I hear a PAN for the Royal High School luxury hotel conversion should be submitted before Christmas. If it's anything like the old design this will be a planning battle royale...
A world-class hotel capable of attracting a new breed of super-rich tourists to Edinburgh would be built on Calton Hill under plans unveiled today.
Three of the world’s leading luxury hotel chains, none of which currently operate in Scotland, have been shortlisted to run the venture which would offer accommodation on a par with Claridges and The Connaught in London or The Ritz in Paris.
The project would save the crumbling old Royal High School, once considered as a possible location for the Scottish Parliament, and deliver a £27 million annual boost to the Capital’s economy.
Duddingston House Properties (DHP) hopes to draw clientele from among the wealthiest international travellers by creating a hotel boasting stunning views sweeping across Arthur’s Seat, the Edinburgh skyline and East Lothian. The ambition to catapult the derelict building - which has lain largely unused since the former boys school moved to Barnton in 1968 - into the premier league of European hotels means that Edinburgh stands to gain a new level of luxury, demanding prices never before seen in the Scottish tourist market.
Similar historic five-star hotels in European capitals operated by major international brands, such as the Four Seasons Hotel George V in Paris, charge nightly rates north of £800 for a standard room and more than £2700 for the best suites.
It is estimated that the hotel, which would open the grand building to the public on a regular basis for the first time in its 190-year history, would create 640 jobs and generate £32 million a year for the Scottish economy, including £27 million annually in Edinburgh.
£55m of private funding has been secured from private investors to ensure the project can go-ahead without public funding.
The A-listed building will remain publicly-owned with the city council having handed the developers a 125-year conditional lease following a competition in 2010. The hotel will be designed by the award-winning architect behind the renovation of the National Museum of Scotland, Gareth Hoskins, with the project being driven forward under the leadership of DHP chief executive Bruce Hare and hotelier David Orr of the Urbanist Group, the firm that helped bring Harvey Nichols to Edinburgh.
Mr Orr said he believed the hotel would have a similar impact on the economy of the city, cementing Edinburgh as a destination for “international diplomatic events” and global conferences.
He said: “What we are proposing to do is to add something truly special to the Edinburgh hotel market by bringing one of the best hotel operators in the world. This will not in any way diminish current hotel provision – indeed it will add another tier at the top, which can only benefit all of the city’s operators.
“By increasing the breadth of hotel offering, Scotland’s capital will be in a position to attract new visitors from the top end of the market as well as improve its ability to compete with other European cities for international diplomatic events and important global conferences.
“But importantly, one of Edinburgh’s architectural jewels in the crown will be sensitively restored and the public will have access to Hamilton’s superb building for the first time.”
Edinburgh-based tourism consultant Kenneth Wardrop said the plans would fill a gap at the very height of the city’s hotel market, which currently fails to provide for the most exacting international guests.
Mr Wardrop said: “The city doesn’t have the high-end hotels that it should have for the kind of destination that it is, therefore it’s missing out on key markets and key distribution channels because it doesn’t have those hotels.
“It gets you into a market that is under-served in the city.
“With new international air routes like American Airlines, Etihad and Qatar Airways, they have links into these kinds of hotel chains like Movenpick, Intercontinental and Four Seasons that their passengers expect to find at the destinations they fly to.”
An application for outline planning consent is due to be submitted next month, with a three-day public exhibition at the old Royal High School in February that will set out further details of the plans.
Wider proposals for improvements to Calton Hill and the surrounding streets are expected to be included in the final plans.
The plans have been backed by Edinburgh Airport chief executive Gordon Dewar, who said the hotel would help the Capital “market itself around the globe”.
He said: “Edinburgh’s success in world tourism requires that it keeps ahead of its competition and responds to the needs and demands of the tourist market.
“A world-class hotel will enable Edinburgh to market itself around the globe as a great place to live, work and study as well as attract further inward investment opportunities.
“This will also help sell Edinburgh to the airlines at a time when we are competing with many other European Airports to attract their investment into the Capital, both as a market and a destination.”
A spokesman for the council said: “The old Royal High School building has not had a continuous use since the school moved 46 years ago.
“We look forward to the pre-application process in January for this important project by the developers who won the council’s competition.
“Edinburgh is demonstrating its ability to attract significant inward investment across a series of important projects which are crucial to the positioning of the city in Europe and to the creation of new job opportunities.”
‘ONE OF THE FINEST BUILDINGS IN THE KINGDOM’
1826: Construction begins on the Royal High School, with a £500 donation from King George IV towards £35,000 building costs.
1829: The school, designed in a neo-classical Doric style by Thomas Hamilton, opens as a school for boys.
1866: Named by architect Alexander Thomson as one of the “finest buildings in the kingdom” for its Greek revival style.
1968: Royal High School relocates to new premises in Barnton.
1979: School’s former Great Hall converted into debating chamber for a new Scottish Parliament, but referendum fails to back its creation.
1994: Edinburgh Council reacquires the building and grounds from the Scottish Office for £1.75m.
