Brian Ferguson: Compromise key to Caltongate development
THERE were many striking moments at the first open session roadshow held by Creative Scotland in Dundee on Friday, but the one that stuck in the head was the questioning of the idea that “sustainable economic growth” should underpin everything the quango does and the bodies it funds.
Clive Gillman, director of Dundee Contemporary Arts, offered a devastating destruction of many of the quango’s founding principles, including that central purpose of the Scottish Government.
He told the audience: “I am not interested in chasing economic growth to the expense of everything else that we do.”
It certainly put down a significant marker in a debate I suspect will have many a civil servant and politician ducking for cover over the next few weeks, when the roadshow heads around the country.
There was also something both ironic and thought-provoking in the issue being publicly raised a couple of days after a new chapter unfolded in the annals of Edinburgh’s planning wrangles.
The glaring gap site ringfenced for the “Caltongate” development is hard to avoid. It’s visible from many notable landmarks and a depressing sight on Calton Road, New Street and the east end of Market Street – right opposite the headquarters of Edinburgh City Council.
An incredible four years on from the collapse of the previous developer, the site’s new owners have returned from the drawing board with a scaled-back scheme without the most contentious elements.
Hopes that the area will soon become home to a significant new culture quarter and major new public square are intact. New through routes from the Royal Mile to Calton Road are still on the cards. New cafes, bars and restaurants may finally breath life into a largely-forgotten part of the city.
But, crucially, the threat of demolition of a listed building at the heart of disputes with conservation bodies and local residents appears to have been lifted. Other domineering buildings have been scaled back and key “Athens of the North” views, which would have been affected, are also now protected.
Most significantly of all, a five-star hotel is no longer the lynchpin of the entire project.
The key question is whether this development could actually have been completed by now had the city’s planners and senior politicians persuaded the previous developers to seek compromise six or seven years ago, when the wrangling was it its height.
I’ve always felt slightly cheered by the thought that the close proximity of the gap site to the local authority headquarters was an appropriate monument to the folly of its dogged support of the development in the face of widespread opposition and international protests.
Caltongate came to represent much of what was wrong about how the city was being run at the time when it came to major developments. It appeared such grandiose schemes had to be given the go-ahead at all costs and there was huge pressure on the city’s planning committee to set aside objections, no matter how weighty. Much mud was thrown at opponents at this time. Conservation and heritage were seen as dirty words.
It is instructive to look back at some of the other pet projects from this era and see where they are now. Haymarket – not a brick laid. St James Centre replacement – detailed plans never brought forward. Quartermile – nowhere near completion. Waterfront – how long have you got?
Instead of remaining independent adjudicators, the local authority acted as enthusiastic cheerleaders for Caltongate – even after the previous developer went into administration and Unesco inspectors demanded significant changes.
To be fair to Artisan, the new owners of the site, they appear to have recognised the need for compromise, even if the commercial property market has probably played a bigger part in shaping its plans. I also suspect the council has been gently persuading the developer to appease the critics without holding up the project - perhaps finally recognising the economic realities surrounding the site.
Around 12 years on from the first plans for the site emerging, the brutal reality is that five-star hotel operators have not been falling over themselves to come to Edinburgh in recent years. Budget hotel developments, in sharp contrast, are now ten-a-penny in the city.
But with careful scrutiny of the new Caltongate plans by the council, a touch of pragmatism from previous critics and a conciliatory approach from the new developers we could soon see welcome progress on what has been a seemingly-endless saga.
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