As the debate over the future of Union Terrace Gardens and the Denburn Valley rages on, and as passions and tension rises, cracks are beginning to form in the City Square Project's branded veneer. Three weeks into the eight-week process the strategy is becoming clearer, as all facets of the "robust and comprehensive" exercise have now been deployed. This has done nothing for public opinion of the project or the consultation process, which is widely regarded as disengenuous due to the leading questions on the survey and the reluctance to mention any other possible scheme which fulfills the objectives ACSEF and Sir Ian are claiming central to the reasoning for building it.
Last Monday, a week into the consultation, Weber-Shandwick carried out the first of their mysterious "focus groups." This get together at Aberdeen Grammar School was being billed as a meeting for Community Groups and local residents which led to a number of crossed wires as many people thought it was an open meeting to ascertain the views of city-centre residents and members of the Aberdeen public. However this was not the case and the event turned out to be invite-only and members of the great unwashed, without possession of a Golden Ticket were turned away at the door by stern-faced PR staff.
Although eventually a number of uninvited who were congregating outside were finally invited in, we were informed that we could come in for the presentation but were not permitted to take part in the focus group discussions, and any questions during the feedback session would be biased towards those who were invited. Fair enough, one would think as the reason given on their Facebook page was "By the nature of the workshops these have to be relatively small events and require a good cross-section of stakeholders and interest groups to be involved. For each of the focus groups we have drawn up a wide-ranging list of invitees. We cannot open these meetings up to all otherwise we will lose the benefit of gaining detailed insight and feedback." However, of 32 invitees, there were only 16 in attendance and 15 ininvited members which would have made up original quota for the groups. Regardless, when the Question and Answer session came around (delayed by an hour, according to the Agenda displayed at the beginning of the presentation the Q&A was originally supposed to take place right after the initial presentation) opinion was not stacked in the favour of the Civic Lid and Dave Blackwood from ACSEF and Maggie McGinley of Scottish Enterprise were left to field many questions, which related to the specific-yet-vague plans and their shallow promises, the consultation process, the destruction of the Gardens, and of course the debate surrounding the existing Peacock Plans. In response to questions asked about the collation of the results from the survey, Ms McGinley claimed that it "was not a numbers game" and that the purpose was to "identify a groundswell of opinion", however what this actually means in relation to the outcome of the consultation is another one of those mysteries.
In a letter to a constituent, Lewis MacDonald, MSP for Aberdeen Central, expressed his concerns "at the extent to which the public will be engaged" and that "despite repeated requests following correspondence from constituents, ACSEF have failed to take forward open public meetings." There are nine focus group meetings throughout the eight week period each one pickpocketing a different demographic (which we were assured by Dave Blackwood wouldn't be the case), and only six days of public exhibition within the City of Aberdeen (excluding the two set up in Aberdeen's two Universities which wont be available to the general public, and two more occurring outwith the city), this is hardly the "full and robust" consultation we were promised, and those behind the process are much more interested in their ad-bikes and presentation screens than any of the credible, intellectual or technical issues around the City Square project itself.
The reach and insight provided at the touring exhibition leaves a lot to be desired, as confused staff have seemed unable to provide any decent answers to the public's questioning and arent doing a particularly good job of selling it. I was told at one such exhibition in the Trinity Centre that "there's nowhere at the moment to hold music event and concerts", my reply of the Castlegate and it's track record of hosting the New Year festivities when the City can afford it. This inspired a blank look and the admission that the PR gentleman couldn't say anything about the Castlegate. Other visitors have reported confused and conflicting accounts of the "information" expressed by these civic design experts from Weber-Shandwick, some say Peacock is 100% involved in the scheme, others say they have no funds, no planning permission or that the Brisac Gonzalez project had already failed.
By contrast, on Tuesday, there was a very open launch of "What If" an exhibition of Edgar Gonzalez's sketches and concepts for compromised and phased approach to development in Denburn Valley. Far from being simply exclusive to the "arts community", the opening night at Peacock Visual Arts current home off Castlegate was attended by politicians, architects, city planners, businesspeople, accountants, teachers, lecturers, people who work in shops, people who work in resteraunts, people who don't work, people who live in Aberdeen who care about the future of the city. The exhibition shows outcomes of talks held late last year, arranged by Scottish Enterprise, between Halliday Fraser Munro and Brisac Gonzalez Architects in an attempt to find a "sensible" way to "end the stalemate between ACSEF and Peacock", which were rejected as they did not meet the unflinching terms of Sir Ian's investment.
Gonzalez's designs look into possibilities of retaining Union Terrace Gardens and responding to the desires ACSEF had identified to be fulfilled by the City Square: Connectivity through bridges and pedestrian walkways between Union Terrace and Belmont Street; Opening the back of Belmont Street with a series of peir like structures; Covering the railway and dual carraigeway with a lawn covered tunnel; Increasing accessibilty and use of the gardens through the Peacock Contemporary Arts Centre which will also provide light to the darker areas of the Gardens at night and shelter from the elements. The proposals also looked at the wider issue of the full footprint of Aberdeen City Centre, not just ACSEF's favourite "chasm", as the accompanying publication states: "A village has a town square. Cosmopolitan cities have many centres."
At the end of last week, Sir Ian himself had the opportunity to answer the concerns, issues and questions in public, broadcast live on Radio Scotland as part of Brian Taylor's Big Debate. Almost half of the programme was taken up with the Union Terrace Gardens debate, Wood's response to the initial question about the controversy surrounding the City Square Project by repeating the now tired lines of rhetoric and shallow promises that have defined their PR effort in the past year. Challenged by the issues of how the City Square would create Jobs; The destruction of the Historic Gardens; Better uses for the public money required for the project; the nature of the underground real estate; the misleading nature of the consultation; the only rebuttal Wood could offer was by saying he was "conceared that three or four of the key points made were just plain wrong." Unable to explain exactly why these key points were "wrong", the best he could do was dispel suggestions of a Shopping Mall by explaining that it was "something like Covent Garden" before reverting back the well-prepared “I don’t want to be remembered as the North Sea oil generation that enjoyed the prosperity but left a depleting economic legacy to our children and grandchildren” line.
