Of the missed opportunities I have reported on over the years, the failure to develop the Castle Terrace car park in Edinburgh city centre is the most frustrating.
It is less than a decade since serious discussions were held over expanding the city’s official cultural quarter, which evolved on either side of Lothian Road from the end of the 19th century.
The idea, which was discussed at various gatherings of the cultural sector, was that the site, located directly beneath Edinburgh Castle, could become home to a multi-arts venue, incorporating a concert hall for the Scottish Chamber Orchestra and the Edinburgh International Festival, a new home for the Traverse Theatre and a 21st century base for the Filmhouse and the Edinburgh International Film Festival.
Those plans for the King’s Stables Road site have long been abandoned, foiled by a combination of a lack of drive, vision and ambition within the council, a decision to sell off council-owned land next to the car park for a student housing and hotel scheme, and the emergence of an alternative site for the concert hall. The latter is now earmarked for a controversial site off St Andrew Square, but is embroiled in a legal battle with the firm behind the neighbouring St James development in the east end.
Ironically, the Castle Terrace car park has since become something of an unlikely cultural icon in Edinburgh, thanks to starring roles in David Greig’s hit ‘play with songs’ Midsummer, which went on to tour the world, an Ian Rankin Rebus novel and Trainspotting sequel T2, which saw Danny Boyle film a dramatic chase sequence involving Renton and Begbie, which also mimicked the film’s original dash down Calton Road.
Howls of anguish
But to many of the city’s residents it is nothing more than an over-priced, somewhat forbidding facility.
So it is perhaps not surprising that there were howls of anguish in the online world at the decision by Scotland’s heritage guardians to give the car park protected status.
On the rather ugly face of it, there appears little merit to the car park, which dates back to 1964, and certainly not enough to justify awarding it the same status as the Balmoral Hotel.
But who knew that King’s Stables Road was home to the first multi-storey car park in Scotland, specially designed not to disrupt views of Edinburgh Castle and built at a time when car ownership was dramatically on the rise?
The key question is whether it is really preferable to knock down a multi-storey car park rather than find an imaginative and sustainable new use for it.
For me, it should be the very last option on the table. I never did understand the justification for knocking down perfectly good buildings on George IV Bridge and St Andrew Square for nondescript hotel and retail developments.
Further heritage battles will lie ahead given the uncertain future of Princes Street with the opening of the St James development next year. Similar stooshies to the car park controversy have flared in Edinburgh in recent years, after the awarding of protected status to the Commonwealth Pool, the former Granton Gas Holder and Leith’s ‘Banana Flats’, none of which would win a beauty contest, but have played their parts in the city’s modern-day story.
The Biscuit Factory in Leith and Argyle House on Lady Lawson Street are two examples of traditional “eyesores” which have become crucial hubs for the creative and tech industries. With historic cultural venues being reborn every year across the country, buildings viewed by experts as being interesting enough to protect should be given every chance of a new lease of life.