Story so far: By the end of Part Two, the brutalist Scottish Office has been abandoned. The fate of the St James Centre hangs in the air.
Part Three: 2000 – 2020
After a decade or so of going nowhere things began to move (slightly) around 2005. In October that year Coal Pension Properties (CPP) put the shopping centre on the market. Six months later it was bought by Donegal Place Investments, one of Northern Ireland’s more aggressive property companies.
The company’s spokesman talked of big plans for refurbishment, more shops, added parking, hundreds of flats for city-centre living etc. It all came to nothing while the shopping centre, car park and Thistle Hotel trundled along, doing business as usual.
Then into the fray stepped Henderson Global Investors (HGI), a London-based finance house which is now a subsidiary of Nuveen which in turn is a subsidiary of the American financial giant TIAA (a fund originally set up by Andrew Carnegie to invest the pension funds of American teachers and academics). In 2006 HGI bought both the shopping centre and St James House (as it was briefly called) with a view to a major redevelopment.
Ten years later Nuveen Real Estate (formerly known as TH Real Estate) sold 75% of the St James project to the Dutch pension giant APG Asset Management which is itself a subsidiary of the Stichting Pensionen Fonds. According to the Estates Gazette, the property developer’s bible, before Henderson clinched the deal with APG they’d tried to entice the Antipodean firm of Australiansuper into Edinburgh but the Aussies didn’t bite.
So who owns what?
I have to admit I’m struggling to sort out who owns what in the swarm of companies and partnerships that now operate on Moultrie’s Hill. I counted no fewer than ten organisations bearing the name Edinburgh St James (e.g. the Edinburgh St James Car Park Operating Co. Ltd). But if the Registers of Scotland (RoS) are to be believed, then the three-hectare (7.4 acres) site is now the property of Edinburgh St James (General Partners) Ltd. They coughed up £161,616,281 for it at the end of 2016 and ‘took entry’ (as Scots lawyers say) on November 26th. Three of the company’s directors – Patrick Kanters, Martijn Vos and Paul Von Stiphout – are Dutchmen from APG Asset Management. The remaining two – Myles White and Stephen Wicks – are British.
And here’s what the Anglo-Dutch developers are promising the citizenry of Edinburgh: 1.7 million square feet of offices, shops, restaurants, hotels, flats and a cinema. All of it worth ‘more than £1billion’. There will be 850,000 square feet of retail space and 152 private apartments, some of which, I suspect, are already being sold ‘off plan’ (i.e. before they are built). The hope is to be up, running and open for business by late 2020 and provide around 3,000 jobs.
In exchange for permitting all this glossy affluence the Council have set a few (fairly modest) conditions. According to the RoS ‘title sheet’ the developers are to build 38 ‘affordable’ houses, but not on Moultrie’s Hill. Certainly not. They are to be on a vacant lot down in Beaverbank Lane near Canonmills. I’d say the new dwellings on Edinburgh St James are not going to be ‘affordable’ for most of us. That lively mix of skilled trades folk, minor bureaucrats, labourers and small businesses that was St James Square circa 1850 is not about to be replicated in 2020.
The developers are also obliged to pay £1.4 million as a ‘tram contribution’, £7,000 to enhance ‘traffic regulations’, £18,000 to the City Car Club, £25,000 a year to boost the Council’s ‘air quality strategy’ with ‘monitoring and modelling’. The developers will also chip in an ‘education contribution’ of £8,480 to improve the facilities at St Thomas Aquinas school off Lauriston Place (although why that particular school is not recorded).
But it’s all part of the deal which, they say, will provide Edinburgh with ‘A world class example of city-enhancing placemaking’. The biggest design job was given to the ever-busy Edinburgh practice of Alan Murray Architects who described their layout of shops, restaurants, bars and cafes as: ‘A great crescent and a family of intimate and linked spaces’ which forms ‘curved streets echoing the great crescents of the city…’
Possible, I suppose. But what’s been built so far looks to me like a large but unexceptional piece of urban architecture – blond limestone cladding pinned to reinforced concrete frameworks forming an arc of five-storey buildings opening to the southwest. But it certainly fits the early brief for a `redesigned and less dominating development’. And while Murray’s buildings are unlikely to set the architectural world buzzing they’ll be a serious improvement on their predecessors which squatted – grim and dark grey – over the site for 40 years.
There are two ‘ancillary’ projects under way. One is to convert one of James Craig’s two remaining tenement B-listed buildings (on what used to be James Craig Walk) from student housing into ‘four floors of small flats’. That seems money well spent. The other is to to restore what used to be St Andrew’s church hall and later evolved into a warehouse and ‘pickup’ point for John Lewis. That’s destined to become another batch of offices with a glazed, three-storey restaurant/cafe extension attached. Both these schemes have been designed by the Edinburgh office of Purcell Architecture Ltd and look fair enough.
