Will St James plans ever be set in stone?

St James Square designs. Picture: Contributed
St James Square designs. Picture: Contributed
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It’s one of the biggest planning decisions to face the Capital for decades.

The £850 million redevelopment of the St James Quarter has the potential to transform the city centre, establishing it as one of the UK’s top shopping destinations. Yet instead of traffic flow, retail impact or even the architectural merits of the new building, the debate tomorrow at which city councillors will decide the project’s immediate fate will hinge on one thing – the kind of stone that will be used to build it.

If councillors fail to back developers’ plans to use limestone cladding branded “alien” by city planning officials, the massive investment in one of the most neglected corners of the city centre will be thrown into disarray.

Conservationists are stark in their warnings, saying that unless a specially convened planning hearing insists that developers use the yellow sandstone that gives the New Town its mellow hue, the St James redevelopment will destroy the city’s architectural identity and spoil its historic appearance.

Hanging in the balance is the future of one of the biggest ongoing regeneration projects in Britain, the likes of which has not been seen in the Capital since tenements on the same site were pulled down 50 years ago to make way for the St James Centre.

More than just the bricks and mortar, stone and concrete, commentators say the debate is about how Edinburgh sees itself, whether its priority is respecting and preserving its heritage above all else, or whether it sees turning the Capital into a global destination with top class facilities as an equal and complementary priority.

Councillors are being advised by their planning officials to back the giant retail development – but only on condition that plans to clad it in limestone are scrapped. They are suggesting alternatives including a mixture of sandstone and limestone which risks creating its own problems.

Developers TH Real Estate say that sandstone is too expensive, too heavy and impossible to source in sufficient quantity and quality to obtain the 20,000sq m of cladding needed to cover the bulk of the development.

Geologists confirm that geting sandstone on such a scale is “very difficult”. Colin Smith, the consultant seen as city chief executive Sue Bruce’s “fixer”, has briefed councillors that it would take 20 years to supply the amount of sandstone required from a single UK quarry and no European quarry could guarantee a supply large enough and of consistent enough quality. On the other hand, quarries in Bavaria can supply enough Jura limestone to meet the demands of the project.

There are doubts about whether a hybrid could be formed, with the Stone Federation of Great Britain warning that limestone can stain sandstone placed beneath it.

What isn’t widely disputed is the way Edinburgh St James would reshape the city as a shopping and leisure destination. As well as bringing top fashion brands to the Capital, Edinburgh St James promises to become a major employer, supporting 2,300 jobs. Its annual contribution to the city economy has been estimated at £25m.

For some, the fact that the debate has focused on such detail misses the point. Richard Williams, the outspoken Edinburgh University professor of visual cultures, said the focus on the colour of stone was “terribly effete”.

He said: “This is the biggest development in central Edinburgh for a generation. It may last for a hundred years or more. It tells you a lot about the peculiar way decisions are made in Edinburgh that the main issue seems to be the way its stonework will weather.

“Not what this massive development is, or what it’s for, or who it’s for, or what image of the city it presents to the outside world.”

If a call from planners to reject the use of limestone is agreed at tomorrow’s crunch meeting, TH Real Estate development director Martin Perry says the scheme will have to go back to the drawing board. That is likely to mean several months of delay and uncertainty.

Mr Perry welcomed the opportunity to make his case, but said planning officials had “blindsided” the firm with their objection after a year of pre-application talks.

He said: “I’m pleased with what [planning convener] Ian Perry has decided to do, in holding a hearing. That’s the right way to go about it. At the end of the day, for us this is an £850m-plus investment in a World Heritage site. You don’t make last-minute proposals like that, that you expect people to accept. This is a significant problem.

“I am prepared to compromise, but not without being able to go through the exercise properly.”

Councillors will also hear from critics, including the New Town and Broughton Community Council, cycling group Spokes, Edinburgh World Heritage and the Cockburn Association, whose director Marion Williams says limestone belongs in south England.

“Why do we need to start importing materials that will make a humdrum shopping centre ‘stand-out’,” she said. “Shouldn’t this building, a whole quarter of Edinburgh and smack in the middle of a World Heritage Site, be ‘fitting in’?”

In the debate over what material modern Edinburgh should be built with, it is the council that has cast one of the first stones. Its headquarters at Waverley Court was built with limestone cladding, after council leaders opted for the more affordable material.

However, a council spokesman suggested Waverley Court should not be used as a precedent, saying: “Waverley Court is situated in the Old Town where there are a wide variety of coverings used for buildings. The St James Centre is in the New Town, which is predominantly sandstone.”

Several buildings in the New Town, both historic and modern, also break the sandstone tradition, including the Caledonian Hotel, built in red sandstone, the Royal Society of Edinburgh’s George Street home, which is built with the same Portland limestone as Buckingham Palace, and the limestone Atria extension to the Edinburgh International Conference Centre.