£40 million Cowgate blaze site overhaul set to start

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WORK on a £40 million redevelopment of the Cowgate fire site is set to finally get under way later this year after the scheme passed its first planning hurdle.

Council officials have recommended the controversial scheme – which includes a 200-bedroom hotel, festival venue, shops and glass walkways – be given the go-ahead.

The project, dubbed SoCo by the developers, would also include a business centre, a new home for the former La Belle Angele nightclub and two new pends and courtyards.

Council planners have attached a number of conditions to approval being given, including asking the Edinburgh-based developer, Whiteburn Projects, to lower the height of a "tower" rising up from the Cowgate which will house hotel bedrooms.

Planners are also adamant that plans to clad the tower in timber are not in keeping with the Old Town, while developers are being told to reduce the amount of glass in the linking corridors, and come up with a plan to protect the hotel bedrooms from the noise of the new nightclub.

It has now been more than six years since the major fire ripped through the heart of the Old Town, and the development proposals for the site have attracted a raft of criticism.

Heritage groups such as the Cockburn Association and Edinburgh World Heritage and figures including author Alexander McCall Smith have raised concerns about the height and frontage of the hotel on to South Bridge.

Councillors will discuss the planning application next week and it is thought construction would take around two years.

Community groups have maintained opposition to the plans.

The Old Town Community Council submitted objections based on the design of the complex and fears of increased antisocial behaviour.

It stated: "It is highly questionable, given the orientation of the site, the location of the proposed courtyards and their neighbouring uses, that the development will deliver a safe and pleasant public realm.

"It is more likely to create spaces which will lead to (the] noise and disturbance associated with adjoining licensed uses and attract antisocial behaviour problems."

But business and planning chiefs today welcomed the SoCo development as an "appropriate response to a difficult site".

Ron Hewitt, chief executive of the Edinburgh Chamber of Commerce, said: "The SoCo development is clearly significant to the city as a whole and the regeneration of this site will play an important role in improving Edinburgh's hotel offering, increasing tourism spend and delivering much needed jobs."

The new development is mainly accessed from South Bridge, but there is some access from the Cowgate.

John Bury, the council's head of planning, said it would not have any adverse impact on the value of the World Heritage Site, and added: "The proposals have drawn on the key elements of the traditional street pattern. The proposed design is an appropriate response to a difficult site."