2004: Heritage Lottery Fund and council support plan to create a Scottish National Photography Centre at a cost of £20m.
2010: Plan for ‘arts hotel’, costing £35m. Duddingston House Properties wins right to develop.
Plans to turn the old Royal High School into a world-class luxury hotel will attract new international air links to the Capital, the chief executive of Edinburgh Airport has said.
Gordon Dewar said airlines would use the marquee attraction in publicity material aimed at first-class travellers from the Middle East and China in particular.
Developers have raised £55 million from private investors to turn the derelict building on Calton Hill into a global destination hotel in a bid to attract some of the world’s wealthiest visitors to Scotland.
Mr Dewar, who also sits on the board of VisitScotland and the Scottish Tourism Alliance, said the hotel would help sell more first and business-class tickets. He said: “When we talk about what are referred to as ‘six star’ [hotels], these are a handful of operators that are truly world brands and the biggest world cities get excited about attracting them.
“The thing that gets the attention of people from Brazil or India or China is when they get some brand recognition that bolsters their view that this is a place that they would like to visit.
“Airlines that are looking to bring new routes to Scotland will see this sort of investment and think ‘this is going to contribute to being able to sell this destination to all of our passengers’ and, really importantly, the business class and first-class tickets that are key to the overall commercial performance of the route.”
The airport has expanded its links to the Middle East, attracting Turkish Airlines in 2012, Qatar Airways in 2014 and Etihad Airways from 2015.
“You have no idea how upbeat they will be at this development, because they are selling tickets from Australia, China and from the Middle East itself,” Mr Dewar said.
“These are the sorts of brands that they can put on their in-flight magazines and sell through their networks.”
The airport chief’s comments were echoed by Robin Worsnop, the chairman of the Edinburgh Tourism Action Group, who said the hotel would “put Edinburgh on the map as a destination”. “I know that the top end of the market would welcome another player alongside the Balmoral and the Waldorf Astoria,” he said.
“It’s definitely part of the Edinburgh tourism strategy to attract wealthy visitors to the city.”
The Evening News yesterday revealed that developer Duddingston House Properties (DHP) aims to create a luxury hotel on a par with some of the most exclusive in Europe, commanding prices unlike anything seen in the Scottish tourist trade so far.
Three luxury international brands that don’t have hotels in Scotland are on a shortlist to run the old Royal High School once renovations are complete.
Heritage groups have backed plans to transform the famous old Royal High School into a luxury hotel because almost 50 years of inaction have left it in a “perilous” condition.
The Cockburn Association insisted the 1820s landmark was in decline and said its conversion into a “six-star” resort was likely to be the “only way to restore this splendid architectural piece”.
But the group’s director, Marion Williams, stressed that “the devil is in the detail” and they would pore over the blueprints when they are lodged in January.
This week, the News revealed plans by developers Duddingston House Properties (DHP) and the Urbanist Group to renovate the abandoned 19th century boys’ school into a world-class hotel to attract the some of world’s wealthiest visitors to Edinburgh.
The firms have already raised £55 million of investment to kick-start the project.
Once complete, the investors hope the hotel will command prices never before seen in the Scottish tourist market – on a par with some of the most exclusive hotels in Europe.
Citing examples such as the Four Seasons Hotel George V in Paris, where rates for standard rooms start at over £800 per night, developers said the hotel would brand Edinburgh as a global destination and could help attract high profile conferences to the Capital.
Ms Williams said that while an “uber-exclusive hotel” might not provide the level of access she would prefer for the public, it was an acceptable compromise to save the old Royal High School building.
She said: “We have been on site and met with [architect] Gareth Hoskins and [developer] David Orr to discuss their plans for the RHS.
“We welcome early involvement with sites as significant as this. The building and grounds are in a sorry state and we welcome the ambitious plans that will restore and enhance the main building.
“It offers such a unique view of the city, both its built and natural landscape across the Old Town to Arthur’s Seat and the Crags.”
And she added: “I am keen to see the building made accessible for everyone to enjoy and, whilst an uber-exclusive hotel doesn’t make it obviously so, it may well be the only way to restore this splendid architectural piece with the compromise of occasional access.
“The devil is in the detail and we will discuss the detailed plans as they emerge in the new year.”
Diane Watters, an architectural historian at the Royal Commission on the Ancient and Historical who has studied the building, said: “The Royal High School has always been recognised as possibly the most important 19th century classical revival building in Scotland.
“It’s almost universally accepted as a masterpiece of a revival Greek building in the UK.
“Also, from an educational history point of view, the status of the Royal High School has always been as one of the major educational institutions of Scotland.”
We should all be excited by the prospect of a world-leading hotel brand occupying the Royal High School site in Edinburgh.
Why? There are three compelling reasons: First, the jobs and high-value spending that only comes to cities that host an international five-star brand; second, the opportunity to regenerate an architectural gem that has, sadly, fallen into disrepair; and third, to prove that Edinburgh is a city in which imaginative modern architecture can sit alongside the old within a World Heritage site.
