Hopes of reuniting a deeply divided Aberdeen are being pinned to the success of the £28.3 million revamp of Union Terrace Gardens – itself the subject of a decades-long fight over its future.
The saga of the redevelopment of the Victorian gardens has rolled on since the summer of 2007 – though calls were already being made to improve safety and the upkeep of the space long before that.
But the end is now in sight with the multi-million-pound refurbishment expected to be completed – bar some weather-limited gardening work – this winter.
Construction was impacted by last year’s coronavirus lockdowns but was already behind schedule.
And Aberdeen City Council leader, Jenny Laing, thinks the long and bitter debate might come to an end when people see the revitalised space.
She said: “There was such division in the city about the gardens, we wanted to make sure when we brought our plans forward we had really consulted with the public around what it looked like.
“And I think what will hopefully be completed by the end of this year will actually fulfil the vision that not only we had, but the public had as well.
“From what I can see from the designs we have and the work going on, we will have gardens that will be well-used by people as they will be accessible and they will have a variety of things people can do there while enjoying the green lung of the city centre.
“The Covid situation has highlighted more than anything the importance of having green space within the urban environment and how it can help with physical and mental wellbeing.
“We are very fortunate to have something like Union Terrace Gardens right in the city centre and I see people using them to full effect once opened because it will now be accessible, a place where people can escape from the hubbub of the city centre.
“And it will help us with our plans to bring a greater standard of living in the city centre – that is what they were developed for in the first place, for the number of people in the area that didn’t have access to their own outdoor space.”
Union Terrace Gardens is one of the last big spends of Labour-led administration’s first stag of the city centre master plan – a 25-year overhaul of Aberdeen hoped to improve the fortunes of the area and its people.
Plans are already in motion to transform, and possibly pedestrianise, the central stretch of Union Street, firstly through the purchase of the former BHS building for redevelopment as a modern marketplace.
Mrs Laing added: “Union Terrace Gardens forms part of a much bigger strategic plan we have for the city and I am proud of what we have managed to deliver, particularly within the city centre.
“There is no doubt we have challenges, exacerbated by Covid-19, and our work is not complete.
“But that is why we are taking the steps we are around the review of the master plan, bringing in the wonderful nature asset of the beach, and looking at ways we can build a vibrant city centre with the events programmes we enjoyed up until Covid hit us.
“We want to ensure we are creating an attractive place for people living here and future visitors – that is what will help us secure economic growth and a brighter future, particularly, for our young people.
“It’s a much bigger picture we are trying to pull together to create an Aberdeen we can be proud of, and that people will want to come and live, work and invest in.”
Union Terrace Gardens overhaul expected to be finished this year
The current Union Terrace Gardens work includes lifesaving barriers on Union Bridge – expected to be finished this month – as well as building three new pavilions to bring businesses into the gardens.
Down the slope, new accessible routes are being built, including a “grand” staircase off Rosemount Viaduct, as well as events space to draw people in and better lighting.
Victorian mosaic-walled toilets, the granite balustrades and the arches beneath Union Terrace are also being lovingly restored.
And there are hopes the 8ft white hoardings surrounding the gardens might soon be taken down, as work progresses – allowing a first proper look from Union Street in years.
The row that split Aberdeen right down the middle
But this week marks a pivotal point in the fabled story of the beauty spot, as more than a decade ago councillors chose to take up a £50m offer of help from tycoon Sir Ian Wood to fund a new civic square, raising the entire leafy hectare to Union Street level.
And nothing, claim reporters covering the dramatic scenes at the Town House at the time, has ever split the people of Aberdeen more.
An eight-week public consultation, held as part of the planning process in 2010, showed 55% of nearly 12,000 respondents did not support the £140m proposals subsidised by Sir Ian.
Despite this, plans known as the City Gardens were passed that May; derailing proposals for an art centre within the park below Union Street.
Peacock Visual Arts had already gained planning permission for its £10m contemporary arts centre when the huge, transformational proposals were brought forward.
More than 10,000 respondents had signed a petition to save the cherished green space.
Many did so in support of the Peacock Visual Arts space but also in fear of the loss of so many mature trees – cause for protest nine years later as dozens were lopped down to make way for the current £28m work.
By April 2011, an international search had been launched for a firm to design the new square, which would raise the whole space to street level.
In 2012, a scheme known as the Granite Web was selected from the piles of submissions, and was put to a public referendum months later.
More than 85,000 Aberdonians cast their votes, resulting in a 45,301 majority backing the City Gardens.
2012: Labour election pledge to scrap the City Gardens project
Despite this, Labour stood in that May’s local elections with a manifesto pledge to withdraw the plans and head back to the drawing board on the cherished space, first opened in 1879.
