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Edinburgh hotel plans said to threaten World Heritage status

ByEthan DeWitt

Sep 23, 2015

Newly released plans for construction developments around Calton Hill have been met with strong warnings and unconventional tactics from conservation groups in the city.

The UK division of the International Council on Monuments and Sites (Icomos) has raised the prospect that the developments, which include two hotels to the east of Princes Street, pose a threat to the city’s status as a UNESCO World Heritage Site.

One hotel (pictured above) would replace the angular concrete edifices of the St James Centre with a towering modernist swirl of twisted copper and glass.

Another would add six-storied earthy-coloured tiered buildings to either side of the Old Royal High School building at the foot of Calton Hill.

The distinctly 21st-century designs have drawn the ire of internet commentators, politicians, and architectual conservationists alike. But the plans for the St James replacement, dubbed the ‘Ribbon Hotel’, were approved by the City Council in August.

Now, opponents find themselves fighting an uphill battle to convince the Scottish Government to step in and upend development before it begins at the end of the year.

The concern goes beyond personal taste. If the finished copper structure dominates the skyline to such an extent that it detracts from the architecture of the city, activists argue the city could lose its ‘Outstanding Universal Value’, a measure by which its UNESCO status is endowed.

“[The issue is not] the details in the architecture; it’s more to do with scale and height of buildings and what effect that has on the overall values of the city centre is inscribed in the World Heritage for”, David Hicks, spokesman for Edinburgh World Heritage, told The Student.

City councillor Joanna Mowat of the city centre constituency agreed.

“If you look at the skyline of Edinburgh where the sky is pierced, it tends to be quite slender, like towers and spires,” she explained to The Student.

The original proposal submitted to the Council, Mowat said, “did have a very elegant copper spire, which looked rather striking.” Mowat, a member of the planning committee, voted in favour of the original plans.

But after approval, Mowat said, the designs changed.

“What was submitted at the application was larger than what had been agreed when we did the master plan”, she told The Student.

She continued: “I’m not a believer that in the modern day we can’t do things that add to the skyline, but what came back in the final planning is this sort of ‘elegance on steroids’, and it’s got the shoulders of a quarterback. And that was wrong.”

That added bulk is the new target for conservationists in the campaign to convince the Scottish Government, which has final approval.

Last week Icomos Scotland Vice President Dr James Simpson addressed a letter to Holyrood Communities Minister Alex Neil urging the government to veto its expected approval of the bill.

“This building would not only have a severely detrimental impact on Edinburgh’s skyline…but could see an extremely difficult precedent for future buildings”, the letter read.

Such precedent, the letter added, might destroy “the extraordinary coherence of Edinburgh that has been nurtured over the past 70 years.”

Pushing this trend, the letter continued, could put at risk the “effectiveness of the governance structure for the World Heritage Site.”

A statement from the Scottish government lowered expectations of a reversal of City Council’s decision, stressing it was a city decision that would only be overturned “in cases where there are issues of genuine national significance that would warrant them determining an application.”

But conservationists are undeterred. In addition to the letter, Icomos UK announced an “informal fact finding mission” next month that would look closely at the development plans and to determine more fully whether they might threaten the city’s standing with UNESCO.

As a subsidiary of its global parent organisation, Icomos UK has the power to make a recommendation to Icomos international in Paris, which reports directly to UNESCO. Conservationists such as Dr Simpson hope that that relationship will give government ministers pause when considering the fact finding mission next month.

Other conservation organisations have looked to the fact finding mission with anticipation.

“We look forward to…work[ing] with colleagues in the City of Edinburgh Council and Historic Scotland to look after the city centre”, Adam Wilkinson, director of Edinburgh World Heritage, the trust in charge of managing the institution, said in a statement.

But not all conservation bodies are standing up to Holyrood. Historic Scotland, the Scottish Government’s official consultant, submitted a report to the government approving the plans.

According to Councillor Mowat, that approval makes action by the government highly unlikely.

“I don’t think there’s any mechanism by which the Scottish Government can halt this at the moment”, she told The Student.

“They could have expressed it beforehand, but because Historic Scotland was quite positive about it, it would be very difficult for the government to come in and go ‘well actually we’ve now got concerns’.”

A statement provided to The Student by Historic Scotland said the organisation “will continue to [work with the Council] in order to best protect the outstanding universal value of the site.”

Beyond the warnings of Icomos, any broader public opposition has been muted so far. Mowat attributes that to complacency.

“I expected more once the decision was made”, she said. “It’s partly because what is there in the St James Centre at the moment is so hideous and such a blot on the landscape that people lose face slightly about will replace it.”

Nevertheless, David Hicks, the Edinburgh Heritage spokesman, said the risk remained.

“[This is] a trend”, he told The Student.

“So we are not looking at an imminent threat to the status, however, if the trend continues, then the scrutiny will no doubt increase. And then obviously everyone speculates about where that could end up.”

But Mowat was more sanguine.

“I would say all is not lost”, she told The Student. “And certainly I think if Icomos do come up to express those concerns, I think you’ll find it might shrink rapidly.”


Image: Final designs for an £850 million replacement of the St James Centre are set to be approved by the Holyrood. Conservationists warn the trend could degrade the Heritage status.

By Ethan DeWitt


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