The prospect of a global brand hotel for Edinburgh is therefore important, not just for the Capital, but for the whole of Scotland. Significantly, the project developers have a shortlist of three operators who have indicated their interest in locating in Edinburgh. As yet, we don’t know who they are, but we do know that they do not operate in Scotland. Exclusive, high-value global hospitality brands such as Intercontinental or Mandarin Oriental bring with them an international clientele whose spending locally and influence globally is worth much more than the average visitor. Brands like these only operate a few exclusive properties on each continent – and they are prepared to invest significant sums to locate themselves on prime sites – good news for a building that is now deteriorating rapidly.
A hotel of this calibre will undoubtedly lift Edinburgh higher up the league table of destination cities that have the capacity to attract destination brand hotels. Over the last decade in Edinburgh what we’ve seen in complex city centre redevelopment sites is a hotel as the cornerstone of the development, underpinning its viability. However, in Edinburgh, most of these have been mid-range hotel brands – and while these are very welcome, we have neglected the five-star market and its capacity to support conferences at the EICC and stimulate the year-round tourism economy. An exclusive five-star global hotel is a big statement for Edinburgh internationally – and it is important our planners and public agencies recognise the opportunity – for the building, for the economy and for Edinburgh.
There is quite rightly an onus on the developers of the proposed new hotel to clearly demonstrate that a sustainable restoration and dynamic new build is not only possible but desirable within a world heritage site. A few years ago, Francisco Banderin, the Unesco Director of World Heritage, delivered a lecture in Edinburgh and spoke about what is and what is not acceptable on world heritage sites, quoting many examples of the good and the bad from around the world. What was clear form his lecture is that Unesco believes that it is not only possible, but desirable, to create appropriate new-build architecture in a world heritage environment, provided it is compatible with its environment. At the Royal High School, we have the developer, the finance and ambition in place to position high-quality modern alongside the old – and save one of Edinburgh’s most famous buildings for future generations.
Issues of design, function and form are obviously extremely important on such a prime site; but we must not lose sight of another important issue – the future employment and economic contribution of the development to our city.
The estimated 640 local jobs and £27 million annually in GDP likely to be generated for Edinburgh by the Royal High School hotel is significantly higher than the contribution from other economic activity. More-over, the hospitality industry has the capacity to create employment and career opportunities for our young people at a time when youth unemployment is still significantly higher than the adult average.
I visited the Royal High School building recently. The last time I had been inside was at a meeting five years ago. I was dismayed by the deterioration in the condition of the property since then. The roof is leaking, damp is evident everywhere and the structure is clearly in need of restoration and repair if it is to be saved. This is the best opportunity we are likely to get to restore the Royal High School to its former glory and provide Edinburgh with a five-star jewel in its tourism crown at the same time.
• Graham Birse is director of the Edinburgh Institute at Edinburgh Napier University
The pre-application notification for a major redevelopment of the former Royal High School on Regent Road will be submitted to City of Edinburgh Council on Monday.
The proposal envisages a mix of luxury hotel, café/restaurant, conference/meeting rooms and exhibition space.
Duddingston House Properties (DHP) will hold public exhibitions on-site in early February and March. A full application will follow soon after.
If all goes according to DHP’s plan, the refurbished and newly extended building will open for business in 2018.
Spurtle yesterday toured the building with DHP representatives. This account is largely informed by their take on the situation. We invite readers with comments or counter-opinions of their own to get in touch.
Thomas Hamilton’s Category A-listed, classically inspired, blue-sky temple of education – responding to the national Parthenon up the hill – stands on a south-facing slope overlooking Holyrood, the Old Town and Arthur’s Seat beyond.
Begun in 1825 and completed four years later, it has long had – on sunny days – an unusual capacity to excite and inspire.
Yesterday, in fierce winds and driving sleet, it was utterly dispiritiing.
Outside, where it wasn’t turning green, the structure was various shades of misery. It looked dreuchit. The inside – shabby, pigeon-shited, stained with damp, littered with fallen plaster and broken light fittings – was no cheerier. Some of the wooden sashes are spongy on the inside, window panes are cracked, various interior walls are clammy to the touch. The building is clearly sick.
And no wonder. Since it ceased to be a school in 1968, no established use has been found for the place. It’s owned by City of Edinburgh Council, which runs a few services out of peripheral structures in the old playground, and has pumped in some £20m over the years to maintain the central Hamilton edifice. However, since the Crash of 2008, CEC money has been prioritised on front-line services elsewhere.
The building’s physical decline is accelerating. It has never had a damp-proof course, relying instead on the precision tightness of its stone joints. But now up to six inches of rainwater pools above the gallery and is finding its way through. Even if it could be afforded, there are now doubts about the wisdom of switching on the central heating – it might simply roll out a welcome mat for dry rot.
Just to stabilise the building’s condition at this stage would cost an estimated £5m.
So, with this magnificent landmark at serious risk of terminal decline and no public money to save it, what is to be done?
