Plan for capital's own 'Gherkin' hits sour note with heritage groups

IT IS designed to be Edinburgh's answer to the famous "Gherkin" in London, a new icon towering over the capital.

But a host of heritage groups are ready to fight plans to create the new landmark tower, part of an overhaul of the notorious St James Centre, claiming it would ruin classic views of the city skyline from viewpoints such as Edinburgh Castle, Blackford Hill and Arthur's Seat.

The existing shopping centre and an adjacent vacant office block are widely seen as being among Edinburgh's worst eyesores, and these would be demolished to make way for a new 850 million complex under provisional plans for a "St James Quarter".

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It would feature a crescent-shaped shopping arcade, partly inspired by the 19th-century Galleria Vittorio Emanuele II in Milan, along with between one and three multi-storey buildings, housing offices, apartments, cafs and restaurants, and a five-star hotel.

However, the proposed development is being opposed by Historic Scotland, the Scottish Civic Trust, the Architectural Heritage Society of Scotland (AHSS) and Edinburgh World Heritage (EWH), the capital's main watchdog group.

Henderson Global Investors, the owner of the St James Centre, has defended the planned tower on the grounds that it would be no higher than the Balmoral Hotel in nearby Princes Street.

However, The Scotsman has learned that the plans were greeted with horror during a consultation exercise held in recent weeks.

Jane Jackson, the acting director of EWH, said: "The biggest mistake made in designing the original centre was to ignore its setting. This time, the planners and developers need to realise they're not starting with a blank sheet.

"This development will need to respect the city skyline and bear in mind that successful intrusions have been elegant, slender and generally unoccupied, from church spires to domes and monuments."

A spokeswoman for Historic Scotland said: "The redevelopment of the St James Centre is an opportunity to replace a complex of buildings that have a negative impact on their setting, adjoining listed buildings and the city as a whole. We're concerned that the tower being considered would have a significant and harmful impact on the historic environment."

The AHSS has said: "There should be no attempt to create a new visual marker that would damage this world-class view. The city is not without locations for tall buildings, but this isn't one of them."

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Chris Pyne, senior portfolio manager at Henderson, said: "We've always recognised the significant public interest in our proposals and have been delighted with the level of interest and engagement in the consultation process. It has played an important role in the preparation of our outline planning application and illustrative master-plan, which we hope to submit to the council in the summer."

Concern is already mounting over the impact on the city's skyline of a new hotel next to Haymarket station and the Caltongate scheme next to Waverley.