Development 'would ruin skyline'
School hotel developers ‘reviewing options’ after rejection
Developers behind plans to build a £75 million five-star international hotel in and around a former classical school building overlooking Edinburgh said they were “reviewing their options” after being refused permission on a narrow vote.
Architectural and world heritage representatives were joined by MSPs and local residents in an appeal to city councillors to throw out the plans for the derelict Royal High School building beneath Calton Hill.
Rosewood Hotels were lined up to occupy the crumbling building. But two wings which the developers say are needed to make it viable have been widely criticised for ruining the skyline and being of poor architectural merit.
Council planners said that while there was economic benefit to the city by having this type of high-end hotel, the proposed benefits were outweighed by the harm it would cause because of its adverse impact on a listed building. Following seven hours of discussion, the plan was refused.
Despite the knockback – by just one vote – those behind the scheme indicated a desire to return for another attempt at getting approval. Gareth Hoskins, managing director of Hoskins Architects, said: “This was always going to be a tough decision for councillors.
” I remain confident that this is not just an ambitious design but a sensitive and appropriate proposal that would revitalise Thomas Hamilton’s iconic building and breathe new life into Calton Hill for the people of Edinburgh and visitors alike.
“We will now take some time to review our options on how to take this important project forward.”
The decision provided encouragement for a rival bid for the site. William Gray Muir, Chairman of the Royal High School Preservation Trust, said: “We were impressed by the seriousness of the debate and the important questions which were aired.
“The Council’s decision today makes it possible for us to pursue our proposals to return the former Royal High School building to its rightful position at the cultural heart of Edinburgh with public performance spaces and a state-of-the-art new home for St Mary’s Music School.
“The Royal High School is an iconic building and a unique location and we are delighted that the Council has acknowledged its important place in Edinburgh’s illustrious heritage.”
During the long discussions today Marion Williams of the Cockburn Association said that this issue had produced more correspondence from the public than any other in the six years that she had been at the organisation.
“I have been surprised by the level of concern,” she said.
She reminded councillors that the hotel sector had faced problems and several hotel groups had struggled, including Crowne Plaza and the owner of The Scotsman Hotel. The Hotel Missoni left Edinburgh after only five years operating a five-star establishment on George IV bridge.
As such, a hotel for the school building was “inherently risky”, she said. .
Among the objectors was Sarah Boyack MSP who said the proposed hotel was an example of “overdevelopment”. She said the school building helped define the character of Edinburgh “and this proposal damages that dramatically.
“It will damage our world heritage status. There will be tourism benefit but the committee has to recognise the tourism damage that comes from this.”
Councillor Eric Milligan said Edinburgh had “many wonderful buildings” and it was the responsibility of the council not only to maintain them but to put life into them.
He said the Royal High School building had been empty for 50 years and there had been numerous proposals, including a plan for it to be used as the home of the Scottish parliament.
“After 50 years there have not been many realistic options to make use of it,” he said.
Ms Boyack said it was important to get the correct use for the building or else it would be damaging in the long run. The hotel application had to be judged on merit and there is “a better alternative which is not in front of you today”, she said.
Adam Wilkinson, of Edinburgh World Heritage, said that by removing the St James shopping centre the council would be ridding the city of blight. “Here the proposal is to create a new blight on the city where currently there is beauty.”
Carol Nimmo, chairman of the Regent, Royal, Carlton Terraces and Mews Association, criticised the developer and the claim in the local newspaper to have 90% support from the public. She said there had been unanimous opposition at a residents’ meeting.
“We vigorously oppose this development. It is too big in every sense. It completely overwhelms the Thomas Hamilton building and Regent Terrace.
“We think Mr Hoskins, the architect, must have had a bad day when he designed this.”
She accused the developer of seeking to” distort” the development by using an “aggressive PR machine” and appealed to councillors “not to let your predecessors down”.
She said the ugly St James Centre would soon be torn down. But by allowing this hotel “you will be replacing one eyesore with another” and produced other artists’ impressions which gave a different view of the development.
Gordon Dewar (right), chief executive of Edinburgh Airport, said he was speaking in a personal capacity, though he outlined the importance of having a ‘top end’ hotel in the city’s portfolio when he is negotiating with airlines.