Six years ago, CEC ran a competition, inviting potential developers to come forward with alternative futures for the site. In return for a 125-year conditional ground-lease (after which the school must return into public hands 'in no worse condition' than it left them), it wanted a sustainable use with economic and financial benefits for the city. In 2010, it selected DHP’s vision as the most viable.
A new economic model
DHP’s chief executive Bruce Hare acknowledges that any scheme entailing major changes to this building will be controversial. It comes with a weight of history. As 'New Parliament House', it resonates for many as a symbol of nationalist aspiration. It stands austerely on the hill, proclaiming whatever is left of Edinburgh’s Athenian pretensions.
There have been hopes over recent years that it might be converted into a Museum of Photography – appropriate, given its proximity to Hill and Adamson’s early studio next door. But like other lofty-minded possibilities (16.8.09), this soon failed for want of public funds.
DHP enlisted Scottish Development International to evaluate commercial options, and that research now points to using parts of the site as a top-of-the-market hotel.
'Top-of-the-market' in this context vastly exceeds what Edinburgh’s traditional ‘railway hotels’ currently offer, and would propel Edinburgh into a select company of world-ranking venues for the very very wealthy indeed. Its proposed 150–60 rooms would average 35 sq.m each compared to the Balmoral’s 27 sq.m. (Size apparently counts when you’re seriously loaded.)
Other hoteliers in the city welcome the prospect of such competition, says Hare, believing it would lead to an overall raising of standards and an increase in profit margins. Currently, there’s a race to the bottom driven by an abundance of budget accommodation in the city.
Another report, by Oxford Economics, estimates that DHP’s luxury business would add £32m per year to Scotland’s GDP (£27m to Edinburgh’s) and create 740 jobs. DHP says it has whittled down 50 interested hotel groups to three ‘world-class’ operators from whom they would – if their scheme were consented – pick a partner.
To show they're serious, DHP have secured access to £60m private investment. Substantial investment from the chosen hotel operator is also a condition of being chosen.
Such funding is hard won (hence the delay between 2010 and now), and does not remain on the table for long. Hare claims that if consent is not granted this year, the whole project will fold.
Restoration, re-use, redevelopment
DHP plan to restore Hamilton’s centre-piece, and re-use it as conference/meeting rooms, restaurant/bar/café and exhibition space.
The last two elements are interesting not least because they would:
• be open to the public (thereby, in Spurtle’s opinion, partially mitigating the disagreeable prospect of a super-exclusive hotel patronised by the disgustingly rich)
• if sited at street level, increase footfall to Regent Road and potentially provide additional pedestrian access from the top of Calton Hill via Jacob’s Ladder to the Old Town
• constitute a significant change to the structural organisation of the building and its relationship at ground-floor level with the street.
PHP propose to demolish the more recent structures on either side of Hamilton’s centrepiece, replacing them with two modern 'platforms' for hotel accommodation. These, says Hare, would restore the symmetry of Hamilton’s original conception, offering ‘simple, clean-cut, respectful and separate additions’.
They would, he says, rise no higher than the central string-course at the front, and match the current height of the gymnasium where they step back towards the hill. They would not encroach laterally on the Hamilton building, but would be linked to each other and the centre by glazed galleries at ground-floor level.
Few would mourn the buildings earmarked for demolition. Taking down the gymnasium would also have the interesting effect of revealing an original Hamilton tower, currently engulfed by later construction.
Overall, Hare speaks of making the ‘minimum architectural intervention possible’. He is clearly aware, though, of public scepticism, some heritage champions’ downright opposition, and nervous officials.
DHP are therefore now engaged in extensive pre-PAN consultation, and an ongoing process of charming, explaining and persuading CEC staff, private individuals, community groups and councils, and the media.
DHP are not looking at the Royal High School in isolation.
They are keen to preserve ‘key views’ of the building from elsewhere in the city, and – as mentioned earlier – to improve accessibility.
They’re looking also at improving the building’s links to the rest of Calton Hill, an area which, Hare says, itself needs urgent attention.
The hill attracts 450,000 visitors a year but has no overall management plan, only one public loo, and an 'unsavoury reputation after dark'.
Spurtle quite likes the disjointed, haphazard and exposed inadequacies of Calton Hill. They match the unfinished Disgrace at its summit, and place a morally improving strain on the bladders of otherwise pampered tourists. We also enjoy the fact that its seedy night-time economy flourishes amid so much national pomp, outwith anybody's sanitised corporate or civic management structure. However, we accept that not everyone will agree.
No time to waste
What is one to make of all this? In summary:
• The building in its current condition and state of maintenance will not survive.
• Merely preserving the property is not a cheap option or a good use of space.
• DHP has a researched and funded project with a choice of business partners willing to co-invest.
• That project, they claim, would benefit Edinburgh’s economy.
• That project would involve substantial reworking – some say improvement, some say desecration *– of an architectural masterpiece and its immediate setting.
Spurtle has no settled view on the matter. We’ve not seen the PAN exhibition yet or studied a single artist’s impression.
