Tuesday, 15 December 2009

City Square Project - The "Facts"

With ACSEF's launch of the "City Square Project" earlier this month, they also produced a breifing note which has found its way into email inboxes throughout Aberdeen over the last two weeks. This note is to fulfill part of their communications strategy which states:
“Negative and mis-information provided by groups opposed to the project will be monitored so that their actions, which may have a negative impact on the project, can be anticipated and the presentation of clear facts and informed opinion made public.”
While this document is an attempt to disseminate these "facts" the document has so many holes it puts Swiss Cheese to shame. It continues the line of misleading PR which has been "trotted out" about the project, using the same rhetoric and continuing to avoid any of the actual issues surrounding the project or providing any tangible evidence or examples of how this project addesses the perceived "problems" and "aspirations" ACSEF have identified.

This post is my attempt to point out the points which have been ignored, haven't been considered, or appear to be simply wrong with it.

  • ACSEF is spearheading a transformational city centre project that will be vital to delivering the redevelopment of our city centre - one of the strategic priorities in ACSEF’s Economic Manifesto.
  • In its action plan, shaped by 1,300 businesses, ACSEF states that Aberdeen city centre needs to be the vibrant heart of the region, the hub for all those that live, work and visit it, be that for business or pleasure.
  • The vision is to create a more attractive, greener, better-connected, safer city centre with a unique civic space for recreation, leisure, and major events.
  • The aim is for the development of a cultural hub to experience the visual and performing arts, an accessible and enjoyable focal point and meeting place for the whole community right in the heart of the city centre. This is about enhancing the quality of life in our city.
This point is addressed by the “Northern Light” Contemporary Arts Centre Project. The Centre will bring together Peacock Visual Arts, CityMoves Dance Space, Whitespace (Arts Development) and Aberdeen City Council's Arts Education teams. The centre will contain a restaurant, bar, shop, print workshop, TV Studio, Workshop space, Dance Studies, Exhibition Space, offices and conference suite.

  • The region’s centre needs a vibrant, cultural civic space and gardens in the heart of the city. ACSEF’s project is driven by the need to create the jobs, wealth, opportunities and quality of life necessary to secure our long-term future.
ACSEF have yet to confirm exactly what jobs, wealth and opportunities will be provided with by the square. Other than jobs provided in construction, the fact that the square is not "about car parking or retail" does not quite suggest where the jobs or wealth in the square will come from.
  • An investment of this scale in the infrastructure of Aberdeen at this time will act as a catalyst to attract further investment and regeneration of the city centre. It signals the confidence of the Aberdeen community in its own success – now and in the future.
A capital investment of £4.3 Million pounds has already been made to the city centre. Furthering this project will mean that that money will have to be rejected and will be distributed to other projects throughout Scotland. Rejecting this possible investment will hardly inspire confidence in Aberdeen from future investors.
  • This project has been considered before – over the last 20 years the development has been led, promoted and championed by Aberdeen City Council. While in the past public sector funding had been identified, sufficient private sector funding to match this could not be sourced given the civic nature of the development. This time it is different – Sir Ian Wood’s offer to revitalise the opportunity means that we start from a position of strength when it comes to fund-raising.
Sir Ian Wood was head of Scottish Enterprise during the original proposals for the plan, and hesites the rejection of this scheme in the past as his "biggest failure." Sir Ian announced the resurrection of the scheme, promoted by his own personal investment only a week after the confirmation of the final piece of public funding for the contemporary arts centre, a project which would mean that his vision would never be able to taken forward.

