Triple Kirks Nonsultation ?

Nonsultation = A specious public consultation on decisions that have already been made.

I like this word, but I loathe the concept it describes.

More and more we see that government, business and property developers are embracing this concept, with their PR machines working tirelessly to try and pass this off as consultation.

Last year in Aberdeen we saw the CitySquare nonsultation where the City Council ignored the results of the so called consultation and backed ACSEF’s scheme to raze Union Terrace Gardens which had been rejected by the public despite a massive (and expensive) PR effort.  Perhaps the saddest aspect of this whole affair is not that the City Council is pressing ahead with a plan to destroy this beloved green oasis in the heart of Aberdeen, but that surveys have shown that it has changed people’s attitudes to consultations – with a common theme of “why bother responding? they will ignore whatever I say“.

So onto the Triple Kirks …

Triple Kirks is currently mainly derelict, but its A-listed brick-clad spire remains one of the best known landmarks in the City Centre.  Though desecrated by the dual carriageway, Archibald Simpson‘s magnificent edifice soars above the Denburn and provides a home to the majestic Peregrine Falcons, a Schedule 1 protected species, that so delight citizens and visitors enjoying Union Terrace Gardens.  I could go on at length about the building and its environs but I won’t.

I was very interested to hear that there were new proposals for the Triple Kirks site and it was with great interest that late last year I went to the Triple Kirks website to see what was on the cards.  Now, I do agree that the site should be redeveloped, but think that such a prominent location merits something that is both striking and sympathetic to its neighbours, particularly the A-listed spire.  I have to say that I was not only unimpressed by what was presented on the website as “iconic”, but also rather saddened if this is all that the developers have to offer.  Wrap it in as much sugary PR as you like, but in my opinion, the bog standard glazed boxes proposed look cheap, nasty and out of place. Luckily, the website gave the reader the opportunity to submit comments, which myself and many other people I know duly did. Not one of the folk I have asked has ever received even an acknowledgement that their feedback had been received.  Not another nonsultation I hear you groan!

A couple of weeks ago I was delighted to see in Private Eye’s (the magazine, not the gentleman’s club on Chapel Street) Nooks & Corners this very development under scrutiny and find that ‘Piloti’ was equally unimpressed commenting “First came the gratuitous scheme promoted by the oil tycoon Sir Ian Wood to obliterate one of the city’s principal assets – to fill in the valley containing Union Terrace Gardens to create a new civic space-cum-shopping centre, an attempt at civic suicide enthusiastically embraced by Aberdeen City Council.  Now comes a proposal to ruin and render ridiculous the famous landmark which overlooks Union Terrace Gardens stands close by the (wonderful) City Art Gallery : the steeple of the Triple Kirks“.

Today, I saw on the STV Local website that the plans for the scheme were now being lodged with the council.  No doubt the local press will be drooling over this news in the coming days as a development like this is bound to come with the potential for generating much advertising revenue and provide press releases that readily translate into really easy column inches without the inconvenience or expense of having to do any actual journalism, as we noted back here.

When they become available online, it will be interesting to see how the plans – as submitted – differ from the original concepts and of particular interest to see how they attempt to present the feedback received during the public consultation exercise (benefit of the doubt, dear readers, benefit of the doubt).

The initial consultation (nonsultation ?) exercise may casually discard comments received from us plebians, but hopefully the formal planning process – in which I still have a little (just a little mind) faith – will give an opportunity for comment to be noted and recorded.

In case you are wondering, here are my comments on the proposal as submitted via the website as requested by the developers :

“Having reviewed the material which is available on your website I find myself profoundly disappointed by the lack of vision and paucity of regard for place and environment shown by this proposal. It is easy to throw words like “icon” into your material but in my opinion the proposal serves as an icon of inappropriate development. Aberdeen City Centre is awash with vacant office space and hardly needs a speculative development to provide even more. While the wording of your PR material attempts to imply otherwise, the proposals are pervaded by a lack of respect for the adjacent truly iconic architecture.

Even in its current state, the “Back of Belmont” street vista is one of the finest in Aberdeen and the proposed Triple Kirks buildings look cheap and tacky alongside the Trades Hall etc. Overall, it is the lack of respect for Simpson’s spire that is the most striking part of the proposals which serve to cram in as much floor space to the development as possible. While the heavily glazed buildings give an impression of weakness, fragility and impermanence, they crowd the spire and serve to diminish it.

The Triple Kirks site could be redeveloped with more appropriate buildings which incorporate rather than intimidate the original spire and respect the setting. All that is needed is a developer with the courage and conviction to strive for a design which is truly fitting to both the site and the city.

Regardless of the design of any new buildings, there are, no doubt, risks to the integrity of the structure of the spire during the demolition and groundwork for the new development. Given that rendering the spire “unsafe” or deeming it “beyond economic repair” resulting in demolition and complete site clearance would be a convenient outcome for the developers (regardless of the structure’s ‘A’ listing), it would be appropriate for the developers to put up a cash bond equivalent to the sum required for complete reconstruction of the spire, to be redeemed on completion of the project.

It is regularly noted that Union Plaza, one of Stewart Milne’s recent works, displays a low quality of exterior finishing that gives it a shoddy appearance even after only being up for a few years. Some contend that this lack of attention to finish often conceals low quality structural work (in terms of execution rather than architectural design), and far higher standards than those seen at Union Plaza will be required for a challenging site like Triple Kirks.

While disused by humans for some time, the spire is of course, home to Peregrine Falcons (a Schedule 1 listed species). Many citizens watch these birds from Union Terrace & Union Terrace Gardens, and the RSPB even set up a viewing platform on Union Terrace in 2007 to promote this public appreciation of threatened wildlife. Detailed study of how the development would impact these birds would need to be made prior to development, and measures taken to ensure that they are not driven from their home by the construction work.

Having said that, one aspect of the proposal which is good is that its very existence serves to further undermine the already weak case for TIF for the proposals to destroy Union Terrace Gardens and replace them with a highly unpopular City Square (a proposal comprehensively rejected in the public consultation). The fact that Stewart Milne Developments are starting this project now shows that the City Square is not necessary to generate new economic activity in the City Centre – and it would be unfair if any Triple Kirks scheme found itself burdened by tax rises as a result of a scheme that it does not depend upon.

Finally, the developer should make a commitment to ethically source all granite cladding used in the design. Granite may be the “iconic” material of Aberdeen architecture, but it should not come from quarries which engage child labour or have dubious health & safety records.”


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5 Responses to Triple Kirks Nonsultation ?

  1. Debra Storr says:

    Sadly under the rules for public consultation (and be under no illusions, this was a required consultation not a voluntary act) if they make significant changes to the designs they have to reconsult.

    So I think you can safely assume the plans submitted are the plans consulted upon plus/minus a minor amendment (to show they were listening) if we are lucky.

    Sometimes I think the consultation processes are carefully designed to ensure the disillusionment of the public.

    But do resubmit your response to the consultation as a formal representation for the submitted plans, You have just 21 days from the submission of the plans to do this ….

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