Capital growth is built to last

By Ian Fraser

Sunday Herald

November 16th, 2003

Cowgate Nursery for under fives. Designed by Alan Murray Architects

Ian Fraser talks to Ian Wall

IF a nation’s architecture is a barometer of its soul then Scotland must be a pretty sick place, according to Ian Wall, who runs one of Scotland’s most innovative – and controversial – property development firms.

As chief executive of EDI, the arm’s-length development company founded by Edinburgh City Council in 1988, Wall has overseen projects including Edinburgh Park, the campus-style group of offices, car parks and lochans on the west side of the city which acted as a safety valve for Auld Reekie’s over-heated office market during the late 1990s.

Master planned by the New York-based architect Richard Meier, the park has won bouquets, despite inadequate transport links and a railway station which has yet again been delayed.

The park is in some quarters seen as Edinburgh’s most important example of urban town-planning since James Craig’s New Town went up between 1776 and 1840. The British Council for Offices has described the park – which houses blue chip names such as Diageo, Scottish Courage, Intelligent Finance, Xansa and Aegon – as “one of the best business parks in Europe”.

Wall says: “That was our objective. I said to the design team, ‘We’re not competing with Glasgow or Manchester, we’re competing with Paris, and Munich.’

‘”What we need to do is engage with the world and see if we can have the same standards and quality as you see in the world’s best cities.’ We succeeded in doing that.”

Wall insists the park is valuable because of the quality of its public spaces. This, he says, more than makes up for some patchy architecture, over which EDI now has little control given that many of the buildings are now owned by institutional investors. The park has “a disciplined framework across the site, there’s a relationship between buildings, there’s a very high quality of public realm, which is designed to be used and enjoyed by people”.

Wall believes that Scottish civic society and its developers got things badly wrong from the 1970s to the 1990s. “Architecture is the expression of a nation, which is another reason to think that Scotland is a pretty depressing place.

“Modern buildings in Scotland, over the past 20 years, have generally been pretty disappointing. That’s because of an obsession with cost at the expense of other things.

“There was a loss of confidence in the public realm, which showed itself in the quality of the schools, hospitals, and other public buildings built [at that time].”

Wall, a pugnacious Sunderlander and former member of the Socialist Workers Party, said: “Most people want the public realm – at its most mundane, bus shelters, pathways, trees, grass and so on – to be well thought-out and appropriate for its uses, well made and properly maintained.”

EDI, which has a staff of 19, an annual turnover of £18.7 million and is based in Edinburgh’s Hunter Square, is controversial not least because, as a council-owned developer, it is sometimes perceived as having a better chance of gaining planning permission than independent developers because of its council connections.

However, this theory has recently been undermined by the way in which the city planners rejected EDI’s schemes for flats at Bell’s Mills on the Water of Leith and a grandiose project to build a retail arcade at Haymarket.

EDI is also behind a range of development projects and buildings in the city, some of which have done their bit to quietly improve the fabric of the city. Its urban industrial units, including those occupied by Standard Life in Portobello, have probably enhanced Edinburgh’s chances of sustaining a diversified economy.

The Cowgate Nursery, developed by EDI in a close behind the Royal Mile, was last month named the best small project in the British Construction Industry Awards. The judges said: “It is a delightful under-fives school which is a brilliant transformation of an inner city back alley.”

Wall is pleased with an EDI development in Wester Hailes which he sees as already bringing fresh hope to a damaged community. “The office buildings we have built there have already attracted some inward investment and started to change the nature of Wester Hailes, which means it is no longer just a working-class dormitory. That was not the overall driver of the project, but it had that additional benefit.”

But what of the Edinburgh office market? Is the downturn, which has seen many speculative office buildings in the city lie empty for two years or more, causing financial headaches for EDI, the bulk of whose profits are derived from office developments such as Edinburgh Park (a joint venture with Miller Group) and Pentland Gait?

Wall admits that a 40,000 sq ft and a 60,000 sq ft building at the north end of Edinburgh Park are still unoccupied.

But he seems unfazed. “As a generality, the market is warmer. There’s a pick-up in the level of inquiries and their nature seems more robust.

“There appears to have been a weaker downturn in Edinburgh [than across the UK as a whole] and this year it looks like take-up will exceed last year. So perhaps there are wider forces out there. Perhaps Edinburgh has made a leap from being a major and genuinely important, but nevertheless provincial, city to being a European player.”

Wall remains adamant that a project to build an underground shopping mall along the east end of Princes Street should go ahead. Even though the project has attracted widespread scorn from city residents, he believes a revised scheme – an earlier version of which was rejected by a public inquiry – is the best solution to Princes Street’s sorry decline into tackiness.

EDI’s current plans were drafted by the Scottish-based architects Alan Murray, who won an international competition last year, and these are being pursued in tandem with the Dutch-based construction company MAB Group. Planning permission may be a distant prospect, but Wall’s enthusiasm for the Galleries is undimmed.

He said: “Fifteen years ago, 30% of all the retail trade in Edinburgh city centre came from outwith the Lothians. But that has collapsed to 9%. The Galleries would be one way of reversing that.

“It is unfortunate the debate about Princes Street has polarised around the Galleries, rather than about the role and function of the street and how we solve it.

“I’ve never said the Galleries are the only answer but they are a critical part of the answer and would start to turn the circle [for Princes Street] away from being vicious and towards being virtuous.”

What Wall can’t abide is the desire of organisations such as the World Heritage Trust seemingly to preserve the city in aspic. “They are putting buildings before people, with a consistent failure to acknowledge how buildings are used today.”

Wall has been involved in EDI since it was founded by the late Bill Ross, Edinburgh council’s then head of economic development and estates.

“We started with £6m-£7m of council money in land as loan stock, we’ve already paid that back and we’re now worth gross £100m.”

“In between, of course, we’ve paid tens of millions in dividends, so if you want to look at it in purely economic terms, we’ve made lots of money and we’ve brought some kudos to the city in terms, for example, of the awards we have won.”

Ian Wall has been chief executive of Edinburgh City Council’s property development arm EDI since March 2001, but has worked with the developer since its foundation in 1988. Despite brushes with controversy – for example over his Princes Street Galleries project – Wall has played a critical part in raising the design game in Edinburgh. In last month’s RIBA journal, Wall was ranked as Britain’s 13th top client, ahead of such luminaries as Charles Jencks of Maggie’s Centres fame.

Copyright 2003 SMG Sunday Newspapers Ltd.

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