Tuesday, 3 November 2009

Philanthropy and Philistines?

"Eighty per cent of the people who spend time in the square will have no interest in the arts." claimed Sir Ian Wood in a recent article in the Sunday Herald. Laying claim to why his proposed Civic Square should be a preferred development to the Brisac Gonzalez Centre for Contemporary Art. While being a statistic Wood has seemingly plucked out of nowhere, to refer to a hypothetical square can only possibly relate to some sort of dystopic future where he gets his own way, Aberdeen is bankrupted, the oil businesses have left and the city is home to a group of people who don't actually exist.

Wikipedia defines "the arts" as encompassing "visual arts, literature, the performing arts, including music, drama, film, dance, related media, and by some definitions, other areas such as fashion" which makes me wonder what the eighty percent of people who Wood imagines using his square would be interested in. In fact, people who have no interest in the above are so rare that it completely negates Wood's later comment that "You have to develop things for the good of everyone." Then, Dave Blackwood chimes in, adding even more confusion to Wood's initial suggestion that the arts are niche and "not for everyone" by claiming “the cultural component has to be large."
This recent article is nothing new, for the past year, ACSEF's PR machine around Wood's proposal has been rife with confusion and contradiction, to the point where they do not appear to know exactly what they are proposing themselves. Tom Smith, Chairman of the ACSEF board penned a letter to the Press and Journal where he claimed the project was "not about “concreting over the gardens”, nor is it about car parking or retail. These myths are trotted out by those opposing the plans." Far from being myths, these are things which have been picked up from publicity around the plans, and the reasons why they are being opposed. Although, if these are myths you have to accept most myths have some basis in reality, which, in this case, is the Halliday Fraser Munro technical appraisal.

"The development would use a significant amount of material in its development. The largest impacts would be from the significant amount ofconcrete, steel and other materials that would need to go into the substructure" (Page 65)
"The most suitable use for the 2 lower floors of the development would be a 490 space car park. This parking has the potential to replace the 326 space Denburn car park." (Page 68)

"Retail – Aspirational retailers such as Harvey Nichols, Harrods, House of Fraser and Selfridges may consider up to 6,500 sq m for a department store." (Page 68)

Mr Smith has also taken it upon himself using any major development or proposal or development as a springboard for the square: City of Culture Bid "A NEW civic square could help Aberdeen land the UK City of Culture title"; Offshore Europe: "We cannot assume that we will continue to host Offshore Europe. The redevelopment of Union Terrace Gardens and Denburn Valley is a pivotal project in enhancing our region to make sure we retain and attract events of this calibre and importance."; The opening of Union Square Shopping Centre: "On the day the Union Square centre was opened to shoppers, Aberdeen City and Shire Economic Future (Acsef) said the time was right to radically transform the city centre by creating a £140million square" and "The time is now right to maximise the benefits of these investments for the region and to attract further investment by ensuring these retail centres are well connected around a vibrant city centre heart." (Even though he claims "This is not about “concreting over the gardens”, nor is it about car parking or retail."); And even a man reading a newspaper in the Gardens on a damp Saturday morning.

It is in the latter article where the most damning estimation of the Gardens is revealed, being described as "an unusable gap site in the city’s single most strategically important location." Which begs the question, in what way will this five and a half acre street-level square be any less of a "gap site" or as Jonathon Meades put it "grandiloquent void", than what is exists. Unless there is some alterior motive hinged on the status of the Denburn Valley as "the city’s single most strategically important location." It is, of course, the only area in the city centre which has not been built on, prime real estate some would say.

Beyond using these excuses for bringing about the square, there has been no evidence of any tangible benefits to the city from Wood's scheme, other than what has become the old chestnut of "jobs and economic prosperity" and making the city "more-attractive, greener, better-connected, safer." These shallow promises have never been backed up with any facts or figures, on a six acre site which apparently is "not about retail or car parking" where exactly are these jobs coming from? How does filling the space in with concrete and removing 78 mature trees and tearing out a garden make it greener when concrete can, in fact, "account for about 60% of total CO2 emissions" especially when proposals are being considered to ban Lorries from the city centre because of their emissions.

Though it is not like Aberdeen City Council can boast any consistency or strategic leadership in their policies. In the Aberdeen Local Plan, published last year, policy was drawn out for "Protection of Urban Green Space":

"Existing areas of landscaped or amenity urban green space such as private and public gardens, sports and recreation grounds, wildlife sites, woodlands etc shall not be considered as brownfield sites for new development. This exclusion applies to undeveloped areas, within the grounds of redundant institutions (such as schools or hospitals), which have the physical character of landscaped or amenity urban green space. Instead, such areas within the urban area should be treated as Urban Green Space (GS36).

Though there may be potential both for the conversion of some redundant institutional buildings and the demolition and redevelopment of others, where the surrounding landscape itself is of demonstrable value to the wider area of the City it must be safeguarded. Planning briefs will be produced for major sites within this category."

