One of Edinburgh’s leading events supremos has urged the Capital to press ahead with a controversial replacement of its historic bandstand – branding it unsafe and “shockingly difficult” to use.
Brigadier David Allfrey, outgoing producer and chief executive of the Royal Edinburgh Military Tattoo, said a £25 million revamp of West Princes Street Gardens was needed to allow the city to remain a world-leading destination for events which can be staged against the unique backdrop of Edinburgh Castle.
Brigadier Allfrey, who revealed he wants to stay involved in the events and tourism industry in the city when he leaves the Tattoo next autumn, said the designs for a new events pavilion, amphitheatre and visitor centre to replace the existing Ross Bandstand and concrete bowl were “authentic and sympathetic.”
He insisted that the park, which has hosted events since it passed into public ownership in the 1870s, should be a place for “energy, excitement and electricity” as much as “contemplation.”
More than two years have been spent drawing up detailed plans for The Quaich Project, since an American-led consortium won an international design contest instigated by the Ross Development Trust, which was set up by Norman Springford, the founder of Apex Hotels.
They include a “Hobbit house” style replacement for the current bandstand, which dates back to 1935, an open-air arena capable of accommodating around 6000 people, and a two-storey visitor and hospitality centre.
The pavilion, which the trust says will be designed to “seamlessly blend” into the surrounding landscape, will feature a glazed front screen to help cater for intimate weather-proof events on stage for up to 200 people, as well as backstage facilities, dressing rooms, a cloakroom and a box office.
Heritage bodies and community groups have raised concerns that the proposed overhaul of the gardens will lead to an increase in the number of events held there, more “commercialism” of the park and greater restrictions on public access if The Quaich Project goes ahead.
Brigadier Allfrey said: “To go backstage at the Ross Bandstand is to take a step into another age in many ways. It’s not fit for anything.
“You can’t do daily or weekly events at the bandstand at the moment. It’s shockingly difficult to use it. The infrastructure is just not safe, frankly.
“We can’t do anything in the gardens at the moment. We should be able to do spontaneous events there.
“It would be a real shame if there were no events in the gardens in future – this is one of the arts capitals in the world. Princes Street Gardens is a place where that has got to play out.”
Brigadier Allfrey urged Edinburgh to follow the lead of other international cities and ensure that major events could be quickly staged and returned to normal as soon as possible in Princes Street Gardens.
He added: “When I look at other cities around the world they are operated to a very well-conceived vision.
“In almost every single one of them an event happens and then it evaporates very quickly and things return to normal.
"I think we can do this in Edinburgh. It is a remarkable city - nowhere else has that kind of skyline. It's an amazing backdrop for anything in the gardens. These events can be incredibly uplifting.
“I don’t think that a refresh of the Ross Bandstand, which is what the Quaich Project is, will disturb how the gardens are enjoyed."
A new blueprint, which is being masterminded by architects based in New York and Los Angeles, is aimed at ensuring the gardens are seen as being “on a par” with famous international parks like 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 amidst the bustle of the city centre”.
Promoters involved in shaping the plans for West Princes Street Gardens include DF Concerts, Underbelly, Regular Music and Unique Events. Other consultees include community groups, Edinburgh World Heritage, the Cockburn Association and Historic Environment Scotland.
Brigadier Allfrey said: "I've been involved with the project since the early stages. It is well conceived and the team involved in it is doing an amazing job.
"I wouldn’t throw my hat in the ring as a supporter it if I didn’t think it would be sympathetic and authentic. It will deliver a really versatile space which will fit into the landscape, really add to the gardens and draw people in.
"The designs that have been done for the project have been really well thought-through. It is about the integration of nature and built infrastructure.
"The project tries to deliver lots of things for everybody. If you just want to sit in a garden you will be able to do that.
"You've got to have a balance between quiet contemplation and excitement in the gardens. You can't just contemplate - you have to energy and electricity. We've just got to get the balance right."
Brigadier Allfrey will bow out from the Tattoo after its 70th edition, which will celebrate Scotland's Year of Coasts and Waters, and feature a major showcase for the Royal Navy. Tickets will go on sale on Monday, with prices starting at £25.