  • The project represents an opportunity to firmly establish our position now and in the future as a global energy hub; the energy capital of the Eastern Hemisphere and the headquarters for administration and technology of major offshore oil and gas developments over the next 100 years and a leading developer and supplier of the technology, expertise and know how that will deliver alternative energy solutions be that deep water offshore wind, wave and tidal energy.
  • Great cities need to be attractive - they need to offer good employment prospects but they also need to offer a diverse range of activities to attract and keep people, particularly those starting out in their careers.
What is proposed?
  • The proposal is to create a new public space – a city square with gardens – by redeveloping a strategically located central area of the city centre - Union Terrace Gardens and the Denburn Valley, the adjacent railway line and Denburn dual carriageway.
Proposals have already been mooted to create a new civic square in place of St Nicholas house. These plans have been circulated since the mid 2000s and, like many redevelopment projects for Aberdeen, have yet to see any progression into physicality.
  • This is about transforming Aberdeen City – a city that has been neglected in terms of investment in the city fabric and infrastructure which is really evident today and is reflected by a loss of civic pride.
  • The regeneration of this location would reclaim over five acres of city centre space and a further two acres of all-weather, covered space. This will create a new, central, cultural destination with street level access that attracts people and connects the key parts of the city centre - north to south and east to west at street level and down through the new square to the Green, Union Square and the train and bus station.
There is nothing to say that these links may also be achieved through the Gardens as they are currently. Linking the Denburn area to Union Square, the train and bush stations, would still involve descent to the level of the road and railway and passage through Union Bridge itself as well as the Trinity Centre and Station Hotel. Creating a street-level square would not bring Guild Street any closer.
  • The cultural aspect is crucial. There is real potential to bring together organisations involved in the performing and visual arts, building on the existing arts festivals to create a hub focused on enhancing the region’s cultural offering and attracting major events and fairs, street theatre and other arts-related activities. There is a vibrant and diverse arts community in this part of the world – creating a major indoor and outdoor space arts in the heart of the city would allow it to be showcased more widely.
Again, these issues can be addressed through the existing Contemporary Art Centre development.
  • ACSEF wants to deliver a new space of 21st-century design with inspiring landscape architecture, public art and green space that truly reflects Aberdeen City and Shire’s success, prosperity and international status.
The square has been described as "seriously flawed and inappropriate for this iconic site." by the Aberdeen Architects Network, and has been publicly criticised by respected architecture critics Stuart MacDonald OBE, Peter Wilson and Jonathon Meades. This does not suggest that the square will be "inspiring landscape architecture."
  • One of the other key attractions is bringing the city centre into the sunlight. At the moment the gardens are in a North facing chasm. The elevation and covering of the Denburn would allow the back of Belmont Street, which gets the most of the day’s sun, to be opened up, potentially creating a vibrant and cosmopolitan café culture as enjoyed by many cities in the UK and Europe.
The back of Belmont Street already received most of the day’s sunlight. The abundance of bars with busy external terraces on Union Street proves this, the appeal is also the picturesque view of the Gardens. As is shown in ACSEF’s mock ups of the City Square, the new level will cover the existing terraces and much of the buildings and architecture of Belmont Street itself.
  • Creating a new vibrant heart for Aberdeen presents a unique opportunity to put us on the “must visit” list, attracting people and businesses and future investment.
  • The cost of the development has been estimated at £120-140 million. It is hoped that Sir Ian’s £50 million pledge will help lever further private sector investment and up to £70 million would come from public funds. ACSEF aims to access some of the long-term capital sources being explored for major infrastructure projects, adopting innovative funding models like those already being pursued by Glasgow and Edinburgh. The funding should not come from the council’s annual revenue budget.
Funding for maintenance, upkeep, cleaning and providing the many “attractions” on the square: Ice Rinks, Concerts, Public Art, Water Features would come from Aberdeen City Council’s annual revenue budget. The reason we have not seen such events in recent years is because of council cuts, in fact the 2009/2010 Hogmanay Street Party has been axed in the face of cutbacks. While ACSEF ascertain that the funding for the £140 million structure could come from a capital budget or from Scottish Government investment any of the events, fittings, fixtures, buildings, shrubs, grass etc must be maintained day to day by Aberdeen City Council.
Outcome of the Technical Feasibility Study
  • The technical feasibility study, led by a team of world-class experts, revealed that the scheme is both technically and financially viable and could cost between £120 and £140 million.
