AN URBAN regeneration project in the Scottish capital has been given the go-ahead after more than a decade of controversy and planning hurdles.
The Caltongate site will see a £150 million leisure, retail and office development covering a total area of around 220,000 sq ft built on a derelict five-acre gap site central Edinburgh.
South African backers Artisan Real Estate Investors were narrowly granted permission for the project at the City Chambers, with councillors split at eight votes to six.
Artisan said it would begin construction of the site behind Edinburgh Waverley Station this summer with the first of the buildings on the site ready by around Christmas 2015. It will create about 2,000 jobs.
‘Vibrant, exciting place to live, work and play’
Lukas Nakos, the firm’s CEO, told The Scotsman after the decision: “Our purpose is to create a place for local residents and people who are visiting the city to meet, eat and really enjoy what Edinburgh has to offer.
“We’re going to create a vibrant, exciting new place to live, work and play, and I’m very much looking forward to delivering that now.”
Best-selling author Alexander McCall Smith had been among the vocal critics of the project, warning of the consequences for the city ahead of the decision yesterday, while fellow novelist Candia McWilliam described it as “torpid, tactless”.
“How can we destroy the very thing that brings people from all over the world to Edinburgh?”, Mr McCall Smith said.
“How can we allow inappropriate and ugly developments when there are plenty of constructive ways of regenerating old areas? How can those in charge of these matters ignore the chorus of well argued and concerned criticism of such plans?
“The Old Town is one of the great glories of Scotland, indeed of Europe.”
Among the complaints was the impact of modern buildings within the UNESCO World Heritage Site.
Euan Leitch, representing the Architectural Heritage Society of Scotland, told the committee that Caltongate will look like Edinburgh Park, the steel and glass office development near Edinburgh Airport.
“How many of you enjoy a stroll round there?”, he asked councillors on the planning committee, adding that the quarter would struggle to attract custom from city residents.
Marco Biagi, the Edinburgh Central MSP, was heavily critical of the design, adding: “In 20 years people will probably look back on Caltongate as they do on the St James Centre”, in reference to the city’s ‘brutalist’ 1960s shopping centre.
Local residents had also criticised the provision for housing, highlighting the fact that only 185 housing units, including 40 in the ‘affordable’ category, would be built in such a large site.
Edinburgh MP Sheila Gilmore said: “The Caltongate site will be built into a bland haven for office workers and tourists staying at budget hotels delivering short-lived bursts of vitality before they all head off home.
“Old Town residents wanted more housing, to see the community grow and take ownership of any new district. With only 185 apartments being built on a 5-acre site means that any growth in the community will be minimal.”
“Development at this site is much needed, but these plans have been waved through regardless of the fact it is within our World Heritage Site.
“Bland, square blocked building with flat roofs, the offices and hotels will bear no likeness to the organic medieval architecture of the Canongate and could be any site, in any city across the country.
“It certainly seems current planning policies fail to serve local communities.”
Councillor Ian Perry, the city’s planning leader, was booed from the packed public gallery at one stage when he said that the scheme was “good enough” to be approved. His own deputy Sandy Howat voted against approval.
£6.5m civic square
Caltongate will be centred around a £6.5 million civic square. It will also feature a five-star hotel along with two budget hotels, a 128-room Premier Inn and a 130-room Hub by Premier Inn, which features micro-rooms like those found in Japan.
Mr Perry said after the vote: “Clearly that was a difficult decision, this is a very controversial site. And how we [as a council] looked at this has been controversial.
“We’ve agreed it should be a mixed development. The residents didn’t like that and wanted housing, but I’m afraid that’s the way in which we set out the masterplan in the first place.
“And in terms of the design, it’s modern and that’s the problem, you won’t get agreement on modern design. I think this design fits in well and when it’s built people will see that.”
He added: “The economic benefit of this new development is huge and is estimated to bring in £43m to the local economy each year, as well as creating almost 2,000 jobs.”
Marc Finney, director of Hotels International with Colliers International, who spearheaded last month’s deal to bring two of the three hotels to the site, said he anticipated great interest in the site, adding: “This reaffirms the confidence and positive outlook for Caltongate.”