Odeon saga set to run and run
IT has become the great stalemate of Southside.
• An artist's impression of Alan Scobie's plans
The former Odeon cinema, once the pride of the area, is at the heart of a protracted struggle over competing visions for its future. And while the fight goes on, the building sits empty behind boarded-up doors.
Owner, developer Duddingston House Properties (DHP), says the Art Deco, B-listed auditorium is too large and inflexible to pay its way if it is brought back into use. The firm has applied for listed building consent to demolish the auditorium, hopes to put a new hotel block in its place and restore the existing facade, lobby, restaurant and crush hall.
Others, including local campaigners and rival developers, insist that the building could and should be fully restored as part of a viable business. Even the conservation groups appear divided - Historic Scotland successfully lobbied for DHP's plans to be called in by the Scottish Government, but in the ensuing inquiry, The Cockburn Association wrote in support of the hotel plan.
How did it all get so complicated?
There are two key issues. The Scottish Historic Environment Policy requires that for permission to be given to demolish, the authorities must be satisfied that: "The repair of the building is not economically viable and that it has been marketed at a price reflecting its location and condition to potential restoring purchasers for a reasonable period."
A FAIR PRICE TO PAY?
In May last year, to test the second of these conditions, the Scottish Government Reporter ordered a fresh sales push for the building in the hope of finding someone who would restore and operate it without any demolition.
Three parties bid to purchase the building, though none came close to reaching DHP's 2.93 million valuation, or its reduced, subsequent offer of 2.5m.
The New Victoria group bid 600,000 with hopes of retaining the cinema and providing a multi-use arts venue with community space. The Elim Pentecostal Church, which has restored and runs a commercial cinema in London (see panel), bid 1.45m for a plan to turn the auditorium into a church and rentable space, with a community venue, theatre, cinema, coffee shop, and flats. In a surprise move, Elim's project manager, Alan Scobie, also submitted his own private bid for 1.6m to turn the auditorium into a multi-purpose events venue, in addition to two cinema screens, a restaurant/bar and flats or student accommodation at the rear.
A fourth bidder, JD Wetherspoon, inquired about leasing the building to turn it into a pub, but this was discounted on the grounds that a suitable licence was unlikely to be granted.
With all three potential purchasers falling well short of the 2.93m valuation, the price tag has been controversial.
DHP insists its valuation was properly and fairly compiled by real estate firm Colliers International, based on comparisons with similar properties and arrived at in accordance with standard industry methods. A revised valuation was carried out in February taking into account the need for maintenance work on the building, which put the price at 2.83m.
DHP director Bruce Hare says that, despite criticism, no-one has had the conviction to challenge the valuation officially or propose a different methodology. He says: "One individual (at the council] has said 'I don't know that I agree with that'. The answer is - 'Are you a surveyor? Are you willing to challenge it? Do the council want to challenge Colliers' valuation?' and the answer to that so far is no."
He adds: "Like any other commodity, you've got to have a series of rules that are set down on how you undertake valuation of that commodity, whether it's beans or property. Valuations are a fundamental part of property investment. Are we therefore saying that for some reason - sentimental reasons is the only one I can come up with - that we should value this building differently? If that's so, what you're undermining are the fundamental rules of how property works."
Hilary McDowell, chairwoman of Southside Community Council, which has led the campaign to see the whole building restored, sees it differently. "A property is worth what somebody is prepared to pay for it, it's not worth what you want," she insists.
To which Mr Hare responds: "If you're selling your house and I say I'll offer you 45 per cent and say that's what it's worth, you're not going to be obliged to accept it."
COULD IT PAY ITS WAY?
To give the go-ahead for demolition, authorities must also be convinced that restoration is not economically viable.
DHP says it has looked at every use of the auditorium that would be allowed by planners and none are sustainable. It points to the number of venues already existing in the city and says there is already over-capacity, with planning permission recently granted for cinema screens at nearby Cameron Toll. Mr Hare also says that proposals that involve the restoration of the entire building fail to take account of the cost of doing that, which he estimates as 10m.
The bidders insist otherwise.
Mr Scobie says: "I'd done the market research and it pointed to the viability of a cinema there. We had done research and we were aware of the Cameron Toll proposal, but nevertheless all the market research was convincing us that there's room for a cinema in that location. I don't think anyone was suggesting it could have been what it was, with five screens, but two screens would have pulled in the income to make it work."
Operations manager for the New Victoria project, Sarah Colquhoun, left, agrees: "There's clearly space for a venue like this and there are a number of amateur theatre groups, live performances, music, cabaret performances - there are so many different things that you can use a stage and space for, as well as conferencing, lectures.
