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Wilson's Weekly Wrap: Neva mind - there's a gold glow in the east

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July 9 2009

Wilson's Weekly Wrap: Neva mind - there's a gold glow in the east
Neva mind – there’s a gold glow in the east
It can hardly be a surprise to anyone that the consortium selected as the preferred bidder to deliver the £300m campus for the 2014 Commonwealth Games in Glasgow’s East End includes RMJM, given that the company carried out the original masterplanning for the event. In the period since then the multi-national practice has established a specialist sports division as an additional string to its architectural bow and this new (or, more accurately, now formalised) dimension to RMJM’s activities is proving to be a bit of a whizz at pulling in jobs all over the globe with India (2010 Commonwealth Games), China and even Vietnam proving to be especially fruitful markets.

It’s just as well that its marketing endeavours in the East and Far East are showing such good results because although its currently sitting at number 14 in the AJ’s top 100 architectural practices, its position on its Russian front isn’t looking quite so hot just now, what with Gazprom, the practice’s state-owned oil company client, suffering from a 40% collapse in revenues from its European customers. Whether or not this puts pressure on the budget for Tony Kettle’s highly controversial design for the Gazprom hq in St Petersburg or - worse – topples his twirly tower into the Neva remains to be seen, but closer to home in the people’s republic of Glazprow, RMJM’s European design director Paul Stallan is convinced the practice has come up with “a beautiful and inspired urban village for the city’s east end.”

If only the quotes stopped there but sadly another, un-named, member of the ‘City Legacy’ consortium felt compelled to add that “this innovative project will not only showcase the new face of the east end of Glasgow to a worldwide audience during the Games, it will also transform Dalmarnock to become a much sought after riverside residential area.” It’s certainly an ambitious notion and one the Wrap would be churlish not to wish every success to, but the scale of transformation may take a little longer than the five years available in the run-up to 2014. As a recent report on the economic benefits of sports events like the Olympic and Commonwealth Games points out however, a legacy of long term, sustainable employment rarely occurs. Certainly, jobs are created in the construction run-up and during the event itself, but the study of nine previous Olympic and Commonwealth Games shows these to be entirely transitory and rarely last more than two years. This view has been echoed by Glasgow Chamber of Commerce who early on questioned whether the Games would stimulate a long-term jobs market in and around the city’s East End where the Athletes Village (the City Legacy project) will be.

The City Council though, in statements all too reminiscent of the rhetoric associated with London 2012, insists “the post-event legacy will include a greater skills base for individuals and businesses, widening trading networks for firms, a higher international profile and a more attractive environment for people to locate homes and businesses.” The presumption in all of this seems to be that the houses provided by City Legacy for the Olympic Village will have an enhanced market value after the event and that businesses and jobs will flood into the area as a result of environmental and infrastructural enhancements made in the vicinity, You have to hope that, for once, Glazprow, will deliver what it says it will, but there is one at least one thing you can be sure of: if there are any gold medals going, RMJM will be amongst the winners.

No surprise either that the pigeons are back living in the nation’s largest doocot, especially since they never actually gave up residence the last time their neighbours made a fuss. Yes, I’m talking about the Parliament, that fabulous confection of roosting opportunities that now has £35k worth of spikes on every accessible external surface to keep the birdies off. Trouble is, whilst these sharp metal pins may keep the doos from dumping they don’t actually keep them out and, accustomed as they have been to setting up home and raising families in and around the MSP’s offices, the time of year has once again arrived when the latest generation escape their shells and explore their new surroundings.

This time though, the Parliament’s spectacularly overpaid facilities chappies have come up with a cunning plan: raptors. Now it has to be said that most of us – always excepting Frank McAvennie of course - when bothered by burds would not delay an instant before calling in some falcons, particularly since the Scottish Parliament is currently seeking the power to prevent anyone north of the border ever again having the chance to lift an airgun.

But these are no ordinary birds of prey. In truth, they’re not actually allowed to prey at all, although whether this is to do with EU procurement rules or just an affectation to appease the Green Party is anyone’s guess. Nope, - and I didn’t make this up – these sharp-nosed predators (7 no.) are eco-friendly and have apparently been trained to politely tell the pigeons to glob their guano on someone else’s granite. Now, putting a contract out to proper professional assassins is one thing, but £44k to shoo a doo or two seems a bit steep. Still, as a Scottish Parliament spokeswoman was so quick to point out, “by using these birds of prey, we hope to see a reduction in the money spent on external cleaning.” And no, I didn’t make that bit up either but no doubt it’s now been let as an annual contrick.

The drip, drip of bad publicity
Doos are not the only maintenance problem down Holyrood way. It being summer in Edinburgh, there’s naturally been a fair bit of rain recently, albeit hardly unusual amounts. Trouble is, the water finds its way into the Parliament building almost as easily as the pigeons, and has done ever since the building was signed off as finished including a stage when there was more water in the underground car park than in front of the building that sits immediately above it. Rumours that this was a means of disguising the provision of a swimming pool for MSP’s were simply regarded as black attempts at humour before the days of politicians’ expense claims for duckhouses and moat cleaning.