But the former Royal School is dilapidating in front of one’s eyes. Every day it becomes more expensive to preserve and more difficult to re-use. There is no merit in a perfectly authentic ruin.
We know opponents of the DHP proposals have well-founded reasons for their stance, and we’d like to hear more about them in detail. But indefinite delay is not an option. Achievable plans are required soon before the bus leaves without us.
As predicted on Friday, Duddingston House Properties Ltd and Urbanist Hotels Ltd have now submitted a proposal of application notice (PAN) to the Council for the former Royal High School at 5–7 Regent Road (Breaking news, 16.1.15).
In their own words, they propose a ‘world-class hotel of international standing’:
The proposed development would involve a high quality conversion and restoration of the original Thomas Hamilton designed school building and pavilions.
This would accommodate the principal hotel entrances, reception, dining and bar areas.
The former gymnasium, gatehouse and other existing buildings would be demolished.
The land to the east and west of the principal building, formerly used mainly as playgrounds, and that occupied by the buildings proposed for demolition, would accommodate the new build elements. These would contain the hotel bedrooms and leisure facilities (including the spa and ballroom).
The immediate public realm around the site, including the entrance to Calton Hill, would be upgraded.
Dates for public exhibition of the plans have yet to be finalised.
A public consultation event will take place on Friday 6 and Saturday 7 February 2015 from 10.00am to 7.00pm at the former Royal High School. A second consultation event would then take place on Thursday 5 and Friday 6 March 2015 again from 10.00am to 7.00pm at the former Royal High School.
The former Royal High School building on Regent Road is formally 'At Risk'. But this fact has been obscured from the public for three years following a request from City of Edinburgh Council.
The startling news came to light in answers to Spurtle's questions by the Royal Commission on the Ancient and Historical Monuments of Scotland (RCAHMS). Since 1990 this body has maintained the Buildings at Risk Register (BARR) on behalf of Historic Scotland.
On 2 February 2012, RCAHMS added to the BARR the iconic Regent Road main building, two pavilions and the later classroom/gym block at the rear. It did so as CEC was 'mothballing' the property. The buildings would be vacant, and did not yet have an identified use – conditions which always trigger the BAR team's concern.
However, CEC challenged that assessment, arguing that the complex was wind and watertight, had 24-hour security, and that a new use was almost within sight.
Crucially, it also claimed that any such appearance on the BARR could jeopardise sensitive negotiations with a ‘restoring leaseholder’.
Spurtle stirs in search of clarity
Spurtle heard rumours on the subject last month and began making enquiries. An RCAHMS spokesperson has now responded according to the provisions of a Freedom of Information request:
In cognisance of the contract negotiations being at a critical stage and not wishing its presence on the Register to work against resolution for the site, we removed the entries from the public website.
Quite how an appearance on the Register could have worked against a resolution is not made clear, but – sure enough – the buildings remain absent from the online listings for Edinburgh even though a lease was signed in April last year.
Behind the scenes on the hidden dark Register, the buildings have continued to be recorded as At Risk, have been recorded within all the statistics that the BARR team produces, and continue to be monitored for any change in their status.
'Should the Buildings at Risk team be approached to check their status in relation to the Register we would confirm their presence,’ says an RCAHMS spokesperson.
Why it matters
RCAHMS's assurance that it would own up to the former Royal High School's At Risk status, on request, is of course only helpful up to a point. If you were concerned about the structures but didn’t know to ask, you would naturally assume that, because the buildings do not appear online, they are not on the Register and so are not considered At Risk.
To many outsiders, it will come as a great surprise to learn that one set of information has been presented to the public whilst a separate set of information has been maintained in private. Some may feel it undermines the BARR's reputation as an impartial record of historically or architecturally significant structures facing decline.
It also seems extraordinary that the kind of information any potential 'restoring leaseholder' or its backers would be interested in was partially obscured by a government agency to suit a local authority which stood to gain.
Spurtle understands that within RCAHMS, too, some members of staff are deeply uncomfortable at the supposedly transparent Register appearing to have become embroiled in the hard-to-fathom complexities of commercial contract negotiations.
Such unease has only been exacerbated by the international significance of architect Thomas Hamilton’s neo-classical design, and the fact that Historic Scotland has simultaneously been involved in consultations/workshops with the new leaseholder –Duddingston House Properties – concerning plans to develop the site.
Given this article, it now makes little sense for the Royal High School's At Risk status to remain off the radar. Indeed, in the run-up to this year’s tri-annual survey of Edinburgh’s A-listed buildings, a spokesperson says RCAHMS has ‘initiated discussions on making the entries publicly available online’.
Meanwhile, City of Edinburgh Council’s assurances about the building being wind and watertight appear to have been premature. Judging by what we saw on a visit to the site last month, 24-hour security has not prevented or fixed broken windows, damp, standing water, and pigeon infestation (Breaking news, 16.1.15).
Spurtle's further enquiries are now being handled by Historic Scotland, with whom RCAHMS is in the process of merging. Historic Scotland is treating these as a Freedom of Information request, which means any answers could take up to 20 working days.
