John McLellan: St James row can’t derail project

Like something from 2001: A Space Odyssey, a giant slab of stone stands outside the condemned façade of the unloved New St Andrew’s House.

Martin Perry of developer TIAA Henderson Real Estate with the limestone sample. Picture: Scott Louden
Martin Perry of developer TIAA Henderson Real Estate with the limestone sample. Picture: Scott Louden

It is not awaiting inspirational messages from Ed Miliband but is to show off the material which will form the exterior of the new St James Quarter and finally replace the hideous 60s concrete Stalinist office blocks and shopping centre.

Light yellow, clean and smart but, horror of horrors, it’s limestone. Yes, limestone. Here in Edinburgh of all places, city of sandstone. Limestone. The stuff with which Georgian Bath was built. It’s an outrage. Is the developer, Henderson Global, slapping the city, its heritage and its forebears in the face?

Sign up to our Opinion newsletter

Well if you read the report by Edinburgh Council’s planning department and the submissions from my friends at the Cockburn Association and The Edinburgh World Heritage Trust you’d think so.

The EWHT has this to say: “The proposed extensive use of limestone across the development is inauthentic and will be negative in terms of out-standing universal value.”

And the council officers agree, saying limestone is “alien in its appearance and weathering characteristics.” So maybe A Space Odyssey wasn’t too wide of the mark.

It’s true that most of Edinburgh was built using light sandstone, but colours vary – the deep ochre of the Galleries on The Mound is not identical to the grey of the New Town, for example

The New Town sandstone came almost exclusively from the Craigleith Quarry, first opened in the 17th Century and finally exhausted in the 1940s. But other materials were used too, like the red sandstone Portrait Gallery and the Portland limestone of the Royal Society building on George Street, the same stuff used for Buckingham Palace.

Now there are no local quarries of any size, so all stone for new Edinburgh buildings has to come from elsewhere

Craigleith Quarry is now home to the retail park off Queensferry Road, and such was the shortage of local 
supply – even on the site of a quarry – the stone for the entrance had to come from Northumberland.

The Museum of Scotland extension was built with Elgin sandstone and, to some controversy, the Scottish Parliament used Aberdeenshire granite. It was criticised at the time as being more appropriate for, well, the Granite City, but although many people still loathe the Holyrood building, it’s not because it’s made of the wrong stone.

Such is the scale of the £850m St James Quarter that no single source of sandstone will meet the demand, something blithely dismissed by the Cockburn Association.

Displaying a spectacular detachment from reality, even for the Cockburn, director Marion Williams recommends the opening of a new sandstone quarry, with absolutely no suggestion about where this might be or recognition of the time and difficulty involved.

“There is plenty of stone,” she writes. “All of Comely Bank was built from Northumberland sandstone, so that must be a pre-requisite.” So that’s that then.

Back on Earth, there are four alternatives: build it with high quality yellow limestone from one source; use some sandstone at the bottom and finish off with limestone at the top where it’s more difficult to see; use sandstone from different suppliers; if sandstone doesn’t work forget stone altogether.

The most crazy of all is the last one, but that is actually the council report’s recommendation. “A more radical approach would be to use materials that are wholly different to natural stone,” it says. “for example the sections along Leith Street that are finished in metal. “

So put another way, if limestone isn’t in keeping with the rest of the New Town it would be better if it looked like something from a Ridley Scott movie. Alien indeed. You really couldn’t make it up.

For the second and third alternatives, there is sandstone available from different sources, but the fear is that it ends up looking like a Battenberg cake patchwork or a strange layer cake as the different stone weathers. Further, the builder ends up dealing with different suppliers and ads to the complexity to a project which already dwarfs anything else attempted in the city centre for the best part of 50 years. So what’s the problem with limestone? To be cut from one quarry in Bavaria, being dense and hard-wearing the sections can be thinner and lighter and so construction quicker and cheaper.

The fact it keeps its colour you would have thought was an advantage, but the official report says that’s actually a problem. Why? Because when the limestone retains its colour the sandstone around it becomes darker. You can see the effect on Chambers Street where the once deep yellows of the Museum of Scotland are now turning a rather unattractive black.

Another concern is that sometimes fossils are found in it. Fossils? I’d have thought that was an advantage, after all the Jurassic Coast is a major tourist attraction down Dorset Way.

The irony of it all is the officers urging councillors to reject limestone are doing so from within a building made of, you guessed it, limestone. As is the council-owned extension to the EICC, the Atria.

The proposals come up for discussion by the development management committee next week and it has got to be hoped that councillors have their priorities in the right order, the last of which should be blocking the use of what is by any stretch of the imagination a high-quality material.

The priority should be getting this vitally important project up and running as quickly as possible.

Construction will support 5,00 jobs and the new centre some 3000 permanent posts. Shopping in Edinburgh badly needs a lift to get it up the UK rankings, not just to improve the experience for locals but to make sure we give tourists every opportunity to empty their bank accounts when they are here.

Shopping continues to struggle – sales on Scottish high streets showed their biggest decline in May since 2012 – and the quicker the new St James Centre gives Edinburgh a shot in the arm the better.

You can’t polish a ribbon

Next week’s meeting will not include the controversial hotel design, which has been held back for a separate discussion next month while behind the scenes talks continue.

The controversial ribbon/toilet roll/turd concept at the heart of the new district is likely to meet with resistance, as much because of the height as anything else and the various heritage bodies have already thrown down their markers.

I don’t detect any appetite for a “statement” the hotel design would represent.

Everyman and his dog hates it

If no-one was bothered about the kind of stone the new council HQ was made of, there was plenty of comment about the glaikit figure which greeted staff as they entered their new workplace in 2007.

No, it was not the chief executive Tom Aitchison, but Everyman Joe or whatever the hideous statue outside the council’s Waverley Court headquarters is supposed to be called.

The statue, by German artist Stephan Balenkhol, was an instant laughing stock, memorably described by then SNP leader Steve Cardownie, right, as looking like “a window cleaner who has dropped his ladder”.

Only the Tories’ Elaine Aitken put up much of a defence, saying that it was the best design the selection committee had seen and that people would grow to love it. What no-one grew to love was the cost, £100,000, which is probably the only reason the thing hasn’t ended up on a scrap heap.

While there was some criticism that the building was too bland for a big city centre site, the fact it was on a railway car park next to a derelict bus garage made it easier. Privately built for £80m, the council is a tenant with the lease due for renewal in 12 years.