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Is Glasgow Going to Lose Another Local Landmark to Crappy Redevelopment?

The city has a history of destroying and rebuilding itself, but none of the Glaswegians I spoke to want the Concert Hall steps to be built over.
November 24, 2014, 3:00pm

The concert hall steps

This post originally appeared in VICE UK​

Glasgow has long had an appetite for destruction. Visit Edinburgh and certain parts of its center look as if they were preserved in aspic, whereas Scotland's largest city is constantly chopping and changing its appearance like a hairdresser preparing for a work night out.

This demand for reinvention has been partly driven by social necessity—such as the 1960s clearance of slum housing in districts like Townhead—but often Glasgow's enthusiasm for the wrecking ball is economically motivated or just plain misguided. No one forced the city's leaders to drive a motorway through its beating heart at Charing Cross in 1968, but they went ahead anyway in the belief that the age of the car demanded it. By 1980 it was  ​real​ized that nobody wants a motorway in a city center and the remaining sections of the Glasgow Inner Ring Road were abandoned.

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There are numerous examples of planning decisions which may have seemed sensible at the time but have left subsequent generations appalled. For example, the city's fine 17th-century university buildings were deemed surplus to requirements and flattened to make way for… a goods depot. There are dozens of  ​websites and ​message boards dedicated to pictures of "Old Glasgow," providing visual reminders of what has been lost.

Think of the city as a giant Monopoly board—houses and hotels are swept aside so the game can begin all over again. But in recent years there has been a growing tendency among residents to loudly oppose the latest development wheezes. A $23.5 million plan to redesign George Square—an almost sacred site to Glaswegians—was unceremoniously dropped in 2013 following a well-organized online campaign.

Now a similar movement has sprung up in defense of another, more recent city-center landmark that is under threat. A flight of steps leading to a music venue might not seem that big a deal, but plans to demolish them have led to more than 12,000 people signing a petition in favor of their retention.

The Glasgow Royal Concert Hall opened in 1990 and was seen as a symbol of the city's rebirth after the economic pain of the mid 20th century caused by the closure of its heavy industries. The building occupies a prominent position at the top of Buchanan Street, the busiest shopping destination in Scotland, and the steps leading to its entrance are a popular meeting place for workers, shoppers, and tourists. During the independence referendum campaign they were the scene of rallies by Yes and No supporters, becoming a familiar image in the news in the run up to the vote.

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But the steps could soon be demolished and replaced by a glass atrium under a $627 million plan to significantly expand the adjacent Buchanan Galleries shopping center. A planning application for their removal has been submitted and will be considered by councillors in the new year.

LS Buchanan Ltd., owner of the shopping center, sees little merit in the steps. "We are of the view that the existing steps do not provide any aesthetic benefit to the city center, and are of little townscape value," it stated in its application.

The company proposes building a "new rotunda structure allowing pedestrians to enter the concert hall and shopping center." This will provide a "more user-friendly, modern entrance to the Royal Concert Hall."

A "gathering place" will be built in front of the rotunda, close to the existing statue of the late politician Donald Dewar, with new seating and a public art installation.

Oisin Murray busking by the steps

Ben Bookless feels there is no need to build such a meeting place, as the steps already provide one. The 25-year-old journalist, along with students Stephen Eve and Aileen McKay, is leading the campaign against its demolition. A protest rally has been arranged for December 6.

"These steps are a symbol of Glasgow life," he said. "It's a great place to sit with a sandwich and talk with friends. Apart from George Square, where else can people meet and sit in the city center? In the height of summer, you're hard-pushed to find a seat on the steps, for the number of people sunbathing and relaxing.

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"We want to make the council see that these steps are part of Glasgow life and reject the plans to demolish them and build a glass atrium—which will look like any other UK shopping center."

As so often in life, Ben reckons that the pursuit of money is to blame. "Ultimately, the plans for the atrium are financially driven—to generate more money from Buchanan Galleries by adding further shops and restaurants. Glasgow has so many shops as it is, so why is there a need for more?" he asked. "I believe the council is treating Glaswegians as shoppers rather than citizens."

A spokesman for Glasgow City Council was less chatty when I called, saying, "There is now a live planning application for the proposed development, which will be considered in due course."

Given the formal nature of the application process, many councillors are keeping their opinions to themselves ahead of the meeting to discuss the development. But one, Nina Baker of the Green Party, will not take her seat on the committee so she can actively campaign against the removal of the steps.

There is some concern among councillors that the steps could become another PR disaster if the demolition is rushed through. Susan Aitken, leader of the opposition SNP group of councillors, said: "Glasgow can't afford another George Square. It's important that the council and the developers listen to the public during the consultation period."

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Another councillor I spoke to stressed they supported the principle of the wider expansion of Buchanan Galleries, but added they had reservations about what was proposed for the steps and feared many Glaswegians had not yet realized what was planned for the area.

I visited Buchanan Street on a typically busy Saturday afternoon to find out whether that was the case. Although the steps were damp from an overnight downpour, there were still a few people sitting on them and the familiar sight of a large crowd of school kids hanging around. There was no doubt that the steps are a popular meeting place, even in the depths of a Scottish winter.

Hilda, a 65-year-old Glaswegian, was sitting enjoying a cigarette break. When I introduced myself as a journalist, she immediately offered her views on the development. "It's terrible they want to get rid of the steps. They're lovely—just look around you. I've heard that the council doesn't like them being used as place for political rallies."

Left to right: Chaz Murray, Jonny Mackie, and Maximus

Farther up the steps, Jonny Mackie and his pals Chaz Murray and Maximus were enjoying the view of Buchanan Street. They were aware of the development plans, and each was against them. As members of the Glasgow Anonymous Movement, they said were keen to support any campaign to protect the steps.

"There's something about this spot—I've known it all my days. I write my own music, and sometimes I come up here just to listen to music," said Mackie. "If they build the atrium, they'll probably just stick some stupid overpriced café in it."

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"I would be upset if the steps went," added Maximus. "Not just for me but for the families who like to sit here in the summer and watch the street performers. These steps are the people's steps."

The foot of the steps is considered by local buskers as one of the two best pitches in the city center. Oisin Murray had arrived at 10 AM to claim it for the day. The 17-year-old singer was unaware of the plans to redevelop the area.

"You do get a lot of people sitting here, so it's a good spot for musicians. I was lucky to get this. If the steps went, there would be less open space—it would feel more claustrophobic, with less room for performers."

Opinion on the streets seems to be firmly against the removal of the Royal Concert Hall steps. Whether that will be enough to save them remains to be seen.

Follow Chris McCall on ​Twitter.