"We've done a lot of market research and we've been speaking to a wide range of different operators to see what Edinburgh really needs."
Ms McDowell adds: "It's up to the bidders to make it make money. If they've done their research, and they assure me they have, I don't see why it shouldn't. There are lots of people who don't like multiplexes who will only go to the Cameo or the Dominion, who would love to go to the Odeon."
WHAT HAPPENS NEXT?
As the Evening News reported earlier this week, the city council has said in a letter to Shirley-Anne Somerville MSP, that planning permission for the scheme is not in place, because it was subject to a legal agreement which has not been concluded. It has yet to rule on a recent application for listed building consent for the demolition of the auditorium.
Mr Hare says he is convinced that planning permission is in place, but if the council sticks to its guns, he is more likely to simply re-apply than to fight it in court. He says: "Legal opinion has been taken and we're sure of our ground. We want to work with people, not have to fight our corner. I don't know that in a practical sense it would make sense (to go to court]. Judicial review would take nine months - it's going to be in front of a planning committee before that."
As for listed building consent, with campaigners predicting that hundreds of letters of objection will be submitted, it could take a brave planner to give the green light.
Ms McDowell is clear on what she hopes will happen. "My wish is that they just say 'We're not going to get listed building consent' and sell it to one of the three bidders and then let them get on with it," she says.
Mr Scobie and The New Victoria group both say they still have an interest in the building and are awaiting the outcome of the listed building consent hearing. Elim Pentecostal Church could not be contacted for comment.
Despite the protracted negotiations, Mr Hare says he has no regrets about buying the building and no plans to give up and offload it at a cheaper price.
Another option has been mooted in whispers, although no-one seems willing to talk about it on the record. Could the council buy the building via a compulsory purchase order, and run it, sell it on, or lease it to another operator?
In the current financial climate, it seems unlikely the council would be willing to take a financial hit on the building, and a council spokesman would only say today: "Duddingston House Properties has submitted an application for the former Odeon cinema, which will be dealt with through the normal planning process. There are currently no grounds for the council to consider a CPO."
So whether this remains a serious possibility or wishful thinking by those who want a different use for the building is unclear.
In fact, seven-and-a-half years after it projected its last film, only one thing seems certain about the Odeon - it's a drama of epic proportions.
THE BIG PICTURE
The New Victoria Cinema opened in 1930 and in subsequent years welcomed VIPs including the Queen and Princess Margaret, Sean Connery Michael Caine and Ewan McGregor. It was renamed the Odeon around 1965 and in 1982 was subdivided into several smaller screens. In January 2003 it was bought by DHP and it closed that August. DHP held an architectural competition with an open brief, which resulted in proposals ranging from student accommodation to art workshops. It worked on a joint application with the University of Edinburgh for post-graduate accommodation and performance space, but withdrew because of objections to the plan. Two and a half years ago planners considered granting consent for DHP's hotel scheme, subject to a legal agreement involving the company paying around 20,000 towards transport infrastructure. DHP says it tried to pay the money in January and it was returned by the council, which said circumstances had changed. In February it applied for listed building consent to demolish the auditorium, which has yet to be determined by the council.
THE struggle to find a future for the Odeon is far from unique. In the first half of the century, picture palaces sprang up all over the country, but as television arrived and car use increased, audiences declined or decided they would prefer to drive to out-of-town multiplexes.
One by one, the vast, often elaborate, auditoriums were first sub-divided, then closed. The Cinema Theatre Association, set up in the 1960s to draw public attention to the loss of these buildings, currently lists 12 cinemas around the UK, including the New Victoria/Odeon, as being "at risk".
Edinburgh's listed cinemas have faced a range of fates, from the bingo hall conversion of the Portobello George to the arrival of the Destiny Church at the former New Tivoli in Gorgie Road. In 2005, plans to sell the Cameo for redevelopment were shelved after a public campaign.
Around the country, some cinemas have been demolished, while others have been turned into bars, flats or entertainment venues. Scotland's first custom-built cinema, the A-Listed Hippodrome (pictured) in Bo'ness, reopened in 2009 after a revamp costing more than 1.8 million, funded by backers including the local authority, the Heritage Lottery Fund and Historic Scotland.
Elim Pentecostal Church, which bid for Edinburgh's Odeon, already runs the Coronet Cinema in London's Notting Hill. It purchased the ailing cinema in 2004 and closed it for a week, raising fears that it would be turned into a church, but it now operates as a commercial cinema.
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