HAVING built a reputation for taking on major regeneration schemes in Edinburgh, Chris Stewart is now turning his attention to Glasgow, where he hopes to make his mark on George Street.
His eponymous property development group has paid £5.1 million for a collection of buildings off the city’s iconic George Square, which will be revamped to include serviced apartments, retail units and student flats.
But after two decades in the business, why has it taken Chris Stewart Group (CSG) so long to embark on its first major project in Scotland’s biggest city?
“We’re just very selective about what we want to do,” says Stewart from his offices at Advocate’s Close in the heart of Edinburgh’s Old Town – part of a project that saw his firm pick up an International Property Award (IPA) last year for creating the world’s best commercial development.
He adds: “We’re not mainstream housebuilders and we like multi-sector city centre regeneration sites.”
The transformation of the George Street Complex – comprising seven properties, including two listed buildings – will be “complicated”, admits Stewart, but the plans have been embraced by Liz Cameron, executive member for the economy at Glasgow Council, who said in June the proposed student accommodation, serviced apartments and retail and leisure units would “meet identified needs in the city”.
Undoubtedly, any transformation of a high-profile city centre site will raise eyebrows and ruffle some feathers, as shown by the current furore over the “ribbon” hotel planned for Edinburgh’s St James district, but Stewart has been here before and knows the drill.
“This is a good example,” he says, casting an eye at view down Advocate’s Close, once a collection of steep and narrow lanes and now a busy extension of the High Street, with a new bar and restaurant as well as serviced apartments. Along with the IPA accolade, the project has been crowned the best building in Scotland by winning the RIAS Andrew Doolan Award.
“Heritage groups were not convinced by it, and if anything were a little hard on us, but now that it’s complete it is seen as an exemplar project. We now have historical bodies doing guided tours to show an example of how the old can integrate with the new.”
Stewart adds: “We’re real fans of historic buildings, and we desperately want to keep as much of that as we can, but then you have the practical considerations of how you can operate a building with commercial requirements, fire safety, acoustics and so on.”
CSG is proposing a major investment in The Registers, an area to the south-east of St Andrew Square in Edinburgh, to create a mix of offices, hotel, residential apartments and retail units. A restaurant will also appear in the art deco banking hall of the former Royal Bank of Scotland headquarters on the square, once in the possession of Vladimir Romanov. The scheme, valued at about £70 million, will involve the removal of an “ugly” link bridge across West Register Street, but the plans have caused controversy because they would see the demolition of a listed Victorian tenement to make way for offices.
“The office building will be far superior to the 1960s monster that’s there just now, and in doing that we have to sacrifice a Victorian tenement building that’s listed,” Stewart explains. “That has its challenges but we’ve gone through a process of establishing that the building isn’t in its original form and has lost the majority of its original features.”
CSG, which last year secured a “significant” cash injection from US-based investment firm Proprium Capital Partners, has also purchased Baxter’s Place, a derelict Georgian terrace building in Edinburgh neighbouring the Playhouse theatre. It is designated for a 240-bed upmarket hotel development under the Marriott Courtyard brand. Having a hotel tenant on-site can make it easier to get banking funding, although Stewart – who got into the property game after a “very short stint” studying applied mathematics at St Andrews University – says conditions have improved since the crash of 2008-09.
However, he points out that international capital is now the backbone of development funding, rather than Scotland’s domestic banks, and that poses its own risks: “If Spain or Portugal start to improve, capital could start to flow away from this country, so we need to develop and maintain an approach that can constantly attract that capital.”
Stewart, a keen skier – both on snow and water – describes Proprium as a “very positive addition” to the team, which came on board in March 2014 to invest in projects throughout Scotland and other parts of the UK.
“It’s an open-ended fund so we’re looking to build the business over the long term, sticking to what we’re good at, which is picking the projects that interest us and are of scale,” he says.
For the time being, the focus is on searching out more opportunities in Glasgow – where the firm is setting up an office – and further afield, “but not to the point where we’re stretching ourselves”. He adds: “Edinburgh and Glasgow are amazing cities. Ultimately we’d love to be doing something in London, but maybe when the market cools down. I’d never want to walk past a building of ours and be in any way disappointed by it.”
Job: Chief executive, Chris Stewart Group
Born: 1975, Weymouth
Education: St Columba’s High School, Dunfermline
Ambition while at school: To leave school and get working.
Favourite mode of transport: I like motorbikes, and buzz around town and between meetings on a Yamaha scooter
Favourite place: I love cities. Berlin is amazing and I love New York’s Lower East Side; it’s got amazing food and a gritty 70s feel.
Best thing about your job: The innovative and creative team that we have here.