Becoming the largest group, they successfully had the project thrown out in August 2012, despite projections the work could bring some 8,000 jobs to the city centre as part of a wider regeneration.
Then the Labour-led council’s finance convener Willie Young played a pivotal role in that move.
No longer a councillor, he remains a key figure among the Aberdeen Labour group that was exiled by Scottish party chiefs soon after that election for teaming up with the Conservatives.
He said: “It was a manifesto commitment that we would not move forward with the city gardens project.
“However, we did recognise we did not have an absolute majority and the coalition was split – so we agreed with the Conservatives and Independent Alliance that it would be a free vote.
“The most important thing for us was to fulfil the manifesto promise and, obviously, the city was divided on what to do with Union Terrace Gardens.
“Some wanted to keep it as the Victorian gardens and Sir Ian wanted to move forward with his project which would have seen their demise.
“We did not want that – but we did not want to stop there either.”
Sir Ian left his offer, which could have been worth up to £85m, on the table for a whole year before the council voted in December 2013 to reject it categorically.
The philanthropist was asked to comment for this piece, but declined.
From that decision came a pledge to look again at what the space needed, an examination which led to the huge work being undertaken presently.
And Mr Young – who lost his council seat in the 2017 local election – stands by the decision to turn the money down, hoping 20 years from now people will back it too.
“We agreed to put something together for Union Terrace Gardens, and that proposal is what you will see very shortly,” he added.
“But we were brave enough, bold enough, and strong enough to deliver on promises and I think you have to judge these things over a number of years.
“People say ‘oh, Aberdeen City Council has a lot of debt’ – yeah, we do because we’ve built projects and it’s like everything else, you don’t get anything for nothing.
“I understand people might not like what they are trying to do, but judge it over 20 years and they will say: ‘it was the right thing to do, can you imagine what Aberdeen would have been like had they done nothing?’”
I <3 UTG: Aberdeen ‘turned its back’ on art and culture in backing Sir Ian’s Union Terrace Gardens plan
But, by the time Labour had forced a Town House U-turn – contrary to the advisory local referendum only months before – it was too late for the Peacock Visual Arts centre.
Lottery funding had been withdrawn, and the thousands wanting the city to carve out a greater cultural offering were left despondent.
Fraser Denholm founded the I Heart UTG campaign along with fellow artist Katie Guthrie.
For the film-maker, it was a final straw which led to him leaving a teaching position at Gray’s School Of Art for the Central Belt.
He said: “It was a big blow for us – and a lot of people in the artistic community.
“And it was pivotal to my leaving the city as a lot of us had done work to set up exhibitions and spaces in the hope this new centre would come.
“When it didn’t, it felt like the council had turned its back on the cultural community.
“As art graduates, Katie and I were involved in Aberdeen’s artistic community and we saw this art centre as something that would elevate the city’s cultural quality.
“We were passionate about the Peacock project, which was good for the gardens as it was sympathetic to the way they looked at the time.
““It took a lot of care to maintain the gardens as much as possible, whereas the other scheme was a wholescale demolition of the gardens for a square at street level.”
However, the now Glasgow-based film-maker praises those he left behind for the “grassroots” artistic revolution to shape the Granite City, “spurred on” by demise of the Peacock plans.
“Perhaps while I was a little disheartened and wanted to go and try somewhere else,” the 37-year-old said.
“But a lot of energy had built up and people channelled that into really positive things so even though we didn’t get the art centre there were many who were revitalised by the discourse around it.”
Aberdeen unlikely to unite over Union Terrace Gardens work – despite hopes of Town House leaders
And yet, Mrs Laing’s hopes of uniting Aberdeen behind her administration’s ambitious master plan to rejuvenate a tired city centre look some way off.
There are plenty who argued for a more modest spend to make the space accessible and safe.
As council debts mount, so too has the cost of the garden refurbishment – first priced at £17m in 2016.
The rhetoric from Alex Nicoll, leader of the SNP on the council, suggests the debate will not cool off any time soon – not least with 2022 local elections fast approaching.
Heading up the single largest group, in opposition, at the Town House, he said: “If anything sums up the Labour party in Aberdeen it’s Union Terrace Gardens.
“The City Garden Project would have been transformational, more so than anything the council has done in the past nine years.
“It also had the benefit of being backed by an £85 million donation from Sir Ian Wood.
“After overturning a city-wide referendum on the basis of protecting the trees in the gardens, the administration have since spent £28 million cutting those trees down anyway.
“Anyone who has been unfortunate enough to look into the gardens recently will see that they are currently a car park.
“As well as spending more money than we had to, and getting less benefit from it, this project is also late and overbudget – a testament to the profligacy and vanity of Aberdeen Labour.
Union Terrace Gardens: Through the years