Stead’s Place: developing a Cockburn View
Leith has always been Edinburgh’s port and still retains a distinctive quality of its own even though it has changed significantly in recent years. It has been reinvented as a lively centre of urban living, a good food destination, and as a hub of creative activity and cultural diversity.
There have also been disappointments, , several larger scale redevelopment visions for the area have failed to materialise and some social issues still need to be effectively addressed. Looking to the future, as Leith becomes the focus of increasing development pressure, it is essential that the physical redevelopment and community well-being and identify of the area is “master planned” to retain Leith’s unique “edge” that differentiates it from the rest of Edinburgh.
Now, a planning application for proposed demolition and redevelopment of Stead’s Place, Leith Walk, has become the focus for community concern. The Cockburn will be responding to this application and its draft response together with some background notes is outlined below.
The site is the former Leith Walk West Goods Yard, on the Caledonian Railway’s circuitous “Leith New Lines” from Newhaven to Leith Docks. Built because of intense rivalry with the North British Railway, it was opened for goods traffic in 1903 after a 13-year struggle with land acquisition problems. Stations were partly built at Newhaven, Ferry Road and Leith Walk (the platforms of the latter, on a 15-arch viaduct, are still visible across the street) but by then street tramway competition had removed any hope of passenger services being viable and they were never completed. By 1917 the line had been single-tracked and became in effect a long and underused goods siding.
Threading through a mainly built-up area involved expensive heavy engineering, including three massive lattice girder bridges, and considerable demolition; in this case, the row of tenements which fronted 106–154 Leith Walk itself (and the entire south side of Manderston Street), a volunteer drill hall, timber yard and various industrial premises.
The current building on Leith Walk was completed in 1933 to the design of Horace G. White. It comprises a linear 2-storey block in subdued Art-Deco style, steel framed and faced in red Dumfries sandstone to match the bridge masonry, with shop units at street level along the full length and purpose built small offices above. Save Leith Walk notes that “In the Pevsner guide to Edinburgh – which describes the buildings of significant architectural value in the city – 106–154 Leith Walk is the only 20th–century building mentioned on Leith Walk,” and that there are other buildings of this period (Allander House (139–141) and Inchkeith House (137–139), both from 1930; and the C-listed office of the former Tram Depot (165 Leith Walk) in the vicinity, which contrast with the more uniformly consistent 4-storey tenements along most of the Walk.
The buildings currently or recently housed a number of shops and cafes, together with small businesses and community-related organisations on the upper floor. These include music venue Leith Depot, The Bed Shop, Punjabi Junction, Cassia, Charcoal Grill, Leith Walk Cafe, MagiKats, Eastern European Food, a Sikh community organisation, and a recording studio. However, as leases expire they are not being renewed; Lil P’s Boutique, VapourOhm, Barnardo’s and Mr Frangos Grill have already closed, and it is expected that the site will be completely vacant by 2019.
Drum Property Group’s proposed £50m development intends to demolish the existing buildings and replace them with new mixed use units. Their plans comprise a 500-bed student accommodation, a 50-bedroom hotel, 54 affordable houses, and retail space including a new live music venue. Drum Property Group has offered existing firms the chance to return to Leith Walk once the new development is in place with a reduced rent.
A heritage assessment is being undertaken and will form part of the detailed planning application which will be submitted shortly.
Planning – Principle of Development
The approved Strategic Development Plan for the wider Edinburgh area sets targets of 15,034 new houses required up to 2019, and 7,210 more in the period 2019-2024. The Edinburgh Local Development Plan reflects this; it promotes the reuse of previously developed land and relies on windfall sites to contribute to meeting the city’s housing requirement. In the UK a brownfield site is defined as “previously developed land” that has the potential for being redeveloped. The implication throughout the developers’ presentation material is that this is a brownfield site, describing it as “old and tired industrial and office space”.
However, the term is usually reserved for land that has been used for industrial and commercial purposes and is now derelict and possibly contaminated (for example, see www.sustainablebuild.co.uk/brownfieldsites.html). But this is not the case here – the street frontage buildings were already fully in use by businesses and organisations that are important to the local community and in reasonable repair, and any dereliction is the result of the developers’ inaction.
The area to the rear of the site, with its large industrial sheds, many of which are unused, is probably closer to the brownfield definition and redevelopment of an appropriate use, quality and scale could be acceptable there.
Planning – Land Uses
The Leith Town Centre Guidance (April 2017) states that its first aim is to “promote PLACE by maximising Leith Town Centre’s contribution to an active public street life, encouraging people to spend longer in the town centre by enhancing the comfort, interest and quality of the public realm.”
The Developers state that their “vision” is to enhance the quality of place by providing “new, more flexible, higher quality space for people to live and work,” which will “retain and enhance a community and retail hub frontage onto Leith Walk, working in partnership with existing tenants, and local community groups”.
