Jun 242010

Union Terrace Gardens: Aberdeen City Council decided in favour of the ACSEF/Ian Wood City Square Project on Wednesday 19th May 2010. We must respect the democratic process, although many citizens found the outcome incomprehensible. It appears that the decisive stage in the Debate was the split vote, 14-14, on Labour and Conservative amendments presenting a straight choice between the Peacock scheme and the City Square Project with eleven councillors abstaining. The split-vote impasse was resolved by the Lord Provost, who deployed his casting vote in support of the City Square Project, effectively killing off the Peacock option.

Conventional planning practice in the event of a split vote is that the Chairman votes in support of the ‘status quo’, i.e., for no change, against the new proposal or application. The ‘status quo’ in this case might reasonably be considered to be the Peacock scheme,

which already had planning permission of long standing, or it might have been to leave the Gardens alone; but it certainly wasn’t the City Square Project. Whether this departure from conventional practice may provide sufficient basis for an Appeal remains to be seen. Later on, councillors voted 20-7 on two basically similar versions of the City Square Project. In effect, 27 out of the 43 Aberdeen councillors voted in support of the ACSEF/Ian Wood City Square Project. Twelve councillors abstained, whilst three were absent from the vote, having declared interests, and one was absent from the meeting completely.

The issue arises as to whether ACC is not at least implicitly in breach of contract with Peacock Visual Arts, whose scheme had planning permission of long standing, and had invested considerable sums on that basis.

The financial implications of the ACC vote are intimidating to say the least. ACSEF is a public-private sector partnership with no assets of its own, nor even an income stream. It is not a corporate entity, such as a private company or PLC, whose debts are its own problem and no-one else’s. The City Square Project will almost certainly cost upwards of £300 million, of which around £250 million will have to be borrowed. Banks are highly unlikely to lend such sums without very convincing guarantees as to repayment from Aberdeen City Council, which would in turn require that major civic assets – land and property – be put up as collateral. Are we ready to mortgage Council-owned buildings, parks and gardens, in order to finance the City Square Project?

Too many of our elected representatives and commentators seemed to be mesmerised by Sir Ian Wood’s £50 million contribution; which is in reality less of a ‘gift’ but more an opportunity to get the city into hock – potentially to the extent of £250 million, which at a 5% interest rate would cost the town £12,500,000 p.a. – all this for the sake of a bizarrely oversized and inappropriately-located City Square which few of us wanted or saw the point of in the first place.

It cannot be said too often: the accepted civic planning view is that a civic square, plaza, piazza, whatever, has to be at or very near to the centre of activity, i.e., where the shops are, and preferably at a junction or intersection of routeways of choice, a natural crossroads. In Aberdeen, this equates to the area near St Nicholas Street. It isn’t, and never will be, the UTG site.

Other issues are surfacing: e.g. what is going to happen to the adjacent (west) side of Belmont Street? This currently presents an exceptionally attractive vista as seen from Union Bridge, Union Terrace, the Viaduct and the Gardens, resembling with all its turrets and spires a medieval German or Mitteleuropan townscape. How will the essentially level City Square merge into Belmont Street, 1½ storeys below Union Terrace? How will the specified walk-on walk-off access from Belmont Street to the Square be achieved? Will the entire west side of Belmont Street have to be demolished? Or only some individual buildings? In either case, compulsory purchase would be required. ACSEF’s much-quoted estimate of £140 million total cost makes no allowance for compulsory purchase of the Belmont Street buildings, as for a great deal else.

Engineering problems have also been highlighted. The City Square Project involves digging out (not ‘raising’) the Gardens and replacing same with a 4-storey steel and concrete structure, topped off with a concrete ‘lid’ or plinth. Such structures are seldom completely ‘right’, even when new, and tend to deteriorate rapidly, requiring endless expensive remediation work. These problems are compounded when, as with the CSP, the structure is effectively underground. Nor should we forget the underlying Den Burn, culverted or not, or that Railtrack require access to their line for maintenance purposes.

Media Input : BBC Scotland TV News and STV had all featured news items direct from the Gardens in advance of the crucial ACC debate on Wed 19th May. We had lovely sunny weather, the Gardens were looking beautiful, lots of people going about, sitting on the grass etc. Who says the Gardens are ‘unused’? Presumably the same people who argue that nothing grows there, the trees are all dying of Dutch Elm disease – only 12 of the 78 trees are elms – and that three (which three?) local schools have allegedly banned their children from going there, etc. In addition, how many trees, elms or otherwise, will grow out of the proposed concrete lid?

An illuminating piece in the Sunday Herald of 16th May 2010 which showed that ACSEF estimate their City Square Project will cost £140 million. (Other authoritative sources estimate an amount double this figure.) Sir Ian Wood has pledged £50 million and ACSEF expect the private sector to contribute a further £20 million. ACSEF propose to borrow the remaining £70 million, to be financed (repaid) by the anticipated increase in the Business Rates revenue for the area. However, the accountants PriceWaterhouseCooper say that Aberdeen would first of all have to get the Scottish Parliament to pass legislation such that money generated by increased Business Rates revenue remains in the city, instead of going to central government (Holyrood) for redistribution as at present. (How likely is that?) PWC go on to question whether the City Square Project would, in its first few years, generate enough income to cover the interest on the £70 million loan. At the current interest rate of 3%, the £70 million loan would cost the city £150 million over a period of 25 years. In the likely event of the City Square Project going over-budget, i.e., costing more than ACSEF’s estimate of £140 million, the excess will have to be borne by Aberdeen City Council, adding substantially to the required borrowing and debt. The City Square will also be expensive to maintain, in terms of street-cleaning, snow-clearing and gritting in winter, policing etc., all of which costs will fall on ACC.

