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Portobello Town Hall has been a feature of the High Street since 1914, when the building was constructed to mark Portobello officially becoming a part of Edinburgh.
The building comprises a main hall with an ornate barrelled ceiling and surrounding balconies, capable of hosting approximately 450 people, together with a lesser hall with capacity for a further 60 people.
The most recent use of the hall was as a venue made available for hire through Edinburgh City Council’s Libraries Service, but following a concerning safety report in April 2019, which listed ‘major defects’ that would require over £1m to fix, the venue was closed the following July.
A council report into the building’s condition reads: “As hairline cracks were emerging in the ceiling area above the stage and balcony, a separate specialist inspection of the ceiling was also carried out.
“Initially, as a precautionary measure, netting was erected above the stage to allow planned events to take place.
“That initial inspection recommended that a further closer tactile specialist inspection was carried out, which, due to the height of the hall and need for scaffolding, required the closure of the hall for a period to allow the survey to take place.
“Based on the outcome of the specialist survey and as a result of health and safety concerns with the ornate vaulted ceiling, the decision was taken to close the venue in July 2019.
“The council has no allocated capital budget to meet the costs of repair.”
Since then, the hall has been on the market, and although several enquiries have been received, only two bids have emerged.
One is from Portobello Central Ltd, a not-for-profit community organisation formed by members of the Portobello community to prepare a proposal to the council in response to its call for proposals for Portobello Town Hall.
Their plan is to take over the operation of Portobello Town Hall under an informal agreement with the council from September 2021, when it will undertake an assessment of the works required for safe public use, before hopefully opening the town hall for business from April 1 2022.
Eventually, the building would be transferred to a Scottish Charitable Incorporated Organisation, set up for the purpose of running the hall, with a board of trustees elected by the community.
A second bid has been received from Mr Valerio Lo Coco, of Dundas Street, whose company Native Wines intends to turn the building into a food market, consisting of stalls for the sale of fresh local produce, street food, drinks, craft and natural products.
The proposal seeks a 20-year full repairing and insuring lease with three-years rent free and a rent of £60,000 per annum subject to planning and building warrant consents.
A decision on the building is due to be made by the council at a meeting of its finance committee on Thursday May 20, and council officers are recommending councillors choose the bid from the community organisation.
A report, sent to councillors ahead of the meeting, reads: “If the bid from Portobello Central Ltd was a formal Community Asset Transfer it would be considered, by the council’s assessment criterion, as excellent.
“Significant time and resources have been put into the bid, which does not underestimate the challenge of taking on a listed building in poor condition nor downplay the risks involved.
“It seeks empowerment from the council to the local community which underpins the Community Empowerment Act and has strategically linked the proposals with emerging Council initiatives.
“The model proposed was successfully used for the former council owned resource centre at Duncan Place, Leith
“While the bid from Mr Lo Coco has some interesting financial figures, the bid lacks detail on their deliverability and there is also little detail on what grants would be accessed and how these relate to the restoration of the building.
“Given that several months were afforded to prepare submissions, with two closing dates, it is not considered unreasonable to have expected a more substantive submission.
“For the reasons above, it is recommended that the bid from Portobello Central Ltd isaccepted.”
Commenting on the news, Portobello and Craigmillar Labour councillor Maureen Child said: “The whole Portobello community have worked hard and effectively to show they can make their town hall work well for a whole range of users.
“The Portobello Central group have brought together all the key interest groups and all four local councillors fully support their bid.
“This extraordinary building has huge potential which the council has never fully managed to realise over the last 100 years.”