THE massive £850 million St James project which will transform the east end of the city centre has been given the go-ahead, after councillors rejected protests over the type of stone which will be used.
The city council’s planning committee backed the plans, described as a “once in a lifetime” opportunity, by nine votes to five at a crunch meeting yesterday to the delight of developers and dismay of conservation groups.
It means the project has cleared its biggest hurdle with work to demolish the eyesore St James Centre set to begin early in the new year.
Councillor Frank Ross, convener of the economy committee who voted in favour of allowing the development to progress without delay, said it was a “hugely important” day for Edinburgh.
Developers had warned that if a condition requiring difficult-to-source sandstone rather than limestone cladding was included, it could have put the entire project at risk.
Conservationists, however, claimed that the city’s World Heritage status would ultimately be jeopardised by a decision to use “alien stone” which does not fit in with the New Town.
Once built, the development will boast 42,500 square metres of shopping space over three levels, as well as premium office space, an apart-hotel, a cinema and 138 flats with views over the city.
At its centre, an upmarket hotel will allow visitors panoramic views of Edinburgh. Retail space will double in comparison with the current St James Centre, with developers promising to catapult the Capital up to seventh in the ranking of UK shopping destinations.
It is thought the landmark project will support up to 5000 temporary and 3000 permanent jobs, and add £25m to the local economy each year.
Plans to revamp surrounding streets including Little King Street and Picardy Place were also approved, although objections were lodged over the lack of a dedicated cycle route on Leith Street, and developers were told to redraw plans for pedestrian areas around Elder Street.
Concerns had been raised over the use of limestone on the project’s facades, which was described by planners as “alien” and “detrimental” to the character of the New Town.
After a three-hour hearing specially convened to debate the issue surrounding stone, councillors agreed to grant planning permission without any restriction on the type of stone used by nine votes to five.
SNP and Conservative members joined forces to reject a plan by convener Ian Perry that would have forced developers back to the table for talks with planners until August.
Developers argued that the use of sandstone cladding was impossible, with no quarries in Europe able to supply the thousands of square metres of stone necessary within the year-long time frame for construction, despite an audit of 30 businesses. TH Real Estate also said that its plans would have to be redrawn, wasting tens of thousands of pounds spent on preparatory work.
And there were warnings that any delay to the project could scare off investors and potential tenants for its retail units, as well as extending the disruption caused during construction.
However, Marion Williams, director of conservation group the Cockburn Association, claimed that she had found a quarry near Huddersfield that could produce the necessary amount of stone, saying: “There is a way.”
Ms Williams added: “I think it’s extraordinary that anyone should suggest that asking for the correct material would put the project at jeopardy.
“If that’s been indicated, I feel we’re perhaps dealing with the wrong people. I don’t think Edinburgh should be held to ransom over its identity.”
Speaking on behalf of Edinburgh World Heritage, the body that advises the city on its UNESCO World Heritage status, trustee Jim McDonald warned that the use of limestone would “detract from the outstanding universal value” of Edinburgh’s New Town.
He pointed out that developers had trumpeted their desire to complement the architecture of the New Town. “It is therefore surprising to us that it is their intention to complete this in a material that contrasts in both appearance and provenance from the established character of that which it will form part.”
Mr McDonald added: “Moreover, the reasons provided by the applicant’s agents failed to satisfactorily explain this stance to us in terms which relate to the character and quality of the townscape.”
Councillors rejected those concerns, with local ward representative Joanna Mowat insisting that the project had to be allowed to progress as soon as possible.
Cllr Mowat said: “Everyone knows the preservation of the World Heritage site is dear to my heart.
“It is very, very clear that delivering this project is a huge enhancement on the concrete monolith that sits there now.
“[The St James Centre] squats there like an elephant above Edinburgh, and it is a detraction from the World Heritage site.
“This will be an improvement.”
Speaking after the decision, Ms Williams warned that the city would likely face a challenge to its World Heritage status once work was completed.
She said: “Sadly Edinburgh’s planning committee has decided that limestone is OK on the primary façades of the St James development against the advice of Historic Scotland, the World Heritage Trust, the planning officers and the Cockburn Association.
“All are concerned that the World Heritage status will be affected by the use of this alien stone in such a sensitive location and a development of this enormity.
“Cllr Mowat didn’t think the citizens of Edinburgh would know the difference between limestone and sandstone. Councillors clearly hold the people of Edinburgh in such low regard.
“We did our best to persuade the councillors but economic development over Edinburgh’s unique identity wins the day again.
“We could have both.”
The development has further hurdles to face, with councillors considering controversial plans for a central “ribbon” hotel featuring distinctive copper-coloured metal cladding at a meeting in August.
Developers will also be called before a hearing to decide a compulsory purchase order, a complicated legal process that has already seen the closure of the existing shopping centre to allow demolition to begin delayed from September this year into 2016.
TH Real Estate development Director Martin Perry, however, said he was pleased to have cleared the biggest hurdle. “We are absolutely delighted that the City of Edinburgh Council has backed our vision for Edinburgh St James.
“We are now focused on the next phase of our plans for this landmark development – providing Edinburgh with a brand new, vibrant and exciting place to live, visit and shop in the heart of the city.”
Economy convener Cllr Ross said it was the right decision for the Capital. “I am delighted that this hugely important development for Edinburgh can now move forward,” he said.
“The project will transform the east end of Princes Street, and the city centre as a whole, creating thousands of new jobs and greatly enhancing the Capital’s retail offering.”