Notes from the Technical Appraisal by Halliday Fraser Munro re the City Square Project: “The criteria include the provision of the following: level access from all the surrounding streets, being Union Bridge, Union Terrace, Denburn Viaduct and Belmont Street … steel-frame construction with pre-cast concrete planks … forming a temporary or permanent deck as required. Deliverable uses include: a multi-storey car park – 490 spaces on basement floors; potential income £250,000 to £300,000 p.a. Restaurants/Cafés, Delicatessen usages. Hotel/Conference facilities – operators may offer £500,000 p.a. for a 100-120 bedroom hotel. Retail: ‘aspirational’ retailers are unlikely to consider the scheme. Boutique uses in conjunction with restaurant/café and tourism operations would be attractive … there is an opportunity to provide a large-size unit (shop) with frontage to a good secondary retailing pitch on Union Street”. (This last presumably means the north side of Union Bridge!)

Justice Mill Lane: the ongoing Radisson Park Inn and the adjacent Travelodge hotel developments now completely dominate JML from Hardgate to the Bon Accord Baths, reducing this stretch of JML to a sunless alley. The long side elevations of the new buildings press right up against the narrow and uneven pavement adjoining the narrow and heavily-trafficked JML, leaving no room for traffic noise and pollution to disperse. The formerly attractive corner site linking JML to Hardgate Brae and Strawberrybank has been completely destroyed. The front (east) elevation of the Radisson Park Inn completely blocks off the view up JML from Langstane Place and Bon Accord Street, whilst the small houses on Bon Accord Terrace are overwhelmed. This seems to be part of a continuing trend for new developments – Boots/Currys at the Bridge of Dee, Jury’s Inn on Guild Street and City Wharf on Shiprow – to take up every last inch of an available site, to the extent of crowding on to pavements, footpaths, green areas and public space, and to be grossly out of proportion to the adjacent buildings, streetscape and townscape.

In addition to the four hotel developments already under way in the Justice Mill Lane area, we note an application to convert the former Capitol cinema in Union Street, latterly the Jumpin’ Jaks and Chicago Rocks nightspots, into an 8-9 storey hotel. Good news is that the original 1930s Art Deco restaurant is to be restored. The Capitol building extends right back to JML, as does the adjacent Bell’s Hotel, itself the subject of an application for an 11-storey rearwards extension on to JML – the site presently occupied by O’Donoghue’s bar. This does begin to look like an absurd degree of over-provision of hotel accommodation in Justice Mill Lane and vicinity.

Regarding the Radisson Park Inn hotel in Justice Mill Lane, which is shaping up to be a huge and seriously ugly building, a correspondent writes: “It is a shame that the architect, who has done really nice work in Edinburgh where he is based, should when he comes to Aberdeen turn out such a poor project. Back at my days at the Uni, there was rumoured to exist an ‘Aberdeen Curse On Modern Architecture’, to the effect that any new development is done poorly and that any decent architect coming to Aberdeen to build something good would end up having to stoop to the lowest point in his career or see his proposals rejected and scrapped. On a more positive note, the new Sports Village at Aberdeen Uni has been well done and their new Library is going full steam ahead, so let’s hope that the Aberdeen Curse is on its way out”.

Castlegate, Justice Street: the drugs rehab centre and surrounding residential development of 53 low-rent flats are ongoing in the former Timmer Market car park, extending round the corner of Justice Street/East North Street at the Castlehill roundabout. Once again, the site is being built on right up to the narrow footpath or pavement. Pedestrians are forced into uncomfortably close proximity to the heaviest of vehicular traffic on this inner ring road. The new buildings may be said to continue the curve of the existing Justice Street tenements, round to East North Street; but we seem to be in the familiar territory of gross over-development of the available site. The 53 new flats, to be allocated to people on the ACC housing waiting list, will be oppressively close to the heavy and 24/7 vehicular traffic of the Castlehill roundabout and vicinity – surely one of the most bleak and charmless areas in the whole of Aberdeen, much of it in the familiar Stalinist/Brutalist style, relieved only by the Hanover Street and (former) Commerce Street Schools, from about 1900. A local councillor remarked: “It’s not everyone’s cup of tea, having a drugs place in the city centre, but it had to go somewhere”. The point is that the Castlegate isn’t just “somewhere”. It is one of the most historic and (potentially) impressive parts of Aberdeen, affording far and away the best views of the neo-classical townscape, but visited by too few of us, and fewer still, no doubt, now that the Timmer Market car park has been built over. Possibly what the councillor referred to as the “drugs place” could and should have been based at ARI Foresterhill.

In conclusion, we would suggest that our town – any town – can take only so many hits, in the form of seriously bad and ill-judged new developments; there has been a spate of such of late :- Union Square, Shiprow, the Timmer Market, Justice Mill Lane – and now we have to face the prospect of the City Square Project at Union Terrace Gardens, potentially the worst thing to hit Aberdeen since the wrecking of St Nicholas Street and George Street in the 1980s. All of it self-inflicted, all of it approved by our elected representatives and all of it far exceeding anything achieved by Herr Hitler and his Luftwaffe!

Contributed by Alex Mitchell.