The future of Union Terrace Gardens

It's interesting to be in Aberdeen today, as - one way or another - March 2nd 2012 will be historic.  For this is the day we get to find out what happens to Union Terrace Gardens.

His Majesty's Theatre, Aberdeen, viewed from Union Terrace Gardens

The saga has been going on for a few years now, ever since multimillionaire petroleum tycoon Sir Ian Wood announced his desire to redesign the gardens.  In essence, he was offering to part-fund a council-run redevelopment scheme.

Wood's plans superseded an existing idea for the Peacock Arts Centre, which had received planning permission in 2007, and was expected to cost about £10m.  Just as it was getting the go-ahead, though, Wood offered £50m towards a City Square, and the council withdrew their support for the Peacock project.

This was odd on various counts, not least that they were now going to be required to find £90m to fulfill the £140m cost of Wood's City Square.  Perhaps recognizing the financial madness of this decision, the council put it to a public vote.  And 55% of the public said no.

Union Terrace Gardens opened in 1879, beneath Thomas Fletcher's Union Street viaduct, completed in 1805.

Based on the initial plans, which seemed set on completely filling in the Denburn Valley, concreting it over, and turning it into a windswept plaza, I agreed wholeheartedly with the opposition.  To obliterate the key topographical feature of central Aberdeen would be to destroy the heart of the city.

Historically fervent supporters of such behaviour, though, the council ignored the public vote and gave its backing to Wood's wasteland.  "We can get a cafe culture," claimed one councillor, bafflingly.

The battle lines were drawn: Ian Wood, the council, and the business community versus Lewis Macdonald and the Friends of Union Terrace Gardens.  I sided with the latter unequivocally.

Recently, however, my attitude has begun to shift.  I still don't see how the project will safeguard Aberdeen's post-oil future, whatever Mr Wood claims, but I would certainly like to see the railway line and underpass covered up, and the gardens rendered much more accessible from Union Street.

With the announcement of some genuinely interesting design options, I mellowed further to the notion.  Earlier this year the competition was whittled down to two:

Design 1 - Granite Web
Design 2 - Winter Garden

Amazingly, neither entailed a filling in of the valley or the construction of a plaza where chip bags and pizza boxes could whizz forlornly around in the teeth of a North Sea gale.  Both had imagination and style to them; my favourite was the Winter Garden.

Inevitably, then, the experts selected Granite Web as their preferred option.  And, perhaps in optimism, or perhaps in spite, offered the public a second bite at the representative cherry: another referendum.

About half of local residents voted this time, with the options being 'Keep UTG as they are' or 'Spend a lot of money turning them into a Granite Web'.  The results are due some time this afternoon.

And though I'm slightly in favour of the transformation - with a fair few caveats - I do wonder what will happen if the public say no.  Will the council respect their views this time?  I guess we'll find out shortly...
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