So far, however, the parly’s facilities gurus (them again) have trickled through the best part of £100k trying to sort the leaks (liquid rather than verbal) into the building, and for normal people it be a matter of some embarrassment to see the failure of their efforts so visibly highlighted in the papers this week. The latest leaks are not in some dark corner of the building, mercy me, no – they’re plopping like Chinese water torture onto the floor of the black and white corridor, the much publicised formal space leading to the debating chamber and the sight of buckets and yellow hazard signs in the area is not the most attractive part of the experience offered to visitors on their pricy tours of the place.

On this latest leak, a spokesman said: “a blocked downpipe above the black and white corridor caused a build-up of water which subsequently leaked into the building", a statement of the blindingly obvious. Thankfully contractors are working to clear the blocked pipe, but someone surely needs to take the facilities chappies to one side and give them a short talk on building maintenance and the need to keep gutters clear, especially on an edifice as complex as this one. That said, quite how they get workmen to the many inaccessible external areas that were such a feature of the design and which are now quite visibly and unattractively gunged up – remains a conundrum. Meanwhile the drips continue to ratchet up the ongoing costs with a speed that even an Edinburgh taxi driver would envy.

Saving a lamb from slaughter
One of the casualties of the recession – and of the ongoing management troubles of the National Trust for Scotland – has been Lamb’s House in Leith, the port of Edinburgh. A-listed by Historic Scotland, the building is reputed to be the first stop on Mary Queen of Scots return from France in 1560. For many years the former merchant’s house was used as a day centre for pensioners - not, I’ll grant you a particularly imaginative function for the five storey building, but at least it housed some form of activity that kept it from dereliction.

Not so now – keen to find sustainable future for it, the EDI Group (the City of Edinburgh Council’s arms length development company) a few years ago formed a joint venture with the National Trust for Scotland and obtained planning permission to turn the building into six flats, a prospect that mightily disappointed the local Community Council who felt that a much better (unspecified) use could be found for it.

That was then and this is now: work was due to start last September on the conversion, but by that stage NTS was in financial and management meltdown and desperate to hand the project over completely to the EDI Group which itself was struggling in the face of the construction industry downturn to keep many of its existing projects alive. Since then of course, humongous drops in land and property values have led the city fathers to pull the EDI Group (along with their other, far more Ill-starred property venture, Waterfront Edinburgh) back into the Council’s larger CEC Holdings, a rabbit-in-the-headlights sort of operation led by people with no proven track record in the world of development.

The net result of all this fire-fighting is simply further deterioration in the building fabric and nobody in sight with any idea what to do to rectify the situation. It seems pretty unlikely the Council, with its own £92m deficit headache, will step in, especially since Leith – whilst within the city boundary – is still considered by many (Leithers themselves being the most parochial) not to be part of the capital, and therefore not really an appropriate recipient of municipal dosh. In any case, the Council has a swathe of properties around the city it is barely managing to keep wind and watertight (the old Royal High School being a particularly prominent example) so, out of sight and out of mind, this one is not high on its priority list.

Curiously though, while keen for someone to come along and transform Thomas Hamilton’s masterpiece into a boutique hotel, it has failed to see Lamb’s House as a far more appropriate opportunity for this kind of use. I only mention this because hotel development seems to be just about the only building type that is still able to raise money for projects in the city and for which there seems huge support from councillors and planners.  Given that permission exists to turn the building into flats, it would seem the A-listing is negotiable and certainly necessary if the building is to have any future. So if any of you architects out there have a pet boutique hotel developer looking for a site, get on the blower sharpish to Edinburgh Council – you could be its salvation on this one and get yourself a much needed new project into the bargain.

And finally…
To John o’Groats, the Finisterre of Scotland that God forgot when he created the world. A new ‘masterplan’ is now up for public consultation for what is amusingly described as a “visitor attraction.” Each year, apparently, 170,000 people make the long journey to visit the motley group of buildings that squat on the headland and, on average, manage to spend a full ten minutes there before getting back on their coaches or into their cars and making their escape. So, Highlands and Islands Enterprise, recognising that a commercial opportunity might be missing here (sorry, “recognising it as a transformational project”) commissioned planning consultancy GVA Grimley to produce the masterplan mentioned above, a document so visionary that it includes shops, food and drink outlets and tourist accommodation. I say visionary, because we’re talking “new quality retail environment” here, a transformation designed to rectify Lonely Planet’s well-publicised view of the village as a “seedy tourist trap.”

The best bit of the whole thing though, is HIE’s notion of public consultation: the quango’s Carol Gunn said “the local partnership of public bodies, businesses and community groups is working together to see the area fulfil its potential.” That's quite a range of organisations for a place that has less than 300 inhabitants, so I hope fully none of them missed the exhibition: it was on display on Tuesday at the Seaview Hotel from noon until 8:00pm.  You may be surprised to know that even with such a wide window of opportunity, the Wrap was unable to make it and is thus unable to comment on reactions to the proposals.

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