As you will be able to see from the map below, from the Local Plan, (Click to enlarge) Union Terrace Gardens and the Denburn Valley are indeed protected Urban Green Space. When lobbied on their plans by the I heart UTG campaign, no councilor can make a comment on the plans because in doing so they would effectively waive their right to vote should a planning application ever be received in going to vote. Though this does not stop them for allocating £40,000 pounds from the Revenue budget for the continue of works into phase two of the budget (Outlined in a meeting of the Policy and Strategic Committee on 9 June.)

The official response from ACC was that "It was decided that the benefits that could be brought to the city through a project of this magnitude should be further investigated, even with the understanding that the project would be a departure from the Local Plan." Although when asked to outline these benefits the reply we got was a confusing "further work is required to assess in detail the benefits this proposal could bring" which is what the allocated monies were for.

In addition, the 78 trees in the Gardens are subject to Tree Preservation Orders and Historic Scotland has identified no less than 30 listed works around the site of the square, which includes the Gardens themselves, the Balustrades, Arcades and Victorian Toilets in the site. In the attached letter, Dr Ann MacSween states that "we must stress that we would have very significant reservations about proposals which included significant levels of backfilling of the garden area and the replacement of the gardens with a more "developed" civic space." Dr MacSween goes on to say "we do see opportunities to undertake more limited landscaping, to introduce appropriate buildings within the gardens area", the central remit for the existing Contemporary Art Centre Proposal.

ACC, of course, are a major partner in the Contemporary Arts Centre, as it will be built on their land, and not only rehouse Peacock but also the Council's Arts Development (Whitespace) and Education groups, and provide further facilities Council sponsered CityMoves Dance Space, complimenting their current facilities in Triple Kirks. Even though these organisations will also lose their new home if the Centre does not go ahead, a member of staff attending a public meeting at Peacock's current space last Sunday revealed that they had been told that "as council employees they were not allowed to have an opinion on the developments" and that access to the online petition set up in an attempt to save the gardens had apparently been temporarily blocked from the Council servers.

Even though the Council owns the Gardens, has admitted that the civic square goes against their own Policies, has granted another project planning permission, a capital loan and has three of its own organisations set to move in, they appear to be washing their hands of any say in the debate. The development has been passed over to ACSEF, simply because of the £50 million Sir Ian Wood has offered towards the project has had such a dazzling effect.

If you feel strongly about keeping your Gardens and not allow Aberdeen City Council to fritter away the opportunity of a small yet significant development to improve the area and bring a better quality of life to the city, or if you, like many know that it is us, the taxpayer who will have to foot the £90 million plus bill to realise one man's vision, please call your Council to account. The I heart UTG campaign is asking if you could write to your local councillor (If you are unsure who that is, visit www.writetothem.com) Copying in Gordon McIntosh, Director of Enterprise, Planning and Infrastructure (gmcintosh@aberdeencity.gov.uk) and Sue Bruce, Cheif Executive (ChiefExec@aberdeencity.gov.uk) urging them to do the right thing and reject this plan (As has been done three times in the last twenty years) and Save Union Terrace Gardens.


Jim said...

A wonderful read and nice to see ACSEF and Woods contradictions laid bare. It's quite staggering the level of ineptitude that seems to getting ignored by the council due to big sparkly money.

Jack Keenan said...

Excellent article once again. I believe that scotland is one of the most culturaly engaged countries in the world in terms of footfall to galleries, museams etc. Kelvingrove see's a larger footfall than MOMA, not really a Niche.

John said...

Great article Fraser, thoroughly researched and impeccably presented. Really highlights the old money attitudes of the council. What can there be left to do short of standing in front of bulldozers and cement mixers?

SCURVY said...

Brilliant article Fraser! It's only by regularly and thoroughly cleaning away the bullshit that the corporate PR machine keeps piling on to this issue, that the truth about how these decisions are made (and who benefits) will stay visible. I'm glad we have people like you and the rest of the UTGers to wield the shovel. Good work sir!
"Politics is the art of controlling your environment." HST(RIP)

Chris Henderson said...

Good job Fraser!

J. Hamlyn said...

Thankyou for a very informative and revealing article.
Earlier this year I had the opportunity to visit the Expo Plaza in Hannover which is a very similar large expanse of grey nothingness interspersed by stunted trees and meaningless serried steps and lumps of "architectural" stone to the one envisaged by the uninspired Mr Wood and his team. Even in the sunshine this was a barren and intimidating void with unfortunate echoes to Speer's Arena at Nuremburg: yet another monument to a monomaniacal and dangerously powerful oligarch bent on leaving a legacy and couching it in the rhetoric that it’s in the interests of the people.
You'd hope that an understanding of culture and history would teach people some lessons but clearly Mr Wood is so lacking in anything approaching culture that history’s lessons are lost on him.
Absolutely deplorable.

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