The golden turd
But I can’t say the same for the rotunda hotel now being erected at the very centre of the project. Known by unkind locals as the ‘Golden Turd’ it’s the creation of the modish London practice Jestico & Whiles for occupation by the American hotel chain Starwood Hotels & Resorts Worldwide. Twelve storeys high, shaped like a fat egg and clad in a spiral of ‘rosy gold’ ribbon of stainless steel that tapers pointlessly into the air, the hotel will be visible from just about every street in the city centre. If ever a building was unfit for neo-classical Edinburgh it’s this one.
This is how the architects describe their use of the spiral of steel:
The delicate coiling ribbon of the central hotel building is designed to contrast with the robust monolithic stone of its setting within the Edinburgh St James site and in turn with the signature material of Edinburgh. This contrast is in form as well as materiality [sic!] and the metallic finish is the perfect material…’
What they are saying, I suppose, is that the steel spiral is nothing like the shape and colour of the stonework that surrounds it. Why that should be considered a Good Thing I have no idea.
So it came as no surprise to learn that the Jestico & Whiles design was roundly disliked by Edinburgh’s planning officers. They described it as something that would ‘adversely affect the character and appearance of the New Town Conservation Area’ and damage the city’s reputation as a World Heritage Site. They argued for it to be turned down, as did the (usually influential) Cockburn Association and the man from Edinburgh World Heritage (whose job it is to try to make sure that Edinburgh hangs on to its classy world heritage reputation).
But their pleas fell on deaf ears. On Wednesday 12 August 2015, the Development Management Sub-Commitee of the Planning Committee gave the new hotel the nod (by seven votes to five). The councillors agreed with the developers and their architects that the Jestico & Whiles-designed hotel would be a ‘statement of modern Edinburgh…’ So if everything goes to plan the Golden Turd with its ‘stylish guest rooms’, ‘Extreme Wow Suite’, ‘buzzing destination bar’ and ‘rosy gold’ ribbon and all is on its way. The central lift tower is already in place. Once again, Edinburgh’s aesthetes will just have to suck it up. It’s not going to be changed now.
It was the end of 2016 when work on the site got under way. The great demolition machines of contractors Laing O’Rourke moved in and got down to business. First to go was the shopping centre and car park followed by the odd but quite dramatic pedestrian bridge over Leith Street after which disappeared the Thistle Hotel.
Then, bit by bit, the huge, dark grey hulk of New St Andrew’s House was torn down by the demolition engines [see title picture] until all that was left was an enormous hole in the ground which is now sprouting fresh concrete and steel all over Moultrie’s Hill.
In the days before the shopping centre closed for good I liked to walk through what was left. It was an eerie experience. For all its faults the St James shopping centre had bustled from one end to the other, particularly at weekends. Now there were only a few security guards and the occasional curious civilian. All that remained were rows of empty shops, some of them shuttered and the ones that weren’t were littered with retail debris, bits and pieces of display racks, hoardings, wall panels, sheets of fibreboard. The lifts and escalators were silent and some of the ceilings had been cracked open from which dangled loops of dangerous-looking cable. Desolation row was the phrase that popped into my head.
The sole survivor of the original 1960s/70s scheme was Sir Basil Spence’s building for the John Lewis Partnership on the northeast corner of the development. And the only reason Spence’s building survived was because John Lewis flatly refused to move out. As the developers could not afford to lose their vital retail ‘anchor’ they agreed to work around the John Lewis building leaving John Lewis to rearrange their store (which they did brilliantly) and their customers to put up with a few years of loud bangs, hammering and vibration.
Expect a fight
Having won a battle that they should have lost (over the hotel), the bosses of Edinburgh St James are now objecting to the ‘Dunard Centre’ – the £45 million concert hall and studios to be built on a site behind Dundas House, the one-time headquarters of the Royal Bank of Scotland in St Andrew Square. It’s a decent enough scheme and it’s been designed by Sir David Chipperfield, an architect of some international repute.
Nuveen, which is behind the nearby Edinburgh St James development, argues that the concert hall will damage the Edinburgh skyline and World Heritage Site.Architects Journal
On the face of it, Chipperfield’s concert hall looks like just the kind of neighbour the Edinburgh St James would want to have. But it seems not. The men and women behind the Edinburgh St James are not at all happy. Apparently they feel that musical fun and games in the new venue might get out of hand and inflict unseemly noises on the Golden Turd’s paying customers in their ‘stylish guestrooms’. The row continues.
Anyone venturing onto Moultrie’s Hill to do business should expect a fight.
Postscript: Nuveen Real Estate (formerly TH Real Estate), the developers of St James Square, have launched a legal challenge in the Court of Session, having lost their objection to the Dunard Centre earlier this year. ‘Nuveen has made a series of failed attempts to block the scheme and this appears to be the last opportunity left to them.’ says Architects Journal.