Partially eclipsed by high-profile hoo-has over the old Royal High School, the Ross Development Trust (RDT) last week presented outline proposals for West Princes Street Gardens at a public meeting on 13 March organised by the Cockburn Association. 

The Gardens are by no stretch of the imagination in Broughton. But the case is important given the remarkable speed and scale with which this venue is being reimagined. We think it merits careful scrutiny at a time when Edinburgh's civic spaces are increasingly being pressed into new uses. 

Caroline Roussot attended for the Spurtle. Her personal observations appear below.

Public will not spend a penny

Readers with good memories will recall the coverage of proposals for the Ross Bandstand in Spring 2015 (STV, 30.3.15).

The intervening period seems to have been spent getting the Council onside for a major corporate redevelopment of the Gardens, culminating in the recent launch of a design competition for:

  • an ‘iconic’ new concert venue on the site of the old Ross Bandstand
  • a new terraced cafe and ‘visitor centre’ occupying the steeply banked ground on the Princes Street border
  • a new, vastly enlarged bridge offering pantechnicon access to the site.

It should be noted that the overall cost of the redevelopment is projected to be in the region of £25 million, but no public monies will be involved. Instead, it will be bankrolled exclusively by philanthropic private enterprise and public fundraising.

Teams and timing

For now, the actual brief remains vague. RDT states that in this first stage it is selecting teams, based on their relevant experience, before getting down to the details.

The more pessimistic among us might suspect that, whilst this may not be RDT's intention, such a process risks bypassing grass-roots public discussion about what the brief should be in the first place.

Earlier in the day, the first stage in the competition (potential teams nominating themselves) had closed. Some 125 groups had expressed an interest. A shortlist of at least 5 teams, with whom a brief will be explored in detail, is due to be announced tomorrow. The deadline for final submissions is 9 June, with a public exhibition and consultation 10 days later, and announcement of the winner on 2 August 2017.

Design elements

RDT’s David Ellis presented the Trust’s thoughts about different elements of the design. This closely matched information already available from the Trust’s website and covered in the Spurtle on 9.2.17 and 17.2.17.

There was little new under the headings Fountain, Pavilion, Visitor Centre, Bridge, Rain Shelters, Landscaping, Lighting, Wayfinding. It was reported that listed building consent for repairs to the Ross Fountain, which are precisely scoped, had been granted on 9 March. For all other matters we will just have to wait and see what’s in the shortlisted design schemes. 

However, one new and exciting element did emerge: the Trust plans to convert the Gardener’s Cottage (Victorian red sandstone structure at the Galleries end, next to the Floral Clock) into a marketing suite to wine and dine potential corporate sponsors.

The decor would have ‘a Victorian theme’, and we saw an artist’s impression of what it might look like. From the intricate panelling, deep red swags and drapes, red flock wallpaper, gilt mirrors and mock-luxury red upholstery, the impression was that the original occupant had spent less time on horticulture and more on running one of Edinburgh’s costlier knocking shops back in the 1870s ... but I digress.

A question of trust

To this correspondent’s mind, observers would have greater confidence in the proposals if RDT could address clearly the following issues:

  • We were told that the new concert venue will have a capacity of 2,000 inside, 3,000 seated outside (presumably in some sort of ticketed enclosure) and another 3,000-5,000 standing/milling/lolling on the grass round about. However, the developers were at great pains to assure us that events of this size would only be held a couple of times a year (e.g. end of the Festival and at Hogmanay), and that for the rest of the year the venue would be used for ‘intimate’ small-scale events with an audience of a couple of hundred.
  • In addition, the current vehicular access to the site (a narrow bridge capable of bearing 7.5 tons) is to be upgraded sixfold to bear 44 tons. RDT insist that this is not to allow pantechnicons year-round access to the site for large events, but is only to make the Hogmanay set-up easier.

Unfortunately, such assurances still left me feeling uneasy. How will small-scale restrictions be enshrined contractually? Why is such major infrastructure required at all for such occasional use?

Who pays, who gains?

A Cockburn member asked how future maintenance obligations would be divided between RDT and City of Edinburgh Council. The answer was vague – we’ll need to wait and see.

Very interestingly, one of the Trustees volunteered that we would also need to wait and see how revenues generated on the site would be divided. RDT’s thought was that catering and retail etc. income at the visitor centre should be ‘all theirs’. It would not speculate on who would receive what proportion of income from the events themselves. It’s lucky this is all philanthropic, I thought.

Hang on a minute … Who asked us?

I worry that insufficient time has been allowed in the competition schedule for the public to be properly consulted on the proposals and to let their feelings be known.

Furthermore, the ‘necessity’ of a major corporate overhaul of West Princes Street Gardens seems to be being presented as a self-evident fait accompli. As far as I can see, the opportunity for public comment is restricted to a single day: 19 June 2017.

While of course we will be able to comment on any actual planning application in due course, that strikes me as far too late a stage at which to raise serious questions about the scale and intentions of the project as a whole.

Not yet convinced

I remain quite sceptical that the Gardens are the best place for the developers to pursue their stated aims of driving increased footfall to the city centre’s ‘retail offer’ and of exploiting ‘substantial opportunities to increase city revenues’.

Surely, we’ve already seen the effects of that mind-set in another garden over recent years? Are we now sleepwalking into another St Andrew Square morass?

Got a view? Tell us at spurtle@hotmail.co.uk or @theSpurtle or Facebook


 Kate Kelly Great article - it raises a lot of important issues. Unfortunately, on past evidence there is little reason to trust the Council to uphold the interests of the public, or to protect community assets, when there is a prospect of 'big business' picking up the bill.

West Princes Street Gardens
55° 57' 2.916" N, 3° 11' 48.5952" W