Dramatic plans to overhaul one of the Capital’s most historic streets and create a new performance space outside the National Museum of Scotland are set to be given the go-ahead.
A major public plaza is to be built in Chambers Street, which museum bosses said would “breathe new life” into the area and provide a stage for outdoor theatre and music.
A new statue of the Scottish architect William Henry Playfair will also be erected to stand alongside an existing monument to the publisher and scientist William Chambers – one of Edinburgh’s best-known Lord Provosts.
But fears have been raised for drivers after it emerged dozens of parking spaces will be axed under the plans, due to be considered by city planners this week.
NMS director Gordon Rintoul said: “The museum is one of the finest Victorian buildings in Britain, but it’s hemmed in by parking and the street is a cut-through for drivers. This project is about breathing new life into Chambers Street and creating quality public space.”
Submitted by Edinburgh University and backed by NMS bosses, the project will see a major section of the museum’s Caithness paving extended north into Chambers Street, creating a pedestrianised plaza and leading to the loss of 39 parking bays.
The statues of Chambers and Playfair will be located within the new space, with existing lampposts set to be relocated.
Mr Rintoul said: “All major cities have a quality public realm and what this proposal will do is vastly improve Chambers Street for the benefit of the public and will make for a far better setting for the NMS. In other major European cities, a building like ours would always have a public presence out the front. What this plan amounts to is the creation of a new square – a focal point for the area and the city.”
But motorist campaigners criticised project leaders and city planners for not doing enough to include relief parking.
Neil Greig, director of policy at the Institute of Advanced Motorists, said: “Nearly 40 spaces is a big number to lose, and if the area is made more attractive more people will come in and they could well be in cars, so they need to find a strategy to fund parking elsewhere in Edinburgh.
“In order to compensate for the loss of parking, the first thing they need to do is look at the surrounding space in the area to see if more space can be eked out.
“Maybe they should be looking along the lines of creating a shared space, rather than clearing it of parking completely.”
Architects rejected the criticisms, however, and said the plans would reverse decades of damage done to Chambers Street by rising traffic levels.
Gordon Gibb, of architects Gareth Hoskins, said: “This project came from a long-standing view that car parking was to the detriment of the street. As well as providing a more appealing site for the National Museum, the council and the museum have the aspiration that the space will be used for public events during the science festival, and even the Fringe potentially. That’s the kind of space we’ve designed. One that’s flexible and not filled with street furniture.”
A spokesman for Edinburgh University said the addition of a statue of William Playfair would provide a fitting celebration of the architect’s contribution to the Capital’s cityscape.
Achievements of Street’s namesake
William Chambers was one of the most influential figures in Scottish science and politics in the 19th century.
Born on April 16, 1800, he founded W&R Chambers Publishers in 1832 and was a keen advocate of popular education.
His firm was a pioneer in the use of new publishing technology to make print available cheaply.
Among the company’s most famous publications were the Gazetteer of Scotland and the Chambers’ Encyclopaedia.
As Lord Provost of Edinburgh from 1865 to 1869, Chambers was responsible for the restoration of St Giles Cathedral and other major city developments.
Chambers Street was named in his honour in 1867 and a statue of him was also erected, created by local sculptor John Rhind.
William Henry Playfair, born on July 15, 1790, was one of the greatest Scottish architects of the 19th century.
He designed many of the Capital’s neoclassical landmarks, including the National Gallery of Scotland and Royal Scottish Academy buildings, the unfinished National Monument (dubbed Edinburgh’s Disgrace) and major New Town streets such as Royal Circus and Regent Terrace.