We'll tell you more as and when we have it.
Watchdog: Rethink needed over World Heritage Site luxury hotel
Senior News Reporter
Wednesday 4 February 2015
HERITAGE watchdogs and planners have warned a move to turn a landmark former school into a luxury hotel could risk the Scottish capital's World Heritage Site status.
It comes as developers Duddingston House Properties and Urbanist Group prepare to unveil their plans to the public for the revamp of the old Royal High School on Edinburgh's Calton Hill, designed by Thomas Hamilton, that it is hoped will be transformed into one of Scotland's most prestigious hotels.
However the watchdog charged with overseeing the capital's World Heritage Site has said the plans need a "deep rethink".
Hamilton's 1829 masterpiece is described as the best example of Greek Revival architecture in Scotland.
Concerns have been raised however over preserving the integrity of the A-listed structure once considered as home to the new Scottish Parliament as it is refurbished under a 125-year lease deal with the council.
Historic Scotland, Edinburgh City Council and Edinburgh World Heritage, which polices the prized status across the New and Old Towns, praised aspects of the project but have warned over its overall impact ahead of the opening of the buildings' doors this Friday and Saturday to allow members of the public to view the plans.
Designed by award-winning architect Gareth Hoskins, the new six-star hotel would have Hamilton's restored building, which has sat empty for decades, as its centrepiece.
When operational the hotel could create 640 local jobs and contribute on average £27 million annually to the local economy.
Warnings over the plans, which have attracted £55 million from investors, were revealed in correspondence following a series of workshops last year held by the developers that was obtained by the Architectural Heritage Society of Scotland.
AHSS is holding a public meeting on the plans later this month involving key UK heritage figures in Edinburgh.
In the documents, Adam Wilkinson, director of the EWH, said that "the development team was simply asking too much of the site" that would "clearly have a negative impact on outstanding universal value".
"This signals the need for a deep rethink in the approach that is to be adopted to the disposal of the site and its subsequent development."
David Leslie, Edinburgh City Council's acting head of planning, said: "Planning is concerned that, as presented so far, the combined and cumulative impacts of both the alterations to the listed building and the new development would have a clear detrimental impact on the special architectural and historic interest of the listed building and its setting, the character and appearance of the conservation area and the Outstanding Universal Value of the World Heritage Site."
He added: "Alongside other classical buildings on the hill, it forms a set piece that embodies the 'Athens of the North' concept."
Andrew Martindale, of Historic Scotland, said that an "unacceptably high level of impact" could result from the proposals.
Euan Leitch, spokesman for AHSS, said the documents showed Historic Scotland, the council and EWH "all have continued to advise that the scheme they were being shown had unacceptable impacts upon the building and its setting within the World Heritage Site".
A spokesperson for DHP and Urbanist Group said: "This project has the scope to rescue the Old Royal High School from its current distressed state while also giving Edinburgh and Scotland a hotel of international standing.
"The team working on the building restoration and hotel design are taking great care to consult all relevant expert opinion before developing a final plan. Discussions with key groups began several months ago and continues.
"This input has already influenced the ongoing development of the proposals which will be further developed following extensive public consultation.
The first phase of this process begins on Friday this week.
"An exhibition of the further developed designs, which are expected to address the consultation process fully, will follow on March 5 and 6 prior to an application being submitted to the City of Edinburgh Council for planning consent."
Had things turned out differently, it would now be the scene of spirited political battles between MSPs.
But rather than a debating chamber, the central hall of one of the Capital’s most iconic buildings is set to be transformed into a bright lobby featuring floor-to-ceiling views over Edinburgh.
Artist’s impressions show what the inside of the old Royal High School – once earmarked as a home for the Scottish Parliament – would look like as a £55 million luxury hotel.
And tomorrow and Saturday, members of the public will be able to peek inside one of Scotland’s most treasured historic buildings for the first time in years to view the plans.
Developers insist they will respect the 1829 building’s Greek revival style, with new extensions on either side of the neo-classical architectural gem designed to respect the symmetry of the site and draw focus to its grand entrance.
However, the images come as heritage groups voiced concerns about the development, with private correspondence from city planning chiefs revealing serious concerns.
In letters between planning head David Lesley, Historic Scotland and Edinburgh World Heritage, Mr Lesley revealed planners believed that the “alterations to the listed building and the new development would have a clear detrimental impact on the special architectural and historic interest of the listed building”.
And it has now emerged that “strong initial concerns” over the project were first raised with council officials by Historic Scotland as long ago as November 2009, before councillors approved the 125-year lease of the site to developers Duddingston House Properties.
In his own letter to the finance and resources committee, which approved the lease, Euan Leitch, a spokesman for the Architectural Heritage Society Scotland, warned that if the initial plans shared with heritage groups in 2010 were submitted for approval, the scheme could end up snarled in a public inquiry.
Responding to planning concerns, David Orr, chairman of project partner the Urbanist Group, said: “We’ve had an ongoing dialogue over many months.
“We remain very focused on what we believe is a very exceptional vision. When people take the time to see what we are saying about it, I think that will resonate.”
