Interview: Chris Stewart, property developer
It was seven years ago, at a conference in Berlin, that a link was forged between one of the world’s biggest hotel companies and the grandfather of Treasure Island author Robert Louis Stevenson.
During the annual event for hotel investors Chris Stewart, the Scottish property developer, told Tim Walton, senior vice president of Marriott Hotels about his project to redevelop a semi-derelict row of Georgian buildings in the centre of Edinburgh.
They had been home to Robert Stevenson, whose grandson went on to become of the world’s most celebrated authors. Stevenson senior was a bit of star himself; a renowned lighthouse engineer whose body lies in nearby Calton cemetery.
The terrace, close to the Playhouse theatre and the new St James shopping development, had remained unoccupied for 15 years since being vacated by an insurance company. Stewart, who has created a niche in regeneration projects such as Advocates Close and The Registers, saw it as an ideal project for a hotel.
That meeting with Tim Walton led to a long and complex process of rebuilding the interior and extending at the rear to create a 240-room Courtyard by Marriott, one of only four in the UK.
The £30m four-star development in Baxter’s Place unites three adjoining Georgian townhouses with the new building connected by glassed walkways.
“It took a long time to get the building right. When we started talking there was very little funding available,” says Stewart.
“The engineering works were very complex and but the planners were very positive and supportive.”
He was keen to give the building a distinctive identity by bringing a new hotel brand into the city and Marriott was looking for suitable locations for its Courtyard brand. It has 1,000 across the world but had just three in the UK.
Walton enthuses about the finished product. “It is a fabulous location, a fabulous location,” he says. “All credit to Chris for taking this on and creating something authentic with a local twist.”
Stewart says that despite a flurry of hotel openings in the city the four-star market has been under-supplied.
“When you look at the figures for growth of traffic through the airport, for instance, you can see the demand is still there and there is no sign of it stopping.”
Stewart is happy with the blend of international franchisor and the local identity that has been maintained and introduced into the Courtyard. It is sourcing local produce and the walls are adorned with drawings, referencing Stevenson’s work, provided by the Northern Lighthouse Board.
Walton is now turning his attention to the latest Courtyard being built at Heriot Watt University. Like Baxter’s Place it will be operated by RedefineBDL. It will be the first located at a university campus and will target the families of students. The company is looking to develop Courtyards at two universities in England.
With Baxter’s Place now regarded as “job done”, Stewart is focused on completing the redevelopment of the Registers in St Andrew Square and a group of former council offices off George Square in Glasgow.
He says there are no other projects firmed up. “There may be some offered to us that are financially sound, but they don’t necessarily excite us,” he says. “We have to feel inspired to take them on.”