What kind of phoenix will rise from Cowgate ashes?

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WHEN fire broke out in centuries-old buildings in the heart of Edinburgh's Old Town, the news spread quickly not just around the city but across the world.

People who had visited Edinburgh as tourists or even just read about the Capital's rich history were horrified at the idea of hundreds of years of heritage going up in flames.

Thanks to modern firefighting expertise, the Cowgate fire, just over six years ago, was not allowed to engulf the whole of the Old Town.

But the devastation was bad enough: at least 12 properties destroyed, including the popular Gilded Balloon festival venue.

The worldwide concern that the blaze prompted underlines the sensitivity of rebuilding to fill the gap left by the fire.

Edinburgh architect Allan Murray has come up with a comprehensive scheme for the complex site, including a new 200-bedroom hotel, a festival venue and glass walkways.

The 40 million "SoCo" (South Bridge – Cowgate) plan also features shops, a restaurant and bar, a cafe, a business centre, a new home for the former La Belle Angele nightclub, an extension to the Chambers Street jazz cellar, and two new pends and courtyards.

Developers Whiteburn have already negotiated a deal for Hoxton Urban Lodge, a firm led by Pret a Manger co-founder Sinclair Beecham, to run a "funky budget boutique" hotel as part of the new complex.

But there is controversy over the design and appearance of the new buildings, particularly the aspect from South Bridge.

Edinburgh author Alexander McCall Smith and seven other prominent figures – including Sir Timothy Clifford, former director general of the National Galleries of Scotland, and arts impresario Richard Demarco – sent a letter to The Times voicing their concerns.

And heritage groups like the Cockburn Association, Edinburgh World Heritage and the Architectural Heritage Society of Scotland (AHSS) have also criticised the scheme.

Two of the main concerns are the frontage of the hotel on to South Bridge and the loss of one of the four gables at the "gap" where South Bridge passes over the Cowgate below.

McCall Smith and his fellow objectors refer to the masterplan drawn up by famous 18th-century Scottish architect Robert Adam for the southern approach to Edinburgh, and claim the proposed building "destroys the rhythm and elegance of Adam's street front".

But experts point out Adam's original plan for South Bridge was never carried out. Instead, what was built was a "budget" version by Capital builder and architect Robert Kay.

Historic Scotland says it supports the rebuilding of Kay's gable design at the "gap".

But Euan Leitch of AHSS, while taking issue with some aspects of the proposals, says he is not pressing for a re-creation of a classical design.

"Our approach is not that it should be a facsimile of what was there before," he says. "I'd rather see something modern that respects the history.

"The issue we have with the proposals is they don't stick to the design brief and the elevation on South Bridge is not appropriate."

Edinburgh World Heritage claims the new development "lacks empathy" with the site. The group does not argue for a complete reconstruction of the previous buildings on South Bridge, but argues "a new building in this location should be more self-effacing".

The Cockburn Association's comments on the scheme were that many of the buildings were "monotonous" and failed to rise to expectations.

But Neil Baxter, secretary and treasurer of the Royal Incorporation of Architects in Scotland, says: "Just about every building that has ever greatly improved Edinburgh has been very controversial at the time.

"If history tells us anything, it's that you don't try and repeat history or copy history if you want to create a city that's moving forward positively."

The planning application for the SoCo scheme is expected to go before councillors next month. The developers say if all went smoothly it could be completed by 2011.

A spokeswoman says the project will regenerate an area that has been derelict since 2002 and bring benefits to the local community.

In reply to the criticisms of the scheme, she says: "A number of issues have been raised by the planners, which we have taken on board and will be looking at."