Mr Orr claimed that developers looked to the building’s original architect, Thomas Hamilton, in creating their design.
He said: “What we want to do is restore that centrepiece as one of the crown jewels of Edinburgh.
“We think that the most logical thing to do is to follow the inspiration of the original architect and follow a broadly symmetrical approach, with balanced buildings either side that hold the position of that centrepiece at a respectful distance.”
Mr Orr said that the hotel would work with galleries and arts companies to host events and exhibitions, and that it would aim to be an “enlivened” space that residents could enjoy around the clock.
“It’s a building that needs to have people in it,” he said. “It needs to have that thriving feel, with public access and public use.
“I genuinely believe that this hotel use really brings that public enjoyment back into the heart of the building.
“I think that there will be a significant benefit in having this building be part of the city amenity and enlivened again.”
Developers behind plans to convert Edinburgh’s Royal High School into hotel accommodation are to throw open the doors to the landmark building, disused since 1969, for a public consultation detailing their development vision.
Duddingston House Properties and the Urbanist Group plan to invest £55m in restoring Thomas Hamilton’s Greek revival set piece, whilst adding new build extensions to either side designed by Gareth Hoskins Architects.
David Orr of the Urbanist Group commented, “As we develop our proposals we want to be sure the public have their chance to appreciate how Hamilton’s building and vision has been compromised by later buildings on site.
“The new buildings designed by Gareth Hoskins Architects, will open up a more generous view from the west of the only accessible route to Calton Hill as well as the views to the north façade of the building and Hamilton’s original retaining wall and tower which have been hidden or partially obscured by ancillary buildings. As part of our vision for the site we are keen to restore, reveal and frame these important features of Hamilton’s original design.”
The consultation will take place from 12:00 to 19:00 tomorrow and 11:00 to 17:00 on Saturday with an exhibition of further developed proposals going on show between 5-6 March from 12:00 till 19:00.
Hoskins reveals contentious hotel plans for empty Edinburgh landmark
6 FEBRUARY, 2015 | BY RICHARD WAITE
Gareth Hoskins Architects has finally unveiled plans to convert one of Edinburgh’s most sensitive landmarks, the historic Royal High School on Calton Hill, into a 160-room luxury hotel
Hoskins reveals contentious hotel plans for empty Edinburgh landmark
The practice won the project to redevelop Thomas Hamilton’s grade A-category Classical building, described as Scotland’s ‘greatest Neoclassical monument’, five years ago (see AJ 03.02.10).
However the new proposals for the 1829 masterpiece, which are backed by developers Duddingston House Properties and Urbanist Group and which are to go on public dispaly today (6 February), have already met with opposition.
Adam Wilkinson, director of and Edinburgh World Heritage, said: ‘The proposed scheme is a complete over-development of the site. It will not only affect the building, but the whole hill - which is a talismanic site in many ways.’
‘It is not beyond the wit of man to do something less intense. In that sense it is not the architects’ fault - it is the developers’ requirements and the quantum of development which is the issue.’
He added: ‘We have spent endless hours with them on this - but all the engagement in the world hasn’t produced the result that is right for the building or the city. We are deeply concerned our advice hasn’t been taken on board.’
Meanwhile Euan Leitch, a spokesman for of Architectural Heritage Society of Scotland, said: ‘Neither Duddingston House Properties nor the Urbanist Group appear to have experience in developing world class hotels - is the former Royal High School a building to take such a risk with?’
Leitch added: ‘It [also] reflects ill on the City of Edinburgh Council that they have so long neglected a building that embodies the aesthetics of the Scottish Enlightenment to the extent that it has been on the Buildings at Risk Register for three years.
‘[The Hoskins scheme] will be presented as the only means to secure the future of the building and yet there were 50 parties interested in 2009 - were they more sensitive to a national icon?”
Defending the project David Orr from the Urbanist Group, said the project team had ‘spent a lot of time consulting with interested parties as part of the ongoing development process’.
He added: ‘At the heart of our proposal is the restoration of Hamilton’s building to its former prominence as one of Edinburgh’s architectural crown jewels.
‘As we develop our proposals we want to be sure the public have their chance to appreciate how Hamilton’s building and vision has been compromised by later buildings on site.
‘[The] new plans will give this extremely important building a sustainable future along with wider benefits to the city and the Calton Hill area.’
The old Royal High School will be open for the public consultation from 12pm until 7pm on 6 February and from 11am – 5pm on Saturday 7 February. An exhibition of the further developed proposals is scheduled for 5 and 6 March 2015 from 12pm – 7pm at the old Royal High School prior to an application being submitted to the City of Edinburgh Council for planning consent at a later date.
Outline plans for the former Royal High School (RHS) went on public display there today as part of the pre-application notification process. The exhibition continues tomorrow (10am–7pm), and there will be another – featuring more detailed designs – in March.
As reported last month (Breaking news, 16.1.15), Duddingston House Properties Ltd (DHP) and Urbanist Group propose to refurbish the central Hamilton building and the pavilions on either side for use as café/bar, meeting rooms and exhibition space.