However, the existing street block already achieves this. Although Drum Property Group has offered each firm the chance to return to Leith Walk with a reduced rent once the new development is in place, there are concerns as to whether those affected will be able to survive the disruption of finding a temporary base elsewhere for some two years before returning to a new home. Experience elsewhere suggests that many of them will simply close down – studies of ‘commercial gentrification’ note that low-value businesses in areas undergoing redevelopment tend to be replaced by either higher value, more competitive businesses or more profitable residential conversion/redevelopment typical of the post-industrial era.
Local Plan (LP) Policy Hou 6 states that “Planning permission for residential development, including conversions, consisting of 12 or more units should include provision for affordable housing amounting to 25% of the total number of units proposed. For proposals of 20 or more dwellings, the provision should normally be on-site. Whenever practical, the affordable housing should be integrated with the market housing.”
Drum claims that their development will “help alleviate housing pressures in the local area and provide a boost to local businesses by developing purpose built affordable housing and post graduate student accommodation on this conveniently located site.” It is acknowledged that Leith has a severe shortage of affordable housing. However, a mere 50 units in a development which will accommodate some 600+ people is a minimal token, and also fails to note the aspiration that affordable should be mixed with market housing to avoid stigmatisation. Leith already has too much isolated affordable / social housing which does not integrate with neighbouring schemes, creating social and other problems.
LP Policy Hou 8 states that “Planning permission will be granted for purpose-built student accommodation where:
a) The location is appropriate in terms of access to university and college facilities by walking, cycling or public transport
b) The proposal will not result in an excessive concentration of student accommodation (including that in the private rented sector) to an extent that would be detrimental to the maintenance of balanced communities or to the established character and residential amenity of the locality.”
The student housing element of this development fails to meet either of these criteria.
In terms of location, there are no tertiary education facilities within easy walking distance of the site and if, as seems to be indicated, the accommodation is for the University of Edinburgh, the impact of 500 students regularly journeying to the South Side and/or Kings Buildings will put considerable pressure on the already busy public transport on Leith Walk. Also, post-graduate students are more likely to own private cars and, as the area is not within a parking control zone, further pressure will be created on the already hard-pressed surrounding residential tenement streets.
The issue of concentration is discussed further in the Council’s “Student Housing Guidance” of February 2016. While it acknowledges the need for more provision it notes that “the concentration of students, as a proportion of the transient population, can undermine the social and physical fabric which defines a community and place.” This is not one of the areas which it identifies as suitable for new student provision. It also requires any redevelopment which includes student housing to have at least 50% of the overall floor area of a mixed development which includes student accommodation to be mainstream housing, which is not the case here.
LP Policy Hou 10 requires that “Planning permission for housing development will only be granted where there are associated proposals to provide any necessary health and other community facilities relative to the impact and scale of development proposed. Development involving the loss of valuable health or other community facilities will not be allowed, unless appropriate alternative provision is to be made.”
It is unclear how the developers’ proposed other uses – student accommodation and hotel – provide any beneficial “community facilities” for the 50 affordable houses (or indeed, other surrounding residents), especially when those small businesses and organisations in the street frontage block which are genuine community assets will be lost for at least 2 years.
Planning – Conservation
The site lies within the Leith Conservation Area, designated in 2002. Together with the other 1930s buildings nearby, it creates a distinctive character of its own.
LP Policy Env 6 states that “Development within a conservation area or affecting its setting will be permitted which:
a) preserves or enhances the special character or appearance of the conservation area and is consistent with the relevant conservation area character appraisal
b) preserves trees, hedges, boundary walls, railings, paving and other features which contribute positively to the character of the area and
c) demonstrates high standards of design and utilises materials appropriate to the historic environment.
Planning applications should be submitted in a sufficiently detailed form for the effect of the development proposal on the character and appearance of the area to be assessed”;
LP Policy Des 3 states that “Planning permission will be granted for development where it is demonstrated that existing characteristics and features worthy of retention on the site and in the surrounding area, have been identified, incorporated and enhanced through its design.”
The conservation/retention focus here is on the street-frontage building, which is architecturally coherent and clearly of some merit. However, the developers have taken a seemingly uncompromising stance that “while the plans are not final and we will continue to take into account the consultation response, those plans will not include the retention of the existing buildings.”
Although the block is not itself listed (and Historic Environment Scotland will not list buildings while there is an impending application) it is protected by its status in a conservation area: HES’s guidance note states that “to demolish an unlisted building within a conservation area, conservation area consent will normally be required. An application for consent will need to include reasons for the demolition”. In this case the developers have not put forward any convincing substantiated argument for demolition other than that they consider “the existing buildings at Stead’s Place are no longer an economically viable investment for us” – presumably meaning that retention is less profitable than replacement with a much larger building, which is hardly a conservation argument. Their attempts to disparage the existing building as “dilapidated” and “old and tired” do not accord with what we saw on our visit of inspection.
