King’s Stables Road – Money vs The Arts and Footfall

Piles of UK BanknotesThe key to the bidding for King’s Stables Road I was told over and over again by Edinburgh Council was credibility and deliverability. All the bidders would be expected to be able to build hotels and flats and be able to raise the money to do so but too many times developers had promised to deliver arts projects and fallen short so this would not be allowed to happen again. What is more there was a double whammy in that the whole complex would need to also address the current footfall issues suffered by the area. To this end there would not only need to be interesting retail and an arts space to add to the expected flats and a hotel but the area would also need to be an “attraction”. Those of you who followed my comments at the time will know all this to be true from what was said.

The council were happy I could deliver interesting retail and I immediately brought in an expert in delivering arts studios and spaces in Tom Watton who had recently finished the development at St Margaret’s House. The council were sufficiently impressed to recommend us to several developers. Unfortunately it quickly becane clear that only one developer was taking the arts and retail complex seriously. Emails begining “we are primarily looking to build student flats but thought maybe we could add in some of your ideas” didn’t inspire confidence.

Regular discussions with the council only reinforced the idea that money alone could not buy this site as without planning, offers of large amounts of money meant nothing and without embracing the arts and the footfall issue planning wouldn’t be granted. I was impressed by the council’s thoughts on the site and the problems it faced. More importantly whoever I spoke to within the council they all seemed to be on the same page in what was needed. The space under the private flats earmarked for retail had to be opened out onto King’s Stables Road and planning had already been agreed to extend the pavement so people could sit outside and the “buzz” could be seen from the Grassmarket. The site would need to benefit the Grassmarket economy and attracting high spending visitors would be essential. A budget hotel would not fit the bill at all. My ideas of creating an attraction based around he Grassmarket’s history with horses was well received.

It was also made clear that getting through planning first time was essential. As it was it was expected to take a year for the deal to be concluded and no further delay would be acceptable. Consequently it was paramount that local businesses and residents were on board with any plans submitted. This is why I was so surprised as were the other interested parties that no contact was made by any developer except the one I had had talks with. At a meeting with the winning bidder’s representatives for planning and PR I was told they had an email confirming at no time did Edinburgh Council ask for or imply that the local community should be consulted prior to bids being made. That is simply bizarre.

So the bidder I had spoken to seemed to have a good chance of success. He was amongst the highest initial bids and would deliver everything the council wanted and more with relation to the arts and supporting the area. He had met with the Grassmarket BID and promised the local businesses and community support while the project was being finalised and then built and indeed would pay to secure the site so some events could start to take place immediately. So keen were Peveril, the winning bidders, to have some good news they jumped at the chance to agree to the Hidden Door Festival and then admitted to me Edinburgh Council had been less than happy as it was not really in their gift unless agreed with the council who own the land and were now put in a position of looking bad if they said no.

With seven bids shortlisted it was quite possible another developer might come up with more money and some fancy London plans for an arts and retail complex and my bidder would lose out but I never expected what I was told when Peveril wee confirmed as the successful bidders. They had simply offered “loads of money”. In fact as much as 5 million pounds more than anybody else. On the other hand, and this again was confirmed at our meeting, they had no plans for an arts/retail complex simply a commitment to build one. They had a blank piece of paper and would consult the community and what they wanted. They have since met with the BID and were unable to deny there would also be a budget hotel saying as they said to me they would “go to the market”.  Again odd as the developer I had spoken to had an impressive US hotel signed up if his bid was successful.

I have been asked if there is any chance I would work with Peveril given I have the trust of many of the parties involved to do what is best for the area and I haven’t ruled it out nor I should add have I been asked. However the stumbling block must always be that they have no expertise in building an arts complex and more importantly they have to recover all that extra money they have offered and that can only be done by scaling down any ideas for the arts complex dramatically. I have made enquiries as to how after all that was said the council simply took the money and all I was told was that the decision was made at the highest level.

It does seem as if the Grassmarket has been short changed dramatically again. After the disruption of the pedestrianisation all the promises made for events in the area disappeared as Edinburgh council put all their efforts and cash into the problems the tram works were causing businesses. What is more the Essential Edinburgh BID which has a council member on its board then did its best to keep all the Christmas and New Year business to itself and the devastation to the Grassmarket is well recorded. Again how the council justify this I have no idea but so many well known businesses have been forced to close culminating in the closure of Helios Fountain and Christmas trading has played a large part in this. The Grassmarket BID could undoubtedly have done more but faced with competing with the cash rich Essential Edinburgh BID they were always fighting a losing battle.     

I know some want to question the King’s Stables Road decision and I’m not sure what can be revealed but a starting point may be the chair of the meeting who made the decision which is Councillor Frank Ross

Again I know those affected by Essential Edinburgh, and it is not just the Grassmarket, would like to know how the council can justify suporting one area at the expense of others. The full board is here and the council’s representative is Councillor Frank Ross As you will see those quirky Grassmarket traders are expected to compete with Harvey Nichols, RBS, John Lewis, McDonalds, The Balmoral Hotel and Standard Life to give but some of the big names.

Personally what is most annoying here is that I fell for Edinburgh Council’s promises not once but twice. The Grassmarket would have been a completely different place if they had followed through with their ideas. “There is enough power for a U2 concert” I was told and while I didn’t expect Bono I also didn’t expect to be told the person assigned by the council to help organise events hadn’t had their contract renewed or that the Christmas market was cancelled. I’m only one of many for whom the council’s decisions have had a huge financial consequence and it is understandable that now being charged extra for the BID to oversee an ever declining footfall has proved too much for some.

Again Edinburgh Council were so convincing with their ideas for the King’s Stables Road site partly I’m sure because the views expressed were genuine. Clearly a lot of thought had gone into what was needed and it would seem that despite many people’s best intentions somebody decided to simply take the money. Even as a financial decision this is still wrong as the damage to the Grassmarket economy will easily exceed any extra money the council have made by accepting such a high bid. That no other developer came close is surely a clue.

The first consultation I’m told is in June. Hopefully by then they will have written something more on that blank piece of paper than “arts complex”.

The proposal I was involved with for King’s Stables Road is here

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