Edinburgh’s major events set to be ousted from new-look George Street

Major events face being ousted from one of Edinburgh's most historic thoroughfares if a multi-million pound revamp goes ahead.

There are fears the city centre will be left without enough space for pop-up venues and attractions during Edinburgh’s summer and winter festivals due to new features being introduced to George Street.

The street’s proposed £36 million overhaul includes widened pavements, a cycling route through the middle of the street, and new seating and landscaping to introduce plans and hedges.

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Essential Edinburgh, which represents businesses across the New Town, says it has repeatedly warned the city council about the potential impact of the new lay-out. The city’s new Christmas festival organisers say it would be “entirely counterproductive” to create new pedestrianised spaces which are unsuitable for large-scale events.

Work on a proposed £36 million overhaul of George Street is expected to get underway in 2024.

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    George Street is widely seen as one of the few parts of the New Town which are suitable for outdoor events and pop-up venues without putting pressure on green spaces in Princes Street Gardens and St Andrew Square. However, heritage groups raised protests over plans to bring the city's festive ice rink back there this year.

    Originally introduced to East Princes Street Gardens in the late 1990s, the ice rink was previously ousted from St Andrew Square Garden due to concern over the level of damage being done The city council has also closed off a large section of the Assembly Rooms during the Fringe over the past decade to accommodate pop-up venues, stages, food stalls and bars.

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    The new vision for George Street is aimed at “transforming it from a place which is dominated by cars to one which is dominated by people”. The plan envisages George Street as a “business and cultural centre”, as well as “a key part of “Edinburgh’s unique cultural heritage.”

    Under the new proposals, work on which could get underway as early as 2024, new “clutter-free” squares would be created in front of landmark buildings like The Dome and the Assembly Rooms. Although they will be designed to accommodate temporary events, the council’s own blueprint reveals the new “flexible” design for the thoroughfare “would not support larger-scale events seen in the past”.

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    The west end of George Street was transformed by Edinburgh's festive ice rink last year. Picture: Liam Anderstrem

    It adds: “There is the option to close entire ‘blocks’ of George Street to create linear-style events, subject to council permissions. Regardless of an event’s location or proposed size, emergency vehicle access must be retained through the narrowing of the central carriageway, to a minimum legal width of 4m, which would also facilitate the needs of cyclists in future.”

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    However, Essential Edinburgh chief executive Roddy Smith said: “With wider pavements, loading restrictions, emergency access and a cycle lane, there will not be enough space for the size and scale of events we have at present.

    "I cannot see an ice rink or structures outside the Assembly Rooms being used. The space simply doesn’t allow it. With the increased pressure on our green spaces, it is a real shame. George Street was and is not perfect, but it is a very useable and effective space

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    "We have not been overly supportive of the small areas that they believe could be event spaces. They will not serve much purpose unless you can close the cycle lane running through them.”

    Work on a proposed £36 million overhaul of George Street is expected to get underway in 2024.
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    Al Thomson, director of Unique Events, which has formed a consortium with the operators of the Assembly Rooms during the Fringe to produce the Christmas festival, said: “For decades, Edinburgh has presented world-class events throughout various city centre locations, helping create global recognition as a welcoming, vibrant, festival city.

    "As the city centre landscape has evolved in recent years, suitable hard-standing areas, which are invaluable to reduce the impact of large-scale events on sensitive green space areas, have greatly diminished. It is universally recognised that outdoor events and cultural experiences are essential for attracting visitors to generate economic spend and job creation.

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    "It would seem entirely counterproductive to create new, pedestrianised open spaces, without designing these to accommodate large-scale events.”

    Hospitality industry leaders said they also had concerns about the George Street revamp, which has already been several years in the planning.

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    Work on a proposed £36 million overhaul of George Street is expected to get underway in 2024.

    Carina Contini, co-owner of Contini restaurant on George Street, said: "Is what proposed the best outcome for the steet long term and will the final cost to complete it be the best use of funds? We'll probably find the answer when it's too late."We worry about access for all our customers and we worry about the seasonality of the street. Everyone loves the Mediterranean feel in the summer but Scotland has cold winters and the orientation of George Street is perfect for getting blown away in the wind, today is a perfect example."Like many of the traders, we are very concerned about the time the project will take, who will pay for the final bill (which inevitably will be more) and the vital need for financial support for traders who will feel the full effect of the inevitable disruption. Some will not survive."Louise Maclean, business development director at the Signature Group, which runs several New Town bars, said: "Where can we hold events in the capital? What is the plan?"Community tourism is vital for the economy and vitality of the city - Edinburgh is a community and tourism isn’t a dirty world."Edinburgh’s business plan and model won’t stack up without making the city more attractive and vibrant to visit. Edinburgh cannot become a mausoleum. Where’s the creativity, the innovation in how to engage the residents and attract footfall to the city to promote sustainable growth?"

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    Scott Arthur, the city council's transport convenor, said: “The project builds on years of engagement with a range of stakeholders, and the wider public, to develop proposals which benefit all those who live in, work in and visit the city. Balancing the First New Town’s cultural heritage with the needs of businesses, as well as creating a safe, accessible space for all those travelling to and spending time in the area, is central to the scheme.

    "As we move on to the next stage in the design process, and as the operational plan is progressed, we will continue to refine these elements, in close liaison with interested parties. Events are a really important part of George Street’s character and the flexibility of the design allows for this to continue.”

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    George Street has previously been used for Edinburgh's Hogmanay festival.
    Edinburgh's festive ice rink was relocated to George Street last year. Picture: Liam Anderstrem
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    Work on a proposed £36 million overhaul of George Street is expected to get underway in 2024.