, the Fly Open Air dance music festival, the city’s festival fireworks finale and the Hogmanay concert in the gardens to continue.

The proposed limit on events which restrict public access to the gardens is three times the size of a previous official cap, which has been in place for years. It was effectively relaxed when the council decided to treat an extended series of concerts as one event.

The business case also raises the prospect of new medium-sized events being staged in the gardens, such as the “Summer Nights” events held in Kelvingrove Park in Glasgow. It is thought there would also be flexibility to accommodate large-scale one-off events involving the likes of the BBC, MTV or the Tour de France.

The overall vision for the project, which has been in the planning for five years, is to "create and sustain a space for all in the heart of the city, celebrating nature, reflection, community and performance."

Income from all-ticket events would help subsidise the staging of smaller-scale events in the gardens, such as a Pride event, cinema screenings, showcases for buskers, school prom events and light shows.

Other new events could include theatre productions, traditional arts and culture events, live music performances, spoken word events and family activities.

Under the vision for the future of the park, which dates back to the mid-19th century, “every Edinburgh citizen and visitor to the city will have experienced West Princes Street Gardens and the Quaich Project.”

Community groups would only pay a nominal fee, which could be as low as £100, for the use of the gardens for their events under the new financial model, with the city council handling bookings from event organisers and promoters.

It is hoped up to £700,000 a year could be generated from the hiring out of the gardens for events and income from the new two-storey “gateway centre,” although running costs for the new-look gardens are estimated to come to up to £500,000 in future.

The Quaich Project, a public private partnership being pursued by the city council and a trust set up by Apex Hotels founder and former Edinburgh Playhouse owner Norman Springford, would see the run-down Ross Bandstand, which opened in 1935, replaced by a “Hobbit House-style” pavilion for performances and an amphitheatre instead of the existing concrete bowl.

A two-storey complex featuring a visitor centre, cafe and corporate hospitality facilities would offer direct access from Princes Street and boast spectacular views of events below Edinburgh Castle.

The business plan has been published ahead of detailed designs for the revamp of the park being submitted to the council in the spring.

A key aim is to deliver “a balanced programme of activities ranging from small scale community events & learning programmes to festivals and major events throughout the year, befitting a capital city, world class visitor destination and much-loved public ‘garden.’”

It states: “We will curate the use of spaces and activities throughout West Princes Street Gardens to enable a primary focus on community events which reflect the nature of the spaces involved.

"These include school and family events, lectures and talks, garden and nature tours, traditional art and culture, live music and theatre, heritage and historical programmes. The new facility will be offered at low cost for community groups and schools.

“We will also procure and programme a specific number of major events which will provide high profile and high-income streams to create the affordability to community groups.

“We will promote and market the project to a wide range of community bodies, schools and colleges, event and festival organisers to ensure that a healthy balance exists to enable an active yet tranquil and accessible space across the year.”

It is hoped that the impact of the Quaich Project will help the west end of the city withstand the impact of the new St James development, which is due to open later this year. Work is also due to be finished within months on a new Johnnie Walker visitor centre in the former House of Fraser department store, while there are plans to turn the former Royal Overseas league building opposite the bandstand into a hotel.

The blueprint states: “Sitting in the heart of Scotland’s capital, the Quaich Project offers a unique platform for promoting a wide variety of activity in a spectacular setting, underpinned by a core aim of providing a mix of events and activities that fulfil our mission.

“It also offers a catalyst for the re-imagining of Princes Street and its environs. With the opening of the new St James Centre and the refocusing of retail activity to the eastern end of the city centre, the project has the potential to drive the context of the area – cultural, social, wellbeing and environmental themes dominating a space currently occupied by buses and shops.”

In his report for next week’s culture committee, place director Paul Lawrence states: “The completion of the refurbishment and development of West Princes Street Gardens in general, and the redevelopment of the Ross Pavilion and the construction of the associated gateway building in particular, is to the benefit of residents, visitors, event organisers and festivals, and Edinburgh’s reputation.”

Donald Wilson, the city council’s culture chief, said: “This is a very important stage in the project to reimagine West Princes Street Gardens.

“The core focus for the business model is on community access and activity by creating and sustaining a space for all in the heart of the city, celebrating nature, reflection, community and performance.

“This is a model where big events that involve exclusive access to the gardens are kept to a minimum, but these will make it possible to offer low cost rental of spaces to community or charitable organisations. Crucially, it proposes no more event days than we have at present.

“West Princes Street Gardens are open almost every day of the year, with early closure for events, mainly in the evenings, amounting to less than 2% of normal opening times. It is estimated that within the new operating model this would continue.

“The proposed new access route behind the pavilion is estimated to reduce event set up and takedown times by at least 30 per cent, thus reducing the impact on the gardens.”

David Ellis, managing director of the Quaich Project, said: “Our vision is to improve the entirety of the gardens with a focus on making them a more enjoyable and accessible place for the benefit of Edinburgh residents and visitors all year round.”