The Halliday Fraser Munro appraisal brings the estimate at £140 million yet this cost is based on a number of “assumptions” and “exclusions.” Section 5.0 of the Davis Langdon produced Feasibility Estimate details some of these exclusions which include: Project Insurances; Works to Existing Highway; Phasing of works beyond current assumed programme; contributions to both Highways and Network Rail for disruption; Blast proofing for tunnel for rail and road. The full list runs to 25 Exclusions which are known to have, or may have, a cost implication; however the report itself clarifies, “the list is intended only as a guide and cannot be relied upon to be exhaustive.”[1]
Several of the exclusions are actual costs which will arise and are flagged in the report. With respect to out of hours working, while it is excluded from the Final costings, information given by Network Rail indicates that possession would only be given to the line for “9 hours at weekends and 5 hours during the week.“[2] Another exclusion concerns “Site acquisition fees/costs. Air rights, rights to light (or any third party compensation settlements), over sailing licences, sale or letting fees/costs”[3] - this is quite a shortfall considering the report’s emphasis on acquisition of property: Section suggests “acquiring third party rights could amount to approximately £10,000,000.”[4]
  • The team of consultants, led by Halliday Fraser Munro, produced detailed studies of three options; a fully raised level and covering of the existing gardens, the railway and dual carriageway that creates eight acres of civic space in the heart of Aberdeen, a partial raised level and finally the enhancement of the existing gardens.
The second option, the partial covering is mostly identical to the Full Decking option, the main difference being that the deck does not fully meet at the Belmont Street edge. There was no investigation into a full compromise between the two proposed developments, which would see Union Terrace Gardens retained and ACSEF’s intentions for “a more attractive, greener, better-connected, safer city centre” achieved. It was not until November when months of deliberation allowed for an “integrated” option to be investigated, which was the reason why the Scottish Arts Council extended their deadline.
  • Each option was appraised against three main criteria of technical deliverability, planning and environmental issues and economic impact.
  • The ACSEF board gave the go-ahead for the fully raised and covered option to be progressed on the basis of the substantial economic benefits to be accrued and the fact that the project would make the city centre safer, better connected and more attractive, restoring a sense of civic pride.
  • There are huge challenges in taking such an ambitious project forward. It will require vision and determination by ACSEF and its partners but also the citizens of Aberdeen City and Shire.
  • The plans are a radical re-design and re-structure of our city centre, not seen since the construction of Union Bridge and the Denburn Viaduct over 200 years ago. It provides a tantalising prize for us socially and economically and we must work together to win it.
The construction of Union Bridge and Union Street was again the vision of one man, however it led Aberdeen into a ten-year period of bankruptcy.
  • The feasibility study states that such an ambitious vision will not be achieved through consideration of the third option – to enhance what is already there incorporating the current designs for a contemporary arts centre. This confines any improvement of public space to within the boundaries of Union Terrace Gardens and does not provide better connectivity or synergies with adjacent retail, cultural, arts or historic areas of the city centre.
This point is completely at odds with two years of development and around £1million pounds worth of public money which has gone into the Peacock-led Centre for Contemporary Art. An Independent Economic Survey into the Art Centre has estimated that the centre will attract around 200, 000 people and £5 million to the city annually.
  • A fully raised Union Terrace Gardens provides linkages with surrounding streets and areas. Union Street, Belmont Street and Rosemount Viaduct are all identified as potential beneficiaries of a new raised civic space.
The Gardens will not be “raised” they will be removed entirely. The technical appraisal describes this in detail as “approximately 3,947 dump trucks of earth and 4,605 dump trucks of granite.” The Gardens will be dug out and replaced with the concrete and steel framework pictured in my previous post, and then a structure will be constructed on the top which will be landscaped. There is no space on the structure for anything like what we already have in Union Terrace Gardens, 78 mature trees will be removed, which cannot be replaced with anything of the same size or magnificence due to the artificial structure underneath. "Raising" the gardens is one of the most misleading pieces of rhetoric being promoted by ACSEF.
  • The report also highlights the potential for a fully raised civic space to act as a central pedestrian hub radiating outwards from the site to various city centre attractions and locations. Other possibilities at this early stage include the potential for underground transport connections. The space created could also host major leisure, cultural or complimentary commercial activities – both indoor and outdoor – which would counterbalance the Bon-Accord shopping centre and Union Square.
Contemporary Arts Centre – what is the position?
  • The objectors to the scheme comprise primarily of Peacock Visual Arts supporters who believe that this project jeopardises their plans which have already been granted planning permission. Other objectors have voiced concerns over the loss of the historic gardens.
There is also a great deal of objection to the cost involved in the scheme. It seems odd to marginalise the majority of objections which relate to the loss of Union Terrace Gardens, which are a vitally important piece of Aberdeen's heritage and Urban Landscape. Union Terrace Gardens are a vital piece of inner city green space, the 200 year old trees help in dealing with pollution in the city and a break from the uniform grey that Aberdeen is known for. The many objectors to the scheme have a number of issues around the development which are simply not being addressed.
