John McLellan: Disaster movie in the making down Picardy Place way

The Filmhouse showing the classic Christmas weepie It's a Wonderful Life is a festive tradition in itself, and word reaches me of what promises to be a wonderful new life for the ever-popular Lothian Road cinema.

By The Newsroom
Thursday, 28th December 2017, 10:54 am
Updated Thursday, 28th December 2017, 10:59 am
The Filmhouse's screening of It's A Wonderful Life is a long-standing festive tradition
The Filmhouse's screening of It's A Wonderful Life is a long-standing festive tradition

It involves a new home near the Omni Centre multiplex to create a new hub for cinema, along with the movie theatre planned for the new St James Centre. Being close to the site of the studios used by Victorian photography pioneer David Octavius Hill and just up the road from the Portrait Gallery it could develop into a focal point for the visual arts.

The Filmhouse has been looking for a new home for years now and an ambitious design near its current base in 2004 came to nothing, despite support from Sir Sean Connery and a showcase at the international arts festival in Venice.

The latest plan also involved the funky Dutch-based hotel operator, citizenM, with its ambient multi-coloured lighting in every room controlled by a “mood-pad”.

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But there is a problem – the site is the enlarged space between York Place and the Playhouse which was to be created by the reconfiguration of the Picardy Place junction.

The Filmhouse concept was not ready to be revealed when the traffic plan was published in September, but given there had been a consultation, plans had been agreed, and contracts for the road alterations signed there was no reason to think the agreed lay-out would not go ahead.

Having welcomed the plans, transport convener Lesley McInnes came under instant pressure from the bicycle lobby and their Green Party proxies and immediately ordered a new consultation, the result of which is a hotch-potch which breaks up the public space, destroys the development opportunity and makes cycling across the junction more difficult.

So the Filmouse scheme has been blown out the water just as it was about to be floated, but worse, it will cost the council an extra £6m because it rips up binding agreements and needs more design and construction work.

Then there is the impact on investors behind the whole regeneration project, now bewildered and questioning the reliability of the council’s deal-making. It’s hardly the kind of reputation an international city wants to project.

Caught in the middle is an administration which, in the midst of the shocking revelations of the tram inquiry, needs to show it can manage big deals but which is in a thrall to a minority party which, it seems, only has to snap its fingers to wreck an important project.

Yet there is an expectation in some quarters that the St James developers and their partners should just pick up the tab, the same head-in-the-sand approach which ended up doubling the cost of the tram project.

There is also a view that Edinburgh is a beautiful place with lots to offer, so investors will simply trouser up because, well, why wouldn’t they? Well, they won’t if they think the people with whom they are dealing can’t deliver what they promise.

Picardy Place has become a battle-ground between development and investment on one side and a single-issue pressure group on the other. What’s left will be a monument to weakness and indecision, so maybe the useless central reservation should be renamed Fantasy Island.