Ian Wall’s Edinburgh developer started with £5m; 14 years later, it’s worth £70m. And the funny thing is, its main aim wasn’t to make money at all.
“See that sleeping swan drifting in the middle of the water? And look, the horse chestnuts are in flower, sticky and bursting …” The nature-lover speaking here is a developer called Ian Wall, and we are walking through a £570m, 58 ha business park that has been planted with trees, shrubs and wild flowers, and centred around a series of baby lochs edged with reed beds, which are fed by streams flowing around large moss-covered rocks.

  “In phase two, we are going to have water parterres,” Wall confides excitedly. “Layers of water with fountains, like at Versailles, but not baroque – more disciplined and modern. And a green area for putting and petanque.”

So, not your average business park, then. But 51-year-old Wall is not your average developer. He is the head of property and development at the Edinburgh Development Initiative, the enormously successful company set up by the council in 1988 to work on schemes with a “social benefit” to the people of Edinburgh. And he may have been trained as a chartered surveyor, but he is also an architecture buff, naturalist and a patron of the arts and sciences – he co-founded the Edinburgh Science Festival and instigated EDI’s sponsorship of WASPS, a venture that provides cheap studio space for 750 Scottish artists.

From the outside, EDI looks like any other commercial developer: its current projects include a 240 000 m2, £300m phase of Edinburgh Business Park and a £100m sunken shopping centre, The Galleries, that will run the length of Princes Street, Edinburgh’s main shopping thoroughfare. However, it was launched with a £5m loan from the city council. Now it is worth £70m, mainly thanks to the success of Edinburgh Park. The council was inclined to sell off EDI this year and reinvest the profits in local services. However, a report prepared recently by Deutsche Bank persuaded it that the company should remain in council ownership, but should invest solely in and around the city to increase the benefits for Edinburgh taxpayers.

Wall explains that EDI takes a resolutely commercial approach to urban regeneration, believing that the social benefits accrue from creating jobs and wealth. This means that EDI will invest in anything except out-of-town shopping and leisure facilities, twin evils that the council believes detract from the city’s economy. Wall argues that its commercial success serves its social objectives: “Profit is necessary, it is a pre-condition of our existence. We are not angels wandering around tipping people with golden wands.

But everything we do has to have some social benefit.” To prove his point, Wall cites the example of the Centre for Training Excellence that EDI is setting up at the Clocktower Industrial Estate next to Edinburgh Park, in partnership with Scottish Enterprise Network and employers located at the business park (including BT, Royal Bank of Scotland, ICL and Telewest).

EDI is also leading a consortium developing CZWG’s regeneration masterplan for Craigmillar, a run-down estate on the outskirts of Edinburgh.

Revitalising city-centre retail.

The £100m Galleries scheme at Princes Street is intended to combat the decline in Edinburgh city centre’s retail turnover compared with the out-of-town shopping centres at Leith and Glasgow’s Braehead.

Wall is confident that The Galleries, which was the subject of a public inquiry last year, will receive outline planning consent in August. He then plans to launch an international architectural competition, in association with the Royal Incorporation of Architects in Scotland, for a £6.3m scheme to improve the public realm around Princes Street, including “all the external parts of the Galleries, the lift hoods, bus shelters, news kiosks, the pavements and surfaces, to give it coherence and quality. Like what Foster did in Bilbao, with the lift enclosures from the metro.” The Galleries will also create space for an underground extension to the National Gallery of Scotland, being redeveloped by architect John Miller and Partners.

Meanwhile, the development of Edinburgh Park is set to expand beyond its Richard Meier masterplan and provide many more jobs in the next decade. Infrastructure works have started on a 3.2 ha Allan Murray-designed masterplan for phase 1a of the business park.

The £45m, 28 000 m2 scheme includes office buildings by Allan Murray, Glasgow-based Dunlop Murray and CZWG, a new orchard traversed by a kiosk, café, performance space and the reopened Edinburgh-Glasgow canal. All designs for the park are vetted by a design committee, including Wall, Ian Arnott, partner in Campbell and Arnott, and landscape architect Ian White.

The people-based business park

Wall hopes to get outline planning permission for phase two of Edinburgh Park next month. Designed by New York-based Tom Pfeiffer Associates, it features 35 new buildings laid out with a denser urban grain. “The first phases were laid out on a suburban line, because we had to have a cost-effective solution that worked. No firms wanted to move to the edge of town at first – until four years ago, we only had four tenants. Now that it has taken off, we can create a stronger hierarchy of spaces, with better linking spaces and internal courtyards, places for retreat,” says Wall.

Tom Pfeiffer Associates’ masterplan also includes a new park centre, 3000 m2 of shops, cafés and bars, a hotel, two multistorey car parks and a new railway station on the Edinburgh to Glasgow line (a joint venture between EDI, Railtrack, Scotrail and Edinburgh City Council). “People will be able to get drunk after work and jump straight on the train, instead of driving,” jokes Wall. “We are setting the standard for business parks that are more people-based.”

The office buildings in phase two will be laid out on a grid, with lots of box hedges and regularly spaced trees. Wall is taking members of the Edinburgh Park infrastructure design team to Ljubljana, Slovenia, next month to show them Joze Plecnik’s streetscapes, for inspiration – Wall calls it “the best 2D design I have seen”. He is currently setting up an architectural competition for a 10 000 m2 office in phase two.

For clues as to what will go down well, see Wall’s comments on the Allan Murray-designed HQ for United Distillers and Vintners, and the small sculptural white structure alongside it. “It is an architectural conceit – an electrical transformer and a bicycle rack. That is what EDI is about, creating something with richness and depth.”

Personal effects

Who’s who in your family? I live in the centre of Edinburgh with my wife, Judith, who is a music teacher, and two sons, aged 22 and 24. What is your favourite building? Konstantin Melnikov’s House in Moscow. It is two intersecting cylinders. Who are your favourite architects? Richard Meier, Joze Plecnik and the Russian constructivists, particularly Melnikov. What book are you reading? The Royal Incorporation of Architects in Scotland guide to the buildings of Shetland – I’m going there with my wife next week. A memoir by Alan Ross, editor of London Magazine, a book on the architecture of Red Vienna, and one on the life of Lynn Margulis, a biologist from the University of Massachusetts who just won the Edinburgh Medal in the 2000 Science Festival. What is the best thing about living in Edinburgh? The intimacy, physical and social.