Hobbit House at heart of £25mln revamp of Edinburgh's historic gardens

A dramatic new vision has emerged of how Edinburgh’s West Princes Street Gardens will look if a £25 million revamp to allow it to host more year-round events and open access to visitors every day gets the green light.
The final CGI plan for the theatre in west Princes street gardens.The final CGI plan for the theatre in west Princes street gardens.
The final CGI plan for the theatre in west Princes street gardens.

Images showing how the historic park will be overhauled by a Hobbit House-style replacement for the Ross Bandstand, a grass-covered amphitheatre, a two-storey visitor and hospitality centre beside Edinburgh Castle and a permanent cafe near the Ross Fountain have been published as part of a public consultation on the project.

The pavilion, which the Ross Development Trust says will be designed to “seamlessly blend” into the surrounding landscape, will feature a glazed front screen to help cater for weatherproof events on stage for up to 200 people, as well as backstage facilities, dressing rooms, a cloakroom and a box office.

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The amphitheatre will be able to accommodate crowds of around 6,000 people, similar to the existing open-air arena, which dated back to 1935.

The plans include the creation of a family area in the western corner of the gardensThe plans include the creation of a family area in the western corner of the gardens
The plans include the creation of a family area in the western corner of the gardens
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Income generated from night-time events and functions in the visitor centre will be ring-fenced to help maintain the gardens and subsidise community use of the new facilities.

A team of developers, architects and designers behind the proposed revamp have spent more than two years drawing up plans for the scheme since an American-led consortium won an international design contest.

It was instigated by the trust, which was set up by Norman Springford, the founder of Apex Hotels and a former owner of the Edinburgh Playhouse.

Councillors agreed to allow him to help pay for new facilities in 2016 after admitting the bandstand was “no longer fit for purpose”.

Significant changes to the scheme include scaling back the design of the proposed “welcome centre”, which will offer direct access to the gardens from Princes Street, to lower its height and reduce the amount of glass it will feature.

Paths have been redesigned to maximise the amount of green space, with stone seating expected to surround a grassy “meadow”, replacing the existing concrete bowl.

The plans include the creation of a family area in the western corner of the gardens, including a picnic area, play equipment, toilets and possibly a small, sheltered cafe.

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The trust, which is launching a consultation ahead of a planning application in February, has pledged that its plans would “re imagine the gardens as a space for all to celebrate and enjoy in new ways” and will be “sensitive to the past”, but designed to “maximise” their future potential.

David Ellis, managing director of the Quaich Project, a public-private partnership set up by the trust and the city council to pursue the project, said the vision was aimed at transforming the gardens from a difficult-to-access place that often attracts only a handful of visitors a day to “one of the best public spaces in the world”.

He said: “These latest designs represent over four years’ worth of feedback and advice from key stakeholders and organisations across the city.

“Before we go any further, we need to make sure that the wider public is properly consulted and we’re keen to hear from them what they think about the designs.

"We’ll then act on feedback received.

“It is essential we make the correct improvements and that the people of Edinburgh get the chance to have their say on how that is done.”

A space to gather and celebrate

The blueprint, masterminded by architects based in New York and Los Angeles, is aimed at ensuring the gardens become “a space for all to celebrate and enjoy in a new way” and are seen as being “on a par” with famous international parks such as New York’s High Line and Singapore’s Gardens by the Bay.

The plans are said to respect the “cultural and historical significance” of the gardens while ensuring they remain “a space of tranquillity that everyone can enjoy amid the bustle of the city centre”.

The consultation states: “Throughout the year, the gardens will play host to events large and small – from international artists’ performances to community events and local dance groups – with world-class facilities and architectural designs helping to enhance the quality of every performance.”

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Promoters involved in shaping the plans include DF Concerts, organisers of the Summer Sessions concerts in the gardens, and Underbelly, which runs Edinburgh’s Christmas and Hogmanay festivals.

Other consultees include Edinburgh World Heritage, the Cockburn Association and Historic Environment Scotland.