The Council, the Grassmarket and the King’s Stables Road

I still get asked a lot about this so I’m making an attempt to as briefly as possible explain the last eight years of council dealings so I can refer to it. Part one: Nov 2010 – Jan 2015.

In November 2010 Avalanche moved to the Grassmarket encouraged by Edinburgh Council’s intention to make it a cool cultural hub. With Armstrongs Vintage, Analogue Books and Red Dog  already established Avalanche moved in between Red Dog and the famous children’s and craft gift shop Helios Fountain.

Having spent £8m on pedestrianisation there was no way the council weren’t going to follow up on their plans to make it a major events space. First news was that the Christmas Market was cancelled. Not a great start ! However there was an exciting new organisation going to be formed to boost business, the Greater Grassmarket BID !

We had a year to put on events and show the BID would work and I helped put on a very successful two day music festival the next April. Again alarm bells should have rang when the council official I was told would help with all the red tape had, it turned out, been on a 14 month contract not renewed. Then the ballot was delayed to September the following year.

The BID was successful at the ballot but went on to be a disaster, massively underfunded and not only not supported by the council but opposed by the local residents. Edinburgh Council when challenged blamed the trams !

April 2014 and Avalanche takes the break option in our lease and leaves. Soon after I’m approached to help with the sale of the large council site just around the corner in King’s Stables Road. There is to be a hotel and student flats but also the creation of an arts hub, specified interesting retailers and an “attraction”. Will I speak to any interested developers asks the council official in charge of the disposal ? I agree after being told that no amount of money can buy the site if it doesn’t have all the features specified. 

I’m approached by several developers who are quite honest that they intend to do the bare minimum beyond the hotel and flats. I decline. One developer gets in touch and has taken the whole plan from the council on board. It’s a no-brainer their bid will succeed and everything points that way until a couple of days before the winner is announced and I hear a rumour it is going to a larger cash bidder with no arts or retail support and no attraction. 

I should add that before we left the Grassmarket I’d been asked to write a piece in the Edinburgh Evening News when the council passed a motion to support music in the city centre. When the King’s Stables Road site became available I’d written another column on the need for an arts hub. This had generated a lot of interest and contact from people who had previously been involved with reports on the site. 

Footfall was key. The council wanted footfall to flow down from the High Street through the Grassmarket and down King’s Stables Road. To encourage this, and footfall up from Lothian Road, the site would need to be a major attraction on several fronts. Reports had been commissioned to show the great benefit to the area and in addition with places like the Usher Hall and Filmhouse nearby the arts hub idea was hugely popular.

So the council may have fucked up with the Grassmarket but they couldn’t do it twice could they ? They could not have shown a better grasp of what was needed. They even realised that things needed to happen sooner rather than later. They wanted a clean offer with no strings attached and work started ASAP. To ensure that they told me every possible report that might be needed had already been done which had delayed the site going on sale by six months.

They fucked up. They gave the site to a developer who made an unfeasibly high bid with no intention of providing the arts facilities, had no retail plans or details of any further attractions. How can I be sure ? Well I was asked to meet the winning developer and keen to see what was planned I agreed. When I asked they were brutally honest. We have a blank sheet of paper and will consult to see what is wanted. 

The current situation is that they haven’t handed over most of the cash yet on what I’m told is a reduced sum. The place has been reduced to rubble but no building has started and now it is subject to an inquiry called by the developers. Last I heard the arts offering had been included as part of the hotel development !

The council were very clear that the system of scoring was such that the site could not be bought simply with money but when I asked under FOI to see the score sheets and their score for their blank sheet of paper I was told it would be confidential until all the cash had been handed over. There is though I believe no reason why any councillor can’t see the figures.

Be very clear here. This was a once in a lifetime opportunity to make a major difference to the flow of footfall in the city centre and Edinburgh Council with all the information in front of them and for reasons that are simply not clear did the opposite of what they had claimed they would do. I’m yet to receive an explanation.        

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