Planning – Urban Design
Policy Des 4 states that “Planning permission will be granted for development where it is demonstrated that it will have a positive impact on its surroundings, including the character of the wider townscape and landscape, and impact on existing views, having regard to:
a) height and form
b) scale and proportions, including the spaces between buildings
c) position of buildings and other features on the site
d) materials and detailing;
Point (a) is further expanded in Policy Des 11 Tall Buildings: “Planning permission will only be granted for development which rises above the building height prevailing generally in the surrounding area where: a) a landmark is to be created that enhances the skyline and surrounding townscape and is justified by the proposed use b) the scale of the building is appropriate in its context c) there would be no adverse impact on important views of landmark buildings, the historic skyline, landscape features in the urban area or the landscape setting of the city, including the Firth of Forth”.
In fact, the prevailing building height in this part of the street is quite varied, and often lower than the buildings towards the city centre. However, even if that greater height was taken as guidance, it is still generally only 4 storeys – perhaps equivalent to 5 modern storeys with residential floor-to-ceiling heights. The 6+ storeys proposed, particularly where there additional floors unsuccessfully disguised as pseudo-mansard roofs or set-backs, appear to be motivated purely by over-development, and the developers’ own images clearly demonstrate that it is intrusively out of scale with the streetscape and detracts from the skyline. None of the uses, all mundane, would justify an exception under Policy Des 11 (a).
Planning – Open Space
LP Policy Hou 3 states that “Planning permission will be granted for development which makes adequate provision for green space to meet the needs of future residents.
a) In flatted or mixed housing/flatted developments where communal provision will be necessary, this will be based on a standard of 10 square metres per flat (excluding any units which are to be provided with private gardens). A minimum of 20% of total site area should be useable greenspace.”
The sketches to date do not seem to show any such provision. A small triangle of open space is indicated in the centre of the development, which may be intended to double as some sort of “community gain”.
One area which a development on this site could address as a genuine wider community gain would be to participate in the Leith Walk Green Bridge project for an elevated linear park & wildlife corridor / pedestrian & cycle route along the north side of this site utilising the former Caledonian Railway’s Leith New Lines, by Biomorphis Architects. A new timber framed bridge is proposed crossing Leith Walk.
Public Consultation and Comment
The proposals have been the subject of two rounds of consultation. They have been the focus of considerable, mostly negative, comment from local residents and businesses despite the developers’ reassurances that “our revised proposals incorporating a sympathetic design, with a mix of retail tenants and a live music venue will continue the rich traditional of diversity, independence and interest which makes Leith Walk such an exciting destination for which to live, work or visit.” Pressure group Save Leith Walk has received some 12,159 signatures of support together with extensive cross party backing. More than 200 people attended a public meeting at Leith Theatre to discuss the proposals with a range of speakers including Leith Depot, LeithLate, Leith Recording Company and the Edinburgh University Students’ Association.
The main concerns arising from the consultation process so far have been identified as:
1. Protect and retain the red sandstone building and avoid bland architecture
2. Maintain the current businesses in the retail frontage
3. The building height to the front of Leith Walk
4. Involving the local community
The developers’ response to these concerns has been:
1. If possible reusing the red sandstone and recreating the scale of the existing façade on the new building
2. Working with the existing tenants to accommodate them in the new building
3. Using roof set-backs and materials to visually reduce the massing
4. Running a thorough consultation process, and incorporate community design in the development
Unfortunately these responses do not adequately address the complaints, for the reasons cited amongst the various Planning etc points listed earlier. A major issue is the developers’ insistence on replacing the frontage block despite clear contrary indications from the community.
The Cockburn Association View
The Cockburn Association, as reported in the Edinburgh Evening News 24/5/18, has questioned whether the developer has conducted a thorough heritage assessment of the site. We stated:
“From what we have seen we have a number of concerns about the direction the case may be going in. We don’t feel a thorough heritage assessment has yet been made about the site, specifically the Leith Walk buildings.
“This is the demolition of not one, but an entire row of buildings in a conservation area. It is worth remembering that council policy guidance states proposals which fail to preserve or enhance character or appearance of a conservation area will normally be refused.
“It’s hard to see how erasing all the buildings along Leith Walk will preserve or enhance anything. Once heritage is lost it is very hard to replace.”
• The frontage block should be retained for small business
and community uses
• Redevelopment should be restricted to the rear of the site
• Student accommodation is not acceptable
• No case to date has been made for the hotel
• The main part of the site should be residential,
preferably with a greater percentage of affordable
homes than the minimum 25% requirement
• No buildings should rise above 5 storeys, and may
require to be lower for daylight etc
Save Leith Walk is a grassroots public campaign which has posted further details of the demolition and new build proposals for Stead’s Place.
Their website give links to both the application for demolition and the application for new build together with further information/links if you wish to make your own comments on the proposals.
The deadline for comments in now 28th September 2018