Wednesday, 21 October 2009

Square Peg, Heart Shaped Hole

In June this year, with the public announcement that a plan to tear out the space pictured above in what is distressingly yet calmly equated to “approximately 3,947 dump trucks of earth and 4,605 dump trucks of granite”, transform the majority this space into a double-story car park, some sort of "yet to be defined" subterreanian concourse level and a sprawling square spanning 5 acres between Union Street and Rosemount Viaduct, it was also stated that 'plans for the three possible developments for the site will be presented to the public for consultation in June.'

It is now October, five months on from the publication of the £165,000, Scottish Enterprise funded technical appraisal which, unsurprisingly, brought the cost for Ian Wood's "vision" right in the £140 million mark, a point which Wood claimed "that if the costs were above £100 million it would be “very difficult” to make it happen." Even then this price is subject to 26 notable exclusions, including the acquisition costs for buildings around the site which could amount to around £10 million. In fact ACC members admitted that the £140 million cost as it stands in the HFM technical appraisal was only for the structure. This means it would be the cost involved in ripping up and filling in the gardens, building the concrete and steel frame, with no feature, no plumbing or electrics and no landcaping on the top.

The same representatives from the Council were hopeful that a staged approach could be taken into the project and something more akin to the scheme put forwards (Again by Sir Ian Wood) for the millennium, and before that in 1994 and before that in the 1980s. Thus plan would have see the majority of building over the dual carraigeway with a tunnel effect running down to meet a ever-so-slightly raised UTG. However, in a meeting with Dave Blackwood, ACSEF's head of the Denburn Valley Project, and co-incidentaly head of the steering group for the Public Consultation, and Jennifer Craw, Wood's assistant. They claimed that the HFM report was the first in depth technical appraisal into the proposal, and the the only way to support a civic space would be to build on the gardens, that "the gardens would be an inevitable victim of development."

Returning to the elusive Public Consultation, which at time of writing only abstract announcements have been made about it. Initial reports claimed that the public consultation would be carried out by the Lighthouse, however after a few days there was no official announcement and unfortunately before anyone could ask the Lighthouse went into administration. It seems that this untimely turn of events meant that the delay of the public consultation could be attributed to the demise of the Lighthouse, however, what I have heard from a Lighthouse insider suggests otherwise. It was implied that the Lighthouse themselves backed away from the project as their ideas for the Consultation, which was apparently to be centred around a question of the best future for the Denburn Valley. It seems that those leading the project had different ideas about the public consultation and due to bad press received concerning their involvement, they withdrew from the process.

With the Lighthouse out of the picture, it took a full three months before ACSEF managed to put a steering group for the consultation together, a completelly unbiased committee not only headed by Dave Blackwood but also featuring four other members of ACSEF's board including John Michie, chair of Aberdeen City Centre Association. Mr Michie's opinion on the development has been reported and in a letter to the Aberdeen Press and Journal this week, ACSEF chairman, Tom Smith described Wood's plan as " Our plans" and "Our development." So given that ACSEF are, for all intent and purpose, leading the steering group into the public consultation on the plan, and have a vested interest in the creation of the civic square to the point where they have claimed it as their own, does this really suggest a fair and unbiased consultation into the future of Union Terrace Gardens and the Denburn Valley?

On 9th October, the Press and Journal reported that "Divisions have also started to emerge among members of the steering group" in retaliation to an ACSEF press release in the run up to the Consultation that states "This consultation will ensure that people understand the proposals and can put forward their opinions on what they would like the space to incorporate." This statement suggests that the direction of the consultation has reverted back to the question that The Lighthouse allegedly refused to entertain, not a case of do you want to entertain the option of a cash-strapped Council which is on the verge of shedding 600 Jobs and already cut many municpal services backing a vanity project which will cost well above the estimated £140 million, but rather, what do you want from a vanity project costing well above £140 million?

