Marischal Square: On the redevelopment of St Nicholas House
What’s wrong with the proposals to redevelop the old St Nicholas House in the centre of Aberdeen? The Press & Journal, even though it acknowledges that the scheme is controversial, has consistently presented it as progress for the city. To pressure councillors the paper had even published an edition with a blank page to highlight what it saw as the lack of progress in bringing forward developments in Aberdeen. So, were the ruling Labour and Independent councillors who voted on bloc for the scheme last week voting for progress? They could on the basis of the press coverage claim to be responding to demands for progress and that’s essentially what they did, creating the impression of the existence of a consensus, but it’s a consensus that locks out the rest of us – is this really progress?
Aberdeen City Council is meant to act in the interest of the people of Aberdeen in vetting any development, yet in this case the council is involved in a deal with the developers Muse to an extent that makes any claims to impartiality difficult to sustain. This deal involves the council renting the whole scheme from the developer over a period of 35 years. The council website says the council will “Lease the development from Muse and receive the rental profits for 35 years” yet the reality is that they will have to pay market rent to Muse for 35 years, with regular rent increases, and will have to pay that rent whether the various units are let or not.
Thirty-five years is a very long time period over which to predict the economic demand for retail, office and hotel accommodation in this part of the city centre, especially in today’s very volatile retail and office rental sector, and specifically in the light of the recent emergence of better connected retail and office developments elsewhere in the city. With the council picking up the tab and also bearing the cost of demolition, the developers had no need to worry about the viability of the scheme. The council boldly claims that the scheme is fully funded, but this is not surprising as the, risk averse, Aviva Investors pension fund will have a steady and increasing income stream from it with no risk of default. Aberdeen City Council is already cutting the budgets of social services and education and selling off public land; if they were to struggle to meet the payments for this scheme, due to changes in the rental market, we can be sure that it will be public services that would bear the brunt yet again.
So what does all this do to the process by which developments are meant to be controlled? The Civic Society on their website say:
“Unfortunately it appears to us that someone in a decision making capacity has been influenced by the financial projections of what could be achieved by increasing development density rather than making decisions based on what is good for such an important site in the centre of Aberdeen.”
“Crucially the proposals do not even respect adopted council policies for the development of the site, policies that have been through thorough and extensive public scrutiny at a time before detailed proposals were on the table for consideration.”
As the Civic Society indicates, the problem with the development is that, to meet the developer and investor’s requirement for the maximum returns, rental floor space had to be maximised, even though this contradicted the council’s own policies. The result, even after it was tweaked to meet objections, is an over-developed site whose buildings make no effort, through design, or choice of materials, to blend in with the buildings that surround it; buildings which it will be almost twice as high as; high enough, in fact, to block all views of Marischal College which the council has spent so much money cleaning up.
This focus on the maximising of profit is also reflected in the total lack of effort to relate to those who use the city centre. Thus no attempt has been made to improve the experience of Flourmill Lane at street level, instead it is treated purely as a delivery and service area flanked by very tall buildings, which will in effect turn this area next to Provost Skene’s House into a dingy back alley. The so-called public square inside the development turns out to be the fore-court for a multi-story hotel block, and the proposed civic square in front of Marischal College, which was so heavily promoted by the P & J, has been withdrawn after having been roundly criticised by the Civic Society and others for making traffic congestion worse in other streets. This civic square in many ways highlights all that is wrong with the development. It seems to have been proposed with no consideration and even the shops in the scheme turn their back on it by orientating to an inner mall.
Why has the council gone along with all this and why has the Scottish Government not called in the decision for review given the council’s conflict of interests? Local authorities’ budgets are under pressure and councils are being encouraged to use their assets to raise revenue. The austerity agenda is being used to open up local authority assets to private companies, often multi-national companies with interests across the globe. This collusion between council officials and private companies has been highlighted this week by the opening of the Mipim UK trade show in London. The Guardian put it thus:
“Starting this Wednesday, 4,000 men (and, yes, they’ll mainly be men) will gather in a giant hall in London. Among them will be major property developers, billionaire investors and officials of your local council or one nearby. And what they’ll discuss will be the sale of public real estate, prime land already owned by you and me, to the private sector. The marketing people brand this a property trade show, but let’s drop the euphemisms and call it the sales fair to flog off Britain.”
“Public authorities get a discount to attend Mipim UK (£295 instead of £495), and no wonder. There are thousands of acres of surplus public land in the UK and developers want to get their hands on it. The history of recent urban policy has been of public land virtually given away, often with remediation and infrastructure costs thrown in at public expense.”
This used to be held in Cannes with flights and accommodation for the chief executives of large UK local authorities paid for, but now with this year’s event in London the net is being cast wider. So this has been going on now for a number of years and in London already council owned housing estates have been sold off for redevelopment with residents, even those who had bought their houses, being evicted with compensation levels well below market value. But a fight back has begun. Some of those residents are starting to organize resistance and this is likely to grow as more and more people lose their homes through this process. This resistance has already had its first success this week in forcing the first day of the Mipim UK trade show to pull down the shutters early because of the effective demonstration they mounted outside.
You might think that no one will lose their home because of the redevelopment of St Nicholas House, but the Bon Accord Shopping Centre is already struggling to cope with the competition from Union Square, and Union Street has lots of empty units falling into disrepair. This new much smaller shopping mall development will be on the very edge of the core shopping district of the city centre and so potentially could be the most vulnerable shopping development in Aberdeen, even before it is built, especially as the civic square hasn’t materialized. If the council’s calculations turn out to be wrong then Aberdeen City could be in big trouble and, unless we help to defeat this whole rotten system, they may start looking for more real estate to flog off.
UPDATE, 20-Oct-2014: It would seem we’re not the only ones to comment on the decline of architectural design in Aberdeen: Urban Realm in their annual Carbuncle Awards have nominated Aberdeen ‘where architecture goes to die’ for their ‘Plook On The Plinth’ award!
UPDATE, 24-Oct-2014: There may still be time to put pressure on Scottish Government MSP Derek MacKay to call in the planning decision on Marischal Square.