  • Peacock has, to date, secured a major proportion of funding for its design through public sources but there is still a significant funding gap. The funds secured from Aberdeen City Council, Scottish Arts Council and Scottish Enterprise have been extended to allow ACSEF and Peacock to work together on an integrated solution.
This “significant funding gap” comes to £4 million pounds which must be raised, which equates to a further 25% of the overall funding for the project. The “City Square Project” so far has an offer of £50 Million from Sir Ian Wood, if it’s plan progresses then it needs to raise in the region of at least £90 million from elsewhere. In what way is this any less significant than the funding gap faced by the Peacock project?
  • ACSEF’s vision is about a radical transformation that will ensure the jobs and prosperity we need in the future. The scheme must therefore fulfill this ambition by being bold, iconic and inclusive and within key parameters. These are:
Again, ACSEF can offer no evidence, examples or presidents of how this project will "ensure the jobs and prosperity." To the contrary all evidence would suggest that this project will provide nothing but cost to the taxpayer and the people of Aberdeen. Given that the square is to have no commercial or rental value and is "purely civic" in purpose, then how could it provide an ongoing revenue stream to see the city into the future?
  • A civic space built across the area of Union Terrace Gardens and the Denburn Valley with sloping, sweeping stepped areas to accommodate level changes in the adjacent street level
  • A minimum of 2.5 acres of green landscaped garden space
  • Walk on walk off access from the four access sides to the City Square - Union Terrace, Belmont Street, Union Bridge and Rosemount Viaduct.
  • Concourse covered level (beneath the street level surface) providing access through to Aberdeen Rail and Bus station, the Green and Union Square with natural light wells designed into the street level surface.
  • Full access for wheelchairs, prams and people with limited mobility
  • Open spaces for major public gatherings
  • Space available for a significant Contemporary Arts Centre of iconic design forming an integral part of the street level square. The aim would be to preserve the floor space and quality of natural light provided by the existing design.
  • Within these parameters, we want to see a contemporary arts centre that meets the needs of Peacock and the wider arts community or some sort of centre which significantly enhances the region’s cultural offering. An iconic building within these parameters could be the same size, have the same daylight, have an off square entrance and perhaps more importantly have alongside it other complementary cultural activities and facilities.
Given that ACSEF's "Contemporary Art Centre" would have to exist underneath the surface of the square then it does not create the scope of itself becoming "an iconic building." In addition to this world-renowned Architects Brisac Gonzalez, who are well known for their work on contemporary cultural spaces have voiced serious misgivings about the proposal due to its size, the extensive use of an underground concourse level, and most importantly, the complete eradication of the greenery in the Denburn Valley.
  • From the outset, ACSEF was adamant that a contemporary arts centre would play a major role in a scheme that offers significantly more benefits to citizens and the region, than a contemporary arts centre on its own and that funding can still be secured for this. ACSEF wants to create a cultural hub within the scheme that will regenerate culture in the city and be more inclusive than a contemporary arts centre, offering much wider cultural activities.
  • ACSEF will strongly advocate that the Scottish Arts Council funding will continue to be available for such a centre within the bigger scheme.
As Ian Munro from SAC has gone on record to say “Our joint board supported this project based on the original plans and designs in Union Terrace Gardens and the commitment is not automatically transferable to another project.” The Scottish Arts Council funding will “not continue to be available.” SAC does not programme capital investment for completion four years in the future. The SAC will also not award grants for projects in such an early stage. Adding to this the Scottish Arts Council will become Creative Scotland as of April next year, which has a much wider remit than SAC currently and a more stretched budget which, as yet, has not confirmed any Capital funds. ACSEF are in no position to advocate the availability of the SAC grant.
Public Consultation – what are we asking and what will we do with that information?
  • The public consultation will begin on 11 January 2010 and run for eight weeks. We need to ensure that the views of the wider community are heard and that as many people from as many walks of life as possible participate.
  • The aim of the public consultation is to ensure that our proposals, which are at a very early stage, are fully understood so that people can put forward informed opinions on what they would like the space to comprise. But equally it will also give the opportunity to voice all views, for or against, on the project.
How can a project which is “at a very early stage” be “fully understood”?
  • We want to find out if the people of Aberdeen want to transform our city centre and, if they do, what do they want to see in a new eight-acre, civic space that can be created by regeneration of the whole Denburn Valley.
