OIL tycoon Sir Ian Wood today held out a new olive branch in a bid to finally secure funding for a transformational scheme to breathe new life into the heart of Aberdeen’s city centre.
Three months ago Sir Ian put his pledge of a £50 million gift towards the redevelopment of the city centre back on the table a year after the controversial £140 million scheme to transform the city’s Victoria n Union Terrace Gardens was thrown out by the Labour-led coalition administration.
The billionaire businessman pledged that he would deliver on his donation towards the regeneration of Europe’s oil capital - provided Aberdeen City Council came up with a new project to transform the heart of the city by the end of the year.
Today, in a fresh move which followed the publication of new plans by local architect John Halliday to redesign the historic park, Sir Ian has told the city council that he is willing to work with them on a revised scheme in which the “main visual features” of the Victorian gardens could be maintained.
He has indicated that he would willing to invest in a scheme if the council were to look at amending the Halliday plan to include raising the west side and Union Street end of the gardens.
A spokeswoman for Sir Ian said: “The original intention of pledging Wood Family Trust funds was to help bring about the much-needed transformation of Aberdeen city centre through the creation of a vibrant, new heart with accessible, attractive indoor and outdoor space for everyone to use and enjoy. Throughout the various stages, project iterations and, at times, heated debate this has not changed.
“Such a transformational project must be an integral part of the city centre, fully connecting its disparate elements, pulling together Union Square and Union Street and revitalising our main street, heritage and surrounding areas through excellent design and increased footfall.”
She continued: “The concept of covering the road and railway and leaving the gardens largely as they are has been discussed at various times but Sir Ian does not believe that this would provide a major transformation that is fully integrated into the city centre.
“However, he does believe it is possible to cover the road and railway and then raise the gardens to the level of the existing arches on the west side and to the level of the raised decking over the road and railway and Belmont Street on the east. This would make them accessible and permeable from the adjacent streets and ensure the whole area becomes an integral part of the new city centre heart, with walk on access virtually all the way round. Some sloping topography would be respected with the level difference between Union Terrace and the arches with easy step access from Union Terrace and Rosemount Viaduct.”
She continued: “The main visual features of the Victorian gardens could be maintained but as a more useable, accessible part of the city centre, helping regenerate Union Street and connecting north-south and east-west. “
The spokeswoman continued: “For a city centre regeneration project to secure Wood Family Trust funds it must be truly transformational as described above, supported by the public and led by the City Council. If the council were to explore a development on this basis, they would be prepared to provide appropriate funding support. Hopefully a Government tax incremental financing (TIF) scheme might also be available.”
The Conservative group on the council’s rainbow coalition immediately welcomed Sir Ian’s comments and suggested that the tycoon be invited to join a proposed City Centre Regeneration board where he would be in a position to make a “significant and lasting contribution.”
Councillor Ross Thomson, the group’s secretary said: “The Conservative Group on Aberdeen City Council have been long time champions of City centre regeneration and were passionate advocates of the City Garden Project. he group has always placed significant weight on the thoughts, ideas and aspirations outlined by Sir Ian and will continue to do so.”
He continued: “We are extremely pleased at the positive dialogue between the Wood Family Trust and the authority and we are optimistic this will continue.John Halliday has brought to us an interesting and exciting plan for Union Terrace Gardens. His concept has sparked positive debate and discussion which has helped mend a substantial divide between previous supporters and opponents of the City Garden Project.
“Mr Halliday has helped bring a new tone to the debate which is in the interests of the city of Aberdeen. Conservatives are committed to restoring the heart of Aberdeen and we recognise that it will be achieved by bringing the city together over plans for regeneration.”
Councillor Willie Young, the Labour group’s finance spokesman said: “I think we have an opportunity at last for Sir Ian Wood and others, such as Aberdeen City Council, the business community and indeed the public to come together on Union Terrace Gardens. And I think it is something the public will warmly welcome.”
Sir Ian states in his letter to Valerie Watts, the council’s chief executive: “Wood Family Trust and indeed many, many citizens in Aberdeen, believe the transformation opportunity is to create a new heart which is integral to the city centre, fully connecting its current disparate elements including Union Square.
“In line with the layout proposed in Mr Halliday’s conceptual plan, the kind of transformational proposals that would achieve this is to cover the roadway and railway and then raise the gardens significantly to the level of the existing arches on the west side and to the level of the raised decking over the roadway and railway, and Belmont Street, on the east, which would make them accessible and permeable from the adjacent streets and establish this as an integral part of the new city heart, with walk on access virtually all the way round.
“The main visual features of the traditional Victorian gardens could also be maintained, but it has to meet the concept of the integrated hearty to the city.”