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Would this design have worked best for Union Terrace Gardens development?

The anniversary of the referendum has sparked serious debate on what-might-have-been.
The anniversary of the referendum has sparked serious debate on what-might-have-been.

There has never been any shortage of opinions about what should be done with Union Terrace Gardens in Aberdeen.

For some, it’s a cherished part of the city centre landscape, dating all the way back to Victorian times, which should be preserved as it is; while others view it as a site which could be radically transformed into a futuristic landscape.

A variety of different proposals and plans have come and gone and, regardless of the political make-up of the council, any ideas have invariably met with resistance from a significant part of the population – which was reflected in the 2012 referendum when a “Granite Web” project, backed by businessman Sir Ian Wood, was narrowly supported by 52% of those who voted.

However, just a few months later, the local council elections led to Labour winning the most seats and the project was controversially shelved.

We asked readers for their own thoughts on this long-running saga and some pointed to a scheme which originally emerged in 2007.

The scheme would have led to an art gallery being built next to Union Terrace Gardens.

Prior to the unveiling of the “Granite Web” concept, Peacock Visual Arts had been working in partnership with Aberdeen City Council on an alternative proposal to develop a centre for contemporary arts.

The £13.5m venture, designed by London-based architects Brisac Gonzales, would have been built into the existing slopes in the gardens underneath the Robert Burns statue and contained an art gallery, a television studio, print studio, a restaurant and offices for Peacock staff.

It’s full steam ahead, then…

It would also have provided a base for the local authority’s Arts Development and Arts Education teams and extra space for the Citymoves dance agency.

The project had gained planning permission, secured £9.5 million of public funding from the council, Scottish Enterprise, and the Scottish Arts Council and was scheduled to break ground in November 2009.

But suddenly, it wasn’t the only bidder on the block. Then it was scrapped as a vastly more expensive concept caught the imagination of some city planners.

A £13.5m vision for Union Terrace Gardens was eventually rejected by Aberdeen City Council.

One reader told me: “In my view, this (Peacock) development would have been incredible and Aberdeen would have been very proud of Union Terrace.

“It would have delivered on every level: financially, aesthetically and functionally. Heritage groups were happy because it didn’t destroy the original fabric of the gardens. It was very disappointing that it was snubbed.”

Another said: “You had two opposing plans which amounted to Sir Ian wanting the gardens flattened or Aberdeen sticking with the status quo.

“One would have cost the city a fortune and the other not a penny. So guess which Aberdeen chose? It was a bad, short-termist solution.”

A bold plan for revitalising Union Terrace Gardens was unveiled in 2007.

Another respondent added: “I was initially impressed with Ian Wood and his generous (£50m) offer….or at least until I saw the plans.

“For me, they were austere, dystopian and would aesthetically not have complemented the Georgian surroundings.

“The elevated walkways and raising of the concrete new town to level and completely leaving behind the medieval basin did not sit well with me at all.

The “Granite Web” plan proved popular with many Aberdeen residents in 2012.

“It had some merit in terms of interconnected walkways, which would have increased footfall, but delivering this on a budget of £140m would have been the most ambitious aspect of this development and I’m guessing that the costs would have escalated significantly.

“Furthermore, look where we are now with the current economic situation in Aberdeen and the oil and gas sector.

“This may have ended up bankrupting the city.”

This innovative plan for an art gallery next to Union Terrace Gardens was initially popular.

Several readers praised the Peacock vision as offering something genuinely new at the heart of Union Terrace.

One said: “They featured an art gallery, a civic square and rail line covering over the Denburn and linking part of the gardens with Belmont Street.

“I always advocated for leaving part of the original medieval basin of the gardens sunken giving us the best of both worlds.

“The Peacock design also followed the natural contours of the gardens and would have looked wonderful when completed. The clever glass walkways incorporating the arches were a superb idea.”

The ‘soft reopening’ of Union Terrace Gardens was cancelled in April 2022.

The north-east council has been forced to grapple with shrinking budgets and the Covid pandemic, while the recent elections replaced the previous Conservative/Labour/Independent ruling body with an SNP/Liberal Democrat administration, which has been in charge for just a few weeks.

But doubts remain as to whether the Gardens will once again inspire locals and tourists alike or whether any changes have been merely cosmetic.

A source who has been close to the issue for the last 15 years said: “Now, we are left with an uninspiring hotch-potch development that has no vision, is not bold and which lacks real ambition.”

It seems this is one subject on which we can all disagree.

More on Union Terrace Gardens…