This statement suggests that the only way to transform Aberdeen City Centre is to agree to the "City Square Project." Given that the Peacock development has been excluded as an option in the consultation, and it also boasts a knock-on transformation of the city centre. This may be construed as misleading.
  • Our proposals have not been consulted on and we need the public to tell us what their aspirations are and what could happen in the space.
  • The public need to be given the opportunity to imagine a transformed Aberdeen city centre and be given the confidence to believe that the city has the right to request infrastructure funding as Dundee, Glasgow and Edinburgh continue to do. Investment in our city centre structure is vital for Aberdeen and its future competitiveness and we need to believe and demonstrate that a new bold vision for the city is in our gift.
  • Dundee has secured in the region of £66m public sector funding for the waterfront development and is now seeking an additional £45m for the proposed Victoria & Albert Museum offshoot.
The recent round of public investment in Dundee for the waterfront development follows on from initial investments in the city art the Millennium, several diverse, smaller scale projects such as Dundee Contemporary Arts and the Overgate Shopping Centre. The success of these projects has led to a regeneration of the city which has faciltated further investment. These schemes were well thought out ventures with definate purposes which have seen the city benefit greatly. The £45 Million pound proposal for theV&A was given credibility from the success of the DCA as an Arts institution which has gained an highly regarded international reputation both for the facility itself and the City of Dundee.
  • The settlement of the Edinburgh Trams has cost the public purse £80 million.
The settlement of the Edinburgh Trams was a payout over a row about a contract for works carried out by German contractors Bilfinger Berger. The settlement of £80 million was on top of an original estimate by the contractors of £120 million, with the final cost of the project threatening to be £250 million over estimate and a year late.
There is nothing to say that similar disputes and delays could come as part of the "City Square Project" causing it to run over budget, therefore it seems a little odd to use the pay out as a justification in Aberdeen taking on it's own massive infrastructural project. At least Edinburgh trams have a tangible purpose.
  • Glasgow has received hundreds of millions of public funding for various projects including the Commonwealth Games
  • At the end of the consultation we will present the findings to identify the level of support for the scheme going forward. If there is sufficient support we then launch a second wave of consultation to involve the community in the design of the new square and gardens – that is when this project starts to become real and exciting.
There has been no information of yet as to how the findings will be collated, whether or not they will be independently assessed and exactly how the proposal will be presented. With the project being so vague and having the shallow promise to be all things to all people, then it would be highly enticing for everyone to suggest what they want within the space. The following section gives a list of features and functions which apparently have been indicated as wanted within the space, will these be the only options or can any possibility be suggested? If so, then how will unanticipated options proved by the people of Aberdeen factor into the overall costs?
What could be in the 8-acre space?
  • ACSEF has consistently stated that the people of Aberdeen will tell us what they want in the space. Whether it is a grand design or a jigsaw of activities that flow and meet the aspirations of the majority will be decided by the public.
· To focus the consultation, some of the features and functions people have indicated they would like to see have been identified as:
ü A cultural hub – a significant and potentially iconic attraction
ü A gathering space incorporating an outdoor performing stage and amphitheatre designed into the natural contours of the east/west elevation to attract major outdoor events.
ü Water features that recognise the significance of Aberdeen as a major port and harbour and the North Sea as its economic fortitude in the past, present and future.
ü Celebration via art or physical exhibition space of the economic landscape of the region – with a focus on energy, demonstrating the huge contribution the industry has made to the region and the role people play in that success.
ü Green space – lawns, formal garden space and tree-lined avenues – a reflective place for recreation, contemplation, exercise and informal sports.
ü Landmark sculpture and public art.
ü Lighting features and design that will animate the square and gardens from day through to night.
ü Dedicated children’s play area for families to enjoy safely
ü Seasonal displays and activities – an ice rink in winter – music festivals in summer.
ü Lower concourse level with natural light wells provides further performing arts space and, crucially, connectivity through to the transport hubs at the lower level of Guild Street.
ü Sustainability at the forefront of the design, construction and maintenance.

[1] Davis Langdon. Union Terrace Redevelopment Final Feasibility Estimate. Included as Section 8.6 Final Report: Union Terrace Gardens; Haliday Fraser Munro.
[2] Haliday Fraser Munro, Section Final Report: Union Terrace Gardens, 2009 “Overnight possessions would be 9hrs at weekends and 5 hrs during the week”
[3] Davis Langdon. Union Terrace Redevelopment Final Feasibility Estimate. Included as Section 8.6 Final Report: Runion Terrace Gardens, Halliday Fraser Munro
[4] Final Report: Union Terrace Gardens, Haliday Fraser Munro Section


Anonymous said...
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Anonymous said...

I notice that you can't leave feedback on the City Square Project website unless you leave all your details including full address...