However, focus was pulled in the debate by Labour MP Anne Begg. While the other MPs present on the panel remained largely on the fence, other than Aberdeen South MSP Nicol Stephen, backed Sir Ian's scheme primarily before throwing enough get out clauses in so not to alienate too many voters, Anne Begg both criticised the consultation process and put her full support behind the Peacock project. She said "There are two visions on the table, and I have to say one doesn't make my heart sing and one does – and that is the Peacock development." furthering this with the opinion that " to put in an underground mall will kill Union Street."
With support for the City Square waning, seemingly being supported only by those who brought it forward (A lone clapper after Ian Wood's response to the question on the radio broadcast was none other than Andy Willox, an ACSEF board member) and opposition arising from National Press, Architecture Journals, and from presentations given by Sir Ian Wood himself to academics from Universities, as well as the negative response from the population of Aberdeen we are left to wonder how long they will continue pushing this dated project as the solution to all of today's issues and the shining light of tomorrow?
ACSEF however, like to ignore the public opinion, or in fact any criticism from anyone be it an average citizen with a love of the Gardens or an educated expert with an informed issue relating to the project and despite stating that they "do not want to pre-empt the consultation" they seem to be under the impression that it is a done deal. A 24-page supplement in the Eastern Airways in-flight magazine is already using the Square as an attempt to promote Aberdeen. Pre-empting the outcome by omitting the idea that the people of Aberdeen may not actually want the project to go ahead, the advertorial sets out that "The next stage will be a major public consultation exercise with the people of Aberdeen to see what features they would like such an iconic new public space to have."
Meanwhile the City Square Project is already taking its financial toll on the city, The Press and Journal reported last week that "Aberdeen City Council officials have urged finance committee members to keep supporting [Peacock Visual Arts] with £3,040 a month until the end of May." The article points out that the financing "would come from the £3million contribution to the scheme which it had already approved but capped, and would pay the wages of one full-time member of Peacock’s fundraising team, and one part-time staff member" outlining that the money required is to keep two staff members in employment and involves further chipping away at the money allocated for the Art Centre project. Fortunately a week later it was reported that Aberdeen City Coucil "handed a financial lifeline to Peacock Visual Arts to keep alive its vision of building a £13million centre in Union Terrace Gardens" however with a warning that "Any public money should not be used in any way to go towards the current propaganda war between Peacock and the City Square." This stipulation is odd on a number of counts, it has already been explicit that the funds released are to allow Peacock to pay their Art Centre Campaign Director so it is unclear where the worry that the money would be spent on "propaganda" would come from. As far as I am aware Peacock have not even released any propaganda.
Although the definition of "propaganda" can certainly be applied to ACSEF's output surrounding their side of the supposed "war." In previous posts I have mentioned the tactics, slogans and tenious reasoning forming the backbone of their arguments and PR supporting the vague proposal. Full page newspaper adverts; Shop front Adverts; supplements in in-flight magazines; eco-bicycle placards, enough promotional booklets to provide every Household in the city and to hand out willy-nilly; exhibition material including Advertising boards, plasma screens, desks and personnel; Website and Social Media presence; Manned hotline and text service; Invite-only focus groups all focused on one man's vision are being unleashed on the people of Aberdeen. These are all pushing an idea of believing in a Vibrant Aberdeen using emotive language, unsubstantiated claims, vague promises that this is the only way to achieve these things. The Evening Express even published an image of Sir Ian which imitated the Kitchener's famous recruitment poster.
Sir Ian has attempted to answer the numerous points of contention but warning that "Aberdeen faces serious economic decline and more social problems unless the city centre and its transport links are brought up to a higher standard" and that the City Square Project will be the answer to this. But there is no evidence to link the City Square Project to prosperty or wealth generation, the same report which recommended £40,000 pounds be allocated for Phase 2 of ACSEF's project states that the "UTG project is currently unlikely to create substantial new office/technology space targeted at industry sector growth", and the HFM technical appraisal, a document ACSEF believes to be "a world-class, comprehensive piece of work produced by a team of internationally renowned experts" also states that "the difficulty in quantifying the economic gain is considerable."
Most would agree that Aberdeen city centre needs some TLC and investment, there are several "dead" sites throughout the City Centre but Union Terrace Gardens is not one of them. None of documents produced within the last five years have pointed to ACSEF's sudden belief that the Denburn Valley is "the city’s single most strategically important location", there is no mention of this in the Bon Accord Masterplan, Strategic Framework documents, Aberdeen City and Shire Structure Plan and surely this fact would have been highlighted during the two year period of development into Peacock's plans. ACSEF's Tom Smith, when discussing the allure of the city centre mentions "Edinburgh has Princes Street and the Castle" with the obvious glaring omission of Princes Street Gardens, which Union Terrace Gardens have often been compared to. The Denburn Valley could be the jewel in the crown of a healthy vibrant city centre if the level of donation Sir Ian wishes to invest was spread in a number of smaller projects to regenerate Union Street and the City Centre on the whole.
Sir Ian and ACSEF wish to turn a beautiful Urban Park into a structure with Covent Garden underneath, Red Square/Mini Central Park on top to turn the city into a "“Houston for the eastern hemisphere”, but why can't we just be Aberdeen?