DEVELOPERS trying to revive a controversial development in the heart of Edinburgh’s Old Town have been accused of treating the historic environment with “contempt” and threatening its unique character with “foreign” features out of keeping with the area.
A large swathe of land next to Waverley Station faces being turned into “Nowheresville” and dominated by a “sad collection of concrete boxes”, according to critics of the new Caltongate plans.
Edinburgh City Council, which is expected to decide on the £150 million scheme later this year, has been warned that the South African consortium behind the scheme will damage the whole nature of the Old Town if it gets the go-ahead.
Among the key areas of criticism are a continental-style public square, the creation of a “mega-pend” where historic tenements currently sit on the Canongate section of the Royal Mile, and the addition of new glass pavilions in front of existing “arches” buildings on Market Street.
The 600,000 sq ft Caltongate site - which has been at the centre of more than a decade of planning wrangles - was bought out of administration two years ago. At the time developers Artisan said the project offered “unparalleled opportunities for a high quality development that can do justice to its unique and spectacular setting.”
But the criticism for its plans - being masterminded by Edinburgh architect Allan Murray - is almost as strong as that which met a previous blueprint for the site, which would have seen the creation of a five-star hotel and conference centre facing onto the Royal Mile.
Those plans, approved by the city council in the face of huge opposition, were criticised by inspectors at world heritage body Unesco during a major inquiry into the city’s world heritage status. The new developers accepted key recommendations from the body to try to stave off a new wave of opposition.
However the Architectural Heritage Society of Scotland and the Cockburn Association, the city’s main heritage watchdog, have delivered damning verdicts on the scheme, which will see the creation of 175 new homes, several new hotels and almost 30 new shops - but involve “urban clearances” to make way for them.
The AHSS has accused a South African-led consortium of developers of trying to put “lowest-common-denominator, conveyor-belt, square-footage production” buildings on what is part of the Edinburgh World Heritage site.
The Cockburn Association has warned the city council that the plans will “impose New Town-like neo-classical spaces and buildings over the previous medieval pattern.”
James Simpson, vice-president for Scotland at ICOMOS, the UK advisory body to Unesco, said the images he had viewed of the new Caltongate plans were “totally inappropriate” for Edinburgh’s Old Town.
Tom Parnell, who has written to the council on behalf of the AHSS, said: “The proposed use of the arches facing East Market Street is perhaps the only part of the overall scheme that is to be genuinely welcomed, and we have high hopes for these.
“Unfortunately the remainder of the development shows the same level of disregard, misinterpretation, lack of ambition and indeed contempt for this important site in the Old Town conservation area as was found in the previous scheme.
“The rather sad collection of concrete boxes with veneers of architectural motif might be acceptable in out-of-town Nowheresville, but to propose this for the heart of a World Heritage Site? This is not architecture – this is lowest-common-denominator, conveyor-belt, square-footage production.
“It is inappropriate, contrary to all planning guidance on good quality architecture and in clear contravention of local plan policies.”
Mr Parnell said the developers and architects had put more effort into producing “glitzy” images of the scheme to try to impress public officials and councillors than trying to understand the history of the Canongate area.
He added: “We urge the council to look beyond misleading sales-brochure material – look at the ‘architecture’. Look at the proposed uses of the buildings. Look at how awful the whole scheme still is.”
In her submission to the council, Cockburn Association director Marion Williams states: “The unique aspect of Edinburgh’s World Heritage Site is the proximity, difference and distinctiveness of the Old and New Towns, in a relationship which exists nowhere else in the World.
“We are concerned therefore that the proposed street layout over much of the (Caltongate) site intends to impose New Town-like neo-classical spaces and buildings over the previous mediaeval pattern.
“The key space in the layout is a civic square, a feature which is foreign to the Old Town. Furthermore it is used to ‘terminate’ East Market Street, again an inappropriate conceit borrowed from the New Town.
“Fronting onto this space is an office building with a rotunda-like end-form, another neo-classical inspired design complete with shallow-pitched roof, symmetry and regular rhythm. The design philosophy could not be more inappropriate if it tried. Stitching together the fragments of the Old Town cannot be achieved by changing it into the New Town.”
Mr Simpson told The Scotsman: “These images are totally inappropriate for a site as important as this one in the Old Town and the Edinburgh World Heritage site. I don’t see much of an improvement on the previous plans at all.”
Mr Murray’s architectural practice says the Caltongate development will “bring a new vibrant place surrounded by a mix of new uses infusing new life into this important area of the city.”
His website states: “Bringing new houses and people to live back in the city centre is an important aspect of the regeneration as is its potential to attract tourists and the creation of new festival spaces.”
However the Save Our Old Town campaign, which led protests over the previous scheme, has revived its efforts, publishing posters asking: “Do we want more hotels and tourist shops for old Old Town? Do we want this horror visited on our Old Town.”
A spokesman for Artisan said: “Our planning application followed more than 18-months of in-depth consultation with local communities and stakeholders.
“We have listened to, and taken on board, a huge variety of views and opinions on the development of the site, and heard impassioned arguments relating to its unique importance, setting, heritage and community.
“We feel our planning application reflects this varied, dynamic and open consultation process and we feel we now have a proposal which balances ambitious and flexible commercial priorities with a genuine understanding of the area’s community and civic context.
“We are now delivering on our promises made when we first started this process some 18 months ago, bringing international capital investment of £150 million to the table coupled with the vision and commitment needed to complete what has already been started.”