In the meantime, time is running out for the Peacock-led Centre for Contemporary Art. With Wood's announcement last November, agreements had been made between the Centre's main funders, Aberdeen City Council (£3m), Scottish Enterprise (£2m) and Scottish Arts Council(£4.5m) "to ring-fence Peacock's money for 12 months to allow the viability of Sir Ian's vision to be investigated." The consultation,, is scheduled to begin in November and Mr Blackwood assured myself and Katie Guthrie would take seven weeks. Seven weeks is hardly a great amount of time in order to guage a wide spectrum of public opinion into what could be the most important decision for the future of Aberdeen.

With this lack of organized consultation , the default home of public opinion has become the letters page of the Press and Journal, which has exposed a massive shift in faith and has turned against the hundred-million pounds project, because of cost, because of taste, because of sentimentality and because of humanity. Jonathan Meades', respected Architecture critic, recent series "Off Kilter" (Video below, from 4:30)

slams the proposed development as a "vainglorious vision" and "irreparably damaging to the cityscape."

So we have until the end of the year to decide on what is best for the future of Aberdeen, even though the "democratic" processes involved are being manipulated to exclude the ever-growing camp of people who would rather choose between "UTG or no UTG" which includes an online petition of over 1500 names, and a large group of people who care so much to write to the local paper (majority included below).

Questions of democracy are rising in the North East, will the Local Council listen to its people or happy to hand over decision making powers to a business-led quango which represents the last 40 years without any educated insight into the next 40. Can we trust those we have elected to represent us, and can we trust ACSEF? A group with so much vision and grasp of construction realities that their Chairman seriously believes that "the finish date could be brought forward to coincide with the City of Culture award in 2013."

ACSEF have taken three months to organise a democratic public consultation into a plan which has been on the table for almost a year, can they really be charged with delivering a massive £140million+ Urban construction project?

Destruction of ‘priceless’ gardens

SIR, – Once again, I see that Tom Smith, of Aberdeen City and Shire Economic Future, is uttering the usual platitudes about the destruction of Union Terrace Gardens and the creation of a civic square above the Denburn Valley.
But this time he is trying to persuade us that any bid by Aberdeen for the UK City of Culture title will be enhanced by the existence of such a structure. He called it “the perfect platform for showcasing arts and cultural events”.
Forgive me, but this priceless green space – a natural art and culture platform – had until the 1990s regularly hosted concerts and leisure activities which attracted thousands.
Maximise the use of the existing infrastructure and topography. Make it open, inviting and accessible from all quarters, with facilities and amenities worthy of a 21st-century venue and this natural amphitheatre will flourish again.
I recommend to Mr Smith that he looks beyond the rhetoric and commercial imperative and sets the satnav for Old Aberdeen – the High Street, the Chanonry, Seaton Park and then onwards to the Cottown of Balgownie – to see what can be achieved when historic artifices are protected and the natural environment preserved.
It just takes a little bit of foresight and imagination, which money can’t buy.
Erik Bjorkelund,
Tillydrone Road,

Plans for our small green place

SIR, – I am in agreement with your readers who want to enhance the gardens in their present form, rather than raise them to street level to make a plaza with cars underneath. I do think they need refurbishment.
In Russia more than 20 years ago, we were told that people valued the green “lungs” in their cities. I was interested and thought about Union Terrace Gardens and Princes Street Gardens at the time.
I am therefore sorry that the powers that be in the city of my birth seem to be planning to irreversibly alter our small green place.
Wilma MacKay,
10 Inverkirkaig,

