Developers warned to scale back Royal High hotel bid

Artist's impression of how the former Royal High School site would look. Picture: Contributed
Artist's impression of how the former Royal High School site would look. Picture: Contributed
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DEVELOPERS behind a hugely-controversial luxury hotel earmarked for one of Edinburgh’s most historic landmarks were warned their plans would cause “exceptional and significant” harm to the building months before going public with their plans, The Scotsman can reveal.

Experts briefed on the plans for the former Royal High School on Calton Hill told the two firms behind the £75 million scheme that it would be “harmful” to the nationally-important building and its surroundings.

A high-powered panel of advisors set up by the city council to raise the quality of major developments raised “strong concerns” that key views of the city would be damaged by “overdevelopment” of the site, which is also home to a number of significant buildings and monuments.

Their main area of concern was the prospect of two six-storey extensions, which are thought to have triggered the majority of protests to Edinburgh City Council since a formal planning application was lodged in September.

A damning verdict delivered by the expert panel - which is comprised of heritage bodies, council officials, architectural experts and academics - said the two new buildings would be “highly prominent and dominant” when viewed alongside the existing building, which dates back to 1825.

Its report states: “Adding two large buildings on the side of the hill will have a significant impact on the sense of scale of Calton Hill, thereby causing significant harm to its fundamental picturesque character.

“Ultimately, it may not be possible to achieve the commercial requirements of a hotel of this nature without significantly compromising the character of the building and its setting. This would not be acceptable and could set a precedent for other important historic sites.”

Despite the advice from the Edinburgh Urban Design Panel, which discussed revised plans for the hotel scheme in May, the two large extensions were still part of the plans which were revealed by the developers in September, when American operator Rosewood was confirmed for the project.

It hopes to open a 147-bedroom hotel on the site by 2018 in a project predicted to create more than 260 jobs and generate more than £27 million a year for the city’s economy.

But the developers - Duddingston House Properties and the Urbanist Group - are facing the prospect of a public inquiry after Historic Scotland lodged a formal objection to the plans amid claims Edinburgh will lose its world heritage status if they are approved. More than 2000 objections have been lodged with the city council over the 147-bedroom scheme.

David Orr, co-founder of the Urbanist Group: “These comments were raised as part of the comprehensive public consultation and were recognised in fundamental changes made to the design in the months following it.

“We are extremely proud of the designs and believe our fully-funded proposal, with all the benefits it will bring not just to Edinburgh but the whole of Scotland, is the only sustainable solution for this important building.”

The Scottish Government is being urged to call in the project, which was pursued after the city council agreed a 125-year lease for the building to allow it to become a hotel, if the scheme is backed by councillors in December.

SNP politicians have been among those to speak out about the prospect of the building becoming a hotel for super-rich visitors to the city.

Critics claim the plans for the site have virtually doubled in site since the council announced that an “arts hotel” would be created in the 19th century landmark. Last December it emerged that the successful developers were pursuing a “world-class hotel” concept for the site, which has been lying largely empty since 1968, when the Royal High School moved to the Barnton area.

The Edinburgh World Heritage Trust, set up in the wake of the capital’s Old and New Towns winning the UNESCO designation, claims advice it has given on the Royal High School over several years has been ignored.

A privately-funded trust which is pursuing a rival bid to take over the site, which would see St Mary’s Music School relocate from its current base in Edinburgh’s west end to Calton Hill, has offered to buy the former school building for £1.5 million.

Its scheme is being bankrolled by the American arts philanthropist Carol Grigor, who has ploughed more than £9 million into the Edinburgh International Festival.