Activists target 300 objections over Edinburgh’s Old Royal High School as October 2nd deadline looms

Developers intending to covert Edinburgh’s foremost neo-classical building into a luxury hotel “completely ignored” the advice of the watchdog body charged with overseeing the city’s status as a UNESCO World Heritage site, it is claimed.

The director of Edinburgh World Heritage, Adam Wilkinson, told a public meeting held to help corral objections to the scheme that while his organisation had engaged with the project since 2008,  “our advice has not been taken into account. Indeed it has been completely ignored.”

At an‘urgent action meeting’ on the future of the Old Royal High School, the Greek revival temple on the city’s famous Calton Hill, he  made an impassioned appeal for people to lodge objections to the scheme with Edinburgh City Council before an October 2nd deadline.

“What’s happening here is about the soul of the city,” he said,  in his most outspoken remarks on a scheme he said threatened the end of the “picturesque” in  the Athens of the North. . “If there are no objections and the plans go through then we are all culpable,” he said.

The controversial hotel plan for the building which will go to city planners after the deadline passes would see two new six-storey wings built for 300 guests.   Activists set a target yesterday of 300 written objections, warning many would be disqualified if they do not quote accurate references and meet certain guidelines.

Mr Wilkinson said the scheme put culture, against profit – which would be siphoned off to it’s Chinese investors.

Earlier this month Gareth Hoskins, the award-winning architect who has been working with the developers, said he had he had taken account of comments in revised designs for the hotel – though it kept two wings at the heart of the controversy.

“We’ve listened and taken on board views from a wide range of organisations and individuals through the pre-planning process to develop a fundamentally different design for the site,” he said.

Organisers of an alternative proposal to turn the building into the new home for St Mary’s Music School, the city’s school for the most musically gifted Scottish youngsters, last week made a formal offer to the city council to buy the building for £1.5 million.

William Gray Muir, the chairman of the Royal High School Preservation Trust, said the building held a “moral position” in Edinburgh. He said the school scheme’s sponsor, the Dunard Fund, a huge philanthropic funder for music and the arts in Scotland, was deeply committed to the scheme.

With a largely sympathetic audience, he still faced questions over how the cost of the school plan would be covered.   He said that the £1.5 million offer would stay on the table pending a decision on the hotel plan, and that the likely initial cost of restoring the main building would be £8-10 million.

“Hotel companies go bust. Economies come and go. With a very large philanthropic fund like Dunard behind the Royal High School, as one of it’s major projects to support, it will be in very safe hands,” he said.   “In terms of the commitment of Dunard Fund, this is not for Christmas.   This is for life.”

The plan to turn the old Royal High School into a luxury hotel was unveiled formally a year ago with a promised £55m committed by a group of institutional investors led by Duddingston House Properties’  Bruce Hare and David Orr of the Urbanist Group.  They claimed their plans were  likely to create 640 local jobs and contribute on average £27 million annually to Edinburgh’s GDP.

The luxury hotel chain Rosewood Hotels and Resorts were named this month as the future operator of the hotel.   The Rosewood chain, founded in Dallas, was sold in 2011 to New World China Land, described as the mainland China property flagship of Hong Kong-based New World Development.

A spokeswoman for the developers said when contacted by Arts Press this week:  “Because everything to do with the project is now on-line – some 2,500 very interesting pages – the project team don’t feel it is appropriate to be making any statements or comments to the press this point.”


Key Points

Adam Wilkinson, of Edinburgh World Heritage, told the meeting that as far back as 2008 his organisation had put the developer in touch with a “sovereign wealth fund” in a bid to “steer the idea of the hotel into a sensitive scheme”.  That effort fell through, he said, and instead the size and design of the hotel’s new wings’ “crept up and crept out”.

“Throughout the process of the development of the scheme we gave clear and consistent advice,” devoting time as it was an important site and an important building, he said.   “We did this alongside our colleagues at Historic Scotland and the City of Edinburgh Council and I am delighted to say they were exemplary and clear and consistent in their advice too.”

When taking about Edinburgh in forums world-wide he would cite the area from Holyrood Palace and park to Calton Hill and the Old Royal High School, with a  “skyline that was so much a part of Edinburgh, uninterrupted by inhabited space. It’s a beautiful, beautiful sight.”

“It’s that juxtaposition of harmonious and different urban forms, across the Old Town and New Town, about being a renaissance capital hundreds of years ago and more recently a centre of the Enlightenment.”

“Edinburgh has the largest and finest collection of classical buildings in the world…it is about buildings of international acclaim set within a landscape of exceptional drama.”

He said there were other sites in Edinburgh that could house a six storey hotel, such as the multi-storey  car park in Kingstables Road, where a low-rise structure would still command spectacular views of the castle.

“Architectural changes are permanent and difficult to reverse. When you stick a six storey building next to a fine classical buidilng like the Royal High School, that’s not going to be undone. We really have to be strong here in Edinburgh.

“This is about culture,  against profit doesn’t stay in the city.  The profit will go off to its owners who are in China. Culture strengthens our city’s life, it strenghtens our society. People come here for for Edinburgh’s cultural heritage, and not for hotels or nightlife. This is not about development against heritage, it is about damaging development against appropriate development.”