Don’t destroy city’s character

SIR, – Aberdeen was the centrepiece of a programme on BBC4 last week called Off Kilter. The presenter praised the stylish architecture in the city, noting that Aberdeen may have the highest percentage of old buildings intact of all the cities in Europe. Aberdeen was compared to places like Bath, which have a distinctive and well-preserved architectural style. I came away from watching the programme feeling proud and honoured to live in Aberdeen. Perhaps the local council should consider nominating the city through Unesco for world heritage status.
However, the programme was also critical about the proposed plan to fill in and replace Union Terrace Gardens with a multi-story car park and shopping mall. If this scheme goes ahead it will destroy the character of the centre of Aberdeen.
Yet the council is proposing a phase of consultation over the future of the gardens, where keeping them intact is not an option. Similar plans to build a car park in the gardens in the 1980s led to a public outcry.
Our council should take note of public opinion and must act to preserve our wonderful city, rejecting any plans that seek to destroy its character.
Mike Shepherd,
Forbesfield Road,

Union Terrace Gardens debate

SIR, – Public consultations will soon be held on the plan to replace Union Terrace Gardens with a multi-storey car park and some shops. The consultation document does not include an option for keeping the gardens as they are, even although there is a substantial opinion in the city that they should be kept.
In this context, the consultation can be seen only as a sham. A small number of businessmen, including Sir Ian Wood, have decided how the city centre is going to look, and if anybody else is to be asked, it will be merely to comment on minor details.
There is a serious public debate required. The project has been costed at £140million, of which Sir Ian Wood has pledged £50million. Up to £90million will probably have to come from public funds.
To put these numbers into context, Aberdeen City Council announced recently that it was looking for up to £17million in savings for the next financial year, and that as many as 600 jobs could go as a result.
The public money under discussion is our money, it comes from our taxes. It is only right that we should be asked if we want millions of pounds of our money to be spent on destroying a much-loved city-centre park, or if the money would be better spent on preserving local services and amenities.
Michael Shepherd,
18 Forbesfield Road

Union Terrace Gardens plan

SIR, – The debate rumbles on about the “redevelopment" of Union Terrace Gardens.
Now is certainly not the time for Aberdeen City Council to contemplate spending millions on such a venture. It is, after all. virtually bankrupt.
While the railway and adjacent road could be covered to provide a new civic area – suitably landscaped at the side of the gardens – it would be sacrilege to destroy the mature trees and gardens.
This, in its present form, is a haven for the citizens and wildlife of Aberdeen and the numbers that enjoy it on a summer day prove that fact.
We should not forget that the Union Terrace and Union Street junction has one of the highest levels of airborne pollution levels in Europe.
The trees in the gardens help to absorb that danger.
Ultimately, where would most of us prefer to relax in the city centre? In a concreted, windswept, area with some overpriced “facilities", or a grassy knoll among the flowerbeds?
No contest.
Ron Campbell,
9A Richmond Walk,

Proposals for city gardens

SIR, – After looking at the Acsef (Aberdeen City and Shire Economic Future) proposals for a new square on the site of Union Terrace Gardens, I am still puzzled.
What is it that Aberdonians need so much in a public square that its going to be worth spending an estimated £140million (this would have to include taxpayers' money, but the exact source is as yet undefined)?
The proposal gives some conceptual reasons, such as connecting up the city centre. This could be done at far less expense by simply improving access through the gardens with lighting, gradated ramps, lifts, footbridge to Belmont Street, shortcut under Union Bridge to the Green, and so on. In any case, walking round the gardens from one side to the other is only a five-minute walk; they're not that big.
The notes with Acsef's proposal reject this third option (to improve the gardens) out of hand. Sir Ian Wood's £50million contribution is not offered for this option, anyway.
Although the drawings show green planting, I am unconvinced that this would create the kind of oasis of nature that the current gardens give. It will be the roof of a shopping mall, so think of the roof of the St Nicholas Centre at the moment with troughs and so on.
Any explanations?
Helen Love,
67 Sunnyside Road,

‘Where do we find £90million?’

SIR, – So, Aberdeen might have no Christmas street lights this year, and fireworks instead of the usual New Year party.
Where, then, are we supposed to find the £90million (minimum) required for Sir Ian Wood's hallucination, sorry, vision, of Union Terrace Gardens?
F. Griffiths,
8 Devonshire Road,

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