He added that he sits on the boards of VisitScotland the Scottish Tourism Alliance. “There is a need for top quality capacity. We simply do not have enough,” he said, adding that a hotel like Rosewood would help capture more of this part of the market.
He said that in his view the design “strikes a superb balance”.
The world heritage site was important in attracting people, but it is “not the only feature” that Edinburgh was able to market.
Graham Birse, director of the Edinburgh Institute of leadership and management at Napier University, represented the Edinburgh Business Forum.
Speaking in favour of the development, he said there was a shortage of five star beds in the city. He also noted that Rosewood invested in highly trained staff.
He added that this was a part of the city that few tourists currently visited and, in some cases, avoided. If the proposal is rejected it would take “many, many years” for an alternative to come forward, he said.
Bruce Hare of Duddingston House Properties, the developer, produced a survey indicating that 93% of residents want the building re-used and 92% were in favour of the design.
Radha Arora (right), president of Rosewood Hotels, flew in from Hong Kong to attend the meeting and present the company’s case. He told councillors that the Royal High “has the qualities we look for to create a successful and thriving destination”.
Mr Arora said the hotel would generate economic benefit and bring 260 full-time jobs to the city.
“Should this proposal be successful we have entered into an agreement to run it for 30 years. We are demonstrating our faith in this location and this city,” he said.
Noting the company’s presence in other historic venues he added: “We are well aware of the importance of this special building and we are trusted to work in world heritage sites.”
Asked if the building would merit listing in the future, architect Gareth Hoskins said: “We pride ourselves on our understanding of place. I would like to think our buildings leave a legacy.”
Ward councillor Karen Doran (Lab) appealed to the council to “stand up for the people of Edinburgh”.
She said the public were “distressed” and added “I am horrified by this proposal. The people of Edinburgh do not want it.”
Asked by Councillor Lewis Ritchie if approval of the proposal would damage the council, she replied: “Yes.”
Following presentations, the councillors offered their views:
Sandy Howat (SNP) said he would be supporting the plan. “It may be unpopular with many people, but Edinburgh is not a museum and I will support this with civic pride.”
Jeremy Balfour (Con) also said he would support it and warned of the implications for the city of rejecting it. “If we turn this down we are saying to developers that we do not want their money…do not invest in us. It is a dangerous message to be giving at this time.”
Joanna Mowat (Con) was opposed. “I am not comfortable with this and I cannot support the application. I appreciate Rosewood’s plans look exciting, but in another place.” She said if members had any doubt they had to vote against.
Eric Milligan (Lab) reminded councillors that Paris was in uproar when it was proposed that a glass pyramid be built at the entrance to the Louvre. “Now people travel from all over the world to see it,” he said. He added that Prince Charles had resigned over the decision to put a modern extension on to the National Museum of Scotland in Edinburgh, yet “Dublin decided to re-create it”. He said the council had sought a use for the Royal High School for 50 years and had worked for six years with the developer who had come up with something to “add a bit of drama to that part of Edinburgh”.
Lewis Ritchie (SNP) said he had heard a lot about councillors not wanting to live in a museum “but I don’t want to live in a city that values its heritage so cheaply. If this is approved the people of Edinburgh will never forgive us for desecrating the city. We will be selling off a jewel in the crown for a cheap price.”
Angela Blacklock (Lab) speaking in favour, said: “We have in front of us an opportunity to bring this building and the land around it back to life.”
Karen Kell (Lab), opposing the development on its scale, said it had to be looked at long term. “We have look at what we will lose. The impact that this building will have from the west is just too big and it will dominate and overwhem.”
Keith Robson (Lab) said he felt comfortable about passing the St James development. “I could not go home feeling comfortable passing this tonight.”
Nigel Bagshaw (Green) said that if the officials were ignored “we might as well not have a planning department”. He said: “I could not live with myself if I voted for this today.”
Maureen Child (Lab) said she loved modern buildings. She said she liked the hotel building “but it is in the wrong place”. She added: “We would be doing our city a huge dis-service. It is a development too far. If we can find a use for this building it would terrific, but this is not the development for it.”
Ian Perry (Lab and committee chairman) said there always had to be a balance between economic development and heritage. “These decisions are always difficult,” he said. “I like the design if we can fit it in on that site. Those of you voting for the economic benefit have to be aware you are damaging the heritage.” He moved the officers’ recommendation to reject the plan and the motion was passed.