They also intend to build two symmetrically arranged hotel 'platforms' of four or more storeys, clearly offset and slightly rotated, to the east and west and perhaps connected by a transparent gallery behind the main school premises.
Architect Gareth Hoskins says much of the development will be hidden from view underground.
Critics leap to defence of building and its setting
The new western platform is causing particular concern to Historic Scotland, the Edinburgh World Heritage Trust and City of Edinburgh Council planners. They say it would ruin the view of the RHS on the approach from Waterloo Place and long views from the south such as that from Salisbury Crags.
Controversially, the plans also ponder creating a new flight of steps leading up from Regent Road to the building’s imposing ‘blind’ portico (creating a much more significant entrance there), and demolishing the listed lodge at the RHS entrance. None of these changes finds favour with architectural heritage watchdogs.
Hoskins and developer David Orr counter by saying that Wilson's 1885 lodge and other ancillary buildings already block views of the site and detract from it by their haphazard clutter. They say their plans would in fact open up Hamilton's original view of the building's northern elevation, and reveal its carefully thought through relationship with and separation from the steep slope adjacent to it.
They see potential for some kind of visitor centre or information point at the west end of the site, drawing people towards a new public space here, the hotel and the underused vehicle and pedestrian route up Calton Hill.
As for the flight of steps, Hoskin insists that this is just one option. A more likely alternative is to reuse and redesign the existing gateways (on either side of the imaginary steps pictured below) which lead to the terrace higher up.
As became clear in Wednesday’s Herald newspaper (‘Watchdog: Rethink needed over World Heritage Site luxury hotel’), critics of the scheme regard Thomas Hamilton’s RHS design and placement as ‘truly iconic and of international significance’. Its neoclassical merits, they say, are matched only by those of Smirke’s British Museum in London and Schinkel’s Altes Museum in Berlin. Its setting on Calton Hill, they continue, renders it an unsurpassed example of the picturesque.
From talking to Hoskins and Orr this morning, it appears that they are only too aware of this architectural legacy, share in the general admiration of it. They aim to preserve it as far as possible whilst breathing new life into the complex and its surrounds through 'respectful and complementary' new structures.
For their part, the ‘heritage sector’, which includes other bodies and individuals outwith the three mentioned above, claim they are not averse to development within the RHS’s playground area. But a 300-bed hotel, they argue, is simply too ambitious and too big for the space available.
'Irreparable damage' and flawed decision making
From close to the centre of this debate, Spurtle has learned that Historic Scotland, Edinburgh World Heritage and Council planners told DHP as early as 2009 that its initial proposals would cause ‘irreparable damage to the buildings and setting’ and would not receive their support. These concerns were repeated during a series of five workshops in 2014.
Why, then, if its plans fell so short of Council planners’ aspirations, was DHP encouraged to take on the lease in April 2014? This was, after all, some 27 months after the deadline CEC had set for sealing the deal (31 December 2011). After that date, CEC had reserved the right ‘to terminate discussions [with DHP] and remarket the development opportunity’.
It certainly wasn’t for lack of alternative options. During the original 2009/2010 competition to find new uses for the site, over 50 notes of interest were submitted. Only five of these were invited to submit outline proposals, of which only two were then invited to submit final tenders.
Could none of these proposals have been revived, or a call have been put out for new ideas, over that intervening period?
The answer is wreathed in East Market Street fog, and those responsible for the decision have since left the Council.
But Spurtle hears suggestions that, in its enthusiasm to get shot of this hard-to-use and expensive-to-maintain complex, one side of CEC (Economic Development) has been working at cross-purposes to another (Planning).
There are also disturbing claims that councillors sitting on the Finance and Resources Committee – which approved the Heads of Terms and authorised completion of the lease agreement – may not have been kept fully informed of serious misgivings shared by the Head of Planning and Historic Scotland; concerns which had been explicitly expressed to Economic Development and Property Management and Development in the past.
City of Edinburgh Council has been swift to refute such readings of events, arguing that a two-pronged appproach was inevitable. In response to coverage on yesterday's STV neighbourhood news website, a CEC spokesperson insisted that 'The reports are clear that the proposal was subject to planning consent and other conditions that are the responsibility of the developer to achieve.
'These are common conditions in any disposal that involves redevelopment of a property asset. The Council has a separate role as statutory authority which considers all planning applications for Edinburgh.'
Expensive and potentially embarrassing
Alleged problems concerning councillors not being fully informed are now being addressed behind the scenes. Critics, however, are not pulling any punches. They say that if DHP’s plans as currently constituted are eventually approved, against the advice of CEC’s own Head of Planning, then they will force a costly and potentially embarrassing public inquiry.
In the meantime, what promises to be a lively evening has been scheduled by the Architectural Heritage Society of Scotland for 23 February (see Events, 23.2.15). We understand that the developers have been invited to attend but have not yet indicated whether they will speak.
That meeting is open to the public. Spurtle will be there.