Is Edinburgh's flagship waterfront site all at sea?

SEVEN storeys above ground, the view towards the city centre from the Western Harbour showhouse in Leith is striking.

Ignore the cranes, the assorted collection of builders' machinery, the two enormous pools of muddy water and the overbearing grey skies. Look past the towering building next door, squint a little and you will just about make out the shadowy outline of Edinburgh Castle in the distance.

At least, for now you can. Come back in a few months and there's every chance you'll find yourself staring straight into yet another high rise block of flats.

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Down at ground level, buildings expert Peter Wilson casts a critical eye over the scene laid out before him - a series of high-rise "identikit" buildings on what has been trumpeted as a world-class waterfront - and tells how the scene makes his stomach churn.

Wilson and others are warning promises of a waterfront to rival the best in the world may well instead deliver the ghetto of the future.

"I get depressed by the quality of so much of what has been built," sighs the director of Napier University's School of the Built Environment with a shake of his head. "Some looks as if it's been made out of chewing gum and string. There are some good buildings around, but there are also many that are diabolically poor."

This is not quite what we had been led to expect from the regeneration of a massive industrial landscape - among the largest projects of its kind in Britain, optimistically dubbed the Forth Riviera and claimed to be the beginnings of a waterfront to rival the best in the world.

Wilson sighs again. "The waterfront doesn't have coherent thinking, it doesn't have quality of design," he says. "The developers talk a big show but they don't understand what they are doing here. This area is being driven by property speculation, there just doesn't seem to have been a coherent analysis of what is the biggest remaining site in Edinburgh.

"The problem is," he continues, "ninety per cent of people in Edinburgh don't really know what is happening down there. They hear all this talk about world-class developments but you find it's all smoke and mirrors. What we have here so far is not world-class."

He is not alone in fearing for the future of the "Forth Rivera" - almost 350 acres of mostly former industrial land earmarked over the next decade or so for 30,000 new homes stretching from Leith through Newhaven and Granton, with new shops, bars, restaurants and visitor attractions.

Architecture and Design Scotland (ADS), the public body set up as a national champion for good architecture, design and planning, has been scathing in its criticism of the latest of three masterplans presented by Waterfront Edinburgh Ltd for their particular 120-acre slice of land between Granton Harbour and the former gasworks.

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The panel's response to the plan - drawn up by London firm Make, which is fronted by two of renowned architect Sir Norman Foster's right-hand men - was to brand it unconvincing and "bearing little relationship to the site".

For the panel, a series of waterfront quays inspired by projects in Copenhagen and Oslo and presented in the plans as a stylish Mediterranean leisure area, were more likely to result in "dark, windswept spaces for much of the year". And the daring proposal to create a new island jutting into the Forth, housing a top-class hotel and homes modelled on Dubai's famous Palm Island was slapped down for buildings which appeared "simplistic in the extreme", being inaccessible by the general public and "profoundly unconvincing".

The comments prompted a response from Waterfront Edinburgh that the island could be made in the shape of a thistle to make it more accessible - a suggestion that leaves Wilson shaking his head in despair, while another leading city architect privately describes it as "absolutely shocking".

Peter goes on: "There's lots of rhetoric comparison with Copenhagen and Barcelona, but no-one from abroad is making those comparisons - it's only Waterfront Edinburgh who are saying that. What is happening to the waterfront is light years from Copenhagen, Hamburg and Barcelona."

He points to towering residential blocks crammed with one, two and very occasionally three-bedroom apartments and worries that they will be occupied by people who will stay just a brief time and then move on - hardly a thriving community capable of sustaining schools, shops and businesses.

The dearth of amenities, he adds, plus concerns that the area will not, as originally thought, be served by a dedicated tram link, are matched by the lack of open space - another area highlighted by ADS when they viewed Waterfront Edinburgh's latest masterplan.

Indeed, one area of land designated by the firm for open space, warned the panel, is private and inaccessible to the public. Further claims that 27 per cent of the site would be public open space were dismissed as "hard landscaping with limited green areas".

Heritage watchdog the Cockburn Association, while supportive of the concept of redeveloping the brown belt site, has its own areas for concern.

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"The association is dissatisfied with the general lack of ambition for place-making and qualitative design and has objected to numerous detailed planning applications," explains director David McDonald, below, adding: "Some of the housing at Granton is out of scale with its surroundings."

COMPARING the stretch of Forth from Leith to Granton with Barcelona's acclaimed waterfront developments is "inappropriate, not least on climate grounds", he adds. The "thistle island" idea, meanwhile, is "premature, ill-conceived and most probably uneconomical".

McDonald continues: "There is currently an under-provision in the transport network for these areas and it's fair to say there is public distrust in the delivery of aspirational statements. The opportunity was missed early on to set high standards for future developments and much of the subsequent developments have been piecemeal with a conveyor belt of new masterplans produced."

Development of the massive site - the size of Holyrood Park - is being overseen by three companies: Forth Ports Authority, National Grid Property, owners of the former gas works site, and Waterfront Edinburgh, an "arm's length" firm created by the city council and Scottish Enterprise Edinburgh and Lothian to develop the publicly owned land.

Waterfront Edinburgh's accounts up to March last year revealed a turnover of 17.5 million and a salary bill for its ten administration and operations staff and four security staff of nearly 604,000. Despite its public accountability, its communications manager, Jane Dennison, was unwilling to respond to criticisms of the project.

However the firm's unsalaried chairwoman, Granton councillor Elizabeth Maginnis, is confident its developments are up to scratch.

"We are working very hard to try to ensure that the architecture and quality of design is of the highest standard," she insists. "We are looking to create a different density and different type of house to the one and two-bedroom apartments. We now are aiming for more small houses, townhouses."

Nevertheless, her Labour colleague, planning convener Councillor Trevor Davies, is less enthusiastic about what is already in place. "I'm not satisfied," he says. "We have all got to raise our game. That doesn't mean it's all got to be big, sparkling and grand, but we do have to create decent neighbourhoods and parks."

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High-rise flats dominating the waterfront have been built first by developers keen to meet the demand for two-bedroom homes, he adds. However, there are now fears that the sheer number of properties - and prices starting at around 140,000 for a one-bedroom flat - may have saturated the market.

"The developers may have overstretched themselves," he adds. "Some of the buildings are far too big. Getting the mix of buildings is terribly important. We need to get real communities, people moving in who have children and might even stay there until they are grandparents. We are trying to create a settled community."

But Alan McGuinness, spokesman for National Grid Properties' site at Granton, dubbed The ForthQuarter, stresses work on the former gas works has already won awards. And he points to the creation of a 20-acre park, new roads and expected permission for a new supermarket as proof of a community in the making. "It's a very challenging environment and it does bring its own strictures in terms of costs and overheads," he says. "But at the end of the day the market will decide what density of development it wants.

"For us, this is a flagship development. You just have to look at the 20 acres of park which has accrued landscaping and planting costs of 2m - that's the kind of commitment that National Grid has made to ensure that the development is to the highest possible standard."

Nathan Thompson, managing director of Forth Ports Properties, also defends its developments, adding: "We're about creating first-class quality developments and are placing significant emphasis on sustainable public areas."

However, Newhaven councillor Steve Cardownie warns failing to get it right at the waterfront will haunt us all for years to come.

"We have to be careful," he says. "What we do here has to be better than good because it has to last for generations. We want good quality, robust, innovative design. We can't have a patchwork effect - there must be a vigorous masterplan that meets the aspirations of people and takes us forward.

"The responsibility to make the right decisions here is huge - future generations won't forgive us if we make the wrong choices."