AMAZE of neglected backstreets in the heart of the Capital is set to be transformed into a haven of boutique shops and restaurants under plans for a £100 million renaissance.
The proposed revival of shabby lanes around West Register Street is being billed as Edinburgh’s answer to London’s Covent Garden, with shops, bars and art galleries expected to line the warren of narrow corridors.
It would breathe new life into a forgotten corner of the city and mean a huge influx of development, including gleaming walkways, distinctive lampposts and a large hotel or private apartments.
City leaders believe the plans for the east end of Edinburgh will kick-start £97m of investment and create almost 200 jobs.
The rundown district – in the shadow of the National Archives of Scotland and Register House – would boast 40,000 square feet of retail units and 23,000 sq ft of office space.
Once complete, the city’s newest shopping precinct would plug a hole in central Edinburgh, with the backstreets set to explode with commuters using the St Andrew Square tram stop.
At the centre of the restoration, a green oasis will be created in open space beside New Register House – a garden surrounded on all sides by “significant and powerful buildings”.
Officials estimate the development will generate £55m for the city economy and support a further 250 permanent jobs when completed in 2019.
The groundbreaking plans is likely to boost the fortunes of some of Edinburgh’s finest Victorian pubs – the Cafe Royal and Guildford Arms – which anticipate a huge surge in footfall.
Charles Galloway, area manager at DM Stewart, which has owned The Guildford Arms for the past 115 years, described the current trading environment in the lanes as “difficult”.
“It’s great to see the street improved, because for a number of years it’s not been of a great standard,” he said. “We’re very supportive of this scheme, and it’s absolutely great news for the area.
“The hard surfaces desperately need upgraded, whether it be a paved walkway that runs through or a new road.
“In the area, there are a couple of absolutely fabulous architectural buildings, but they are in very poor state of repair.”
Reza Najafi, general manager at The Café Royal, said: “We are very, very excited about the new plans. West Register Street has unfortunately been left behind at times.
“The roads are not great at the moment, but following the announcement from the council we are very excited that there is going to be some development in the area and that will bring some extra business and footfall in the area.”
A team led by city economic leader Cllr Frank Ross will marshal the project while balancing the interests of five major landowners in the area, including the Bank of Scotland, RBS and the Scottish Government.
Cllr Ross hailed the Register Lanes revival as a “real opportunity” to bring life back to an area of Edinburgh that has been “forgotten for quite a few years”.
“There aren’t many people who know about the little gardens that sit behind the buildings there,” he said.
“The idea is to have a nice pedestrian area you can walk through, little cafés, perhaps some small independent shops or art galleries, artisan jewellers, and some places for people to sit and enjoy the gardens.
“It’s a really interesting place in its own right, and the plans are designed to let people experience it.”
The long-awaited scheme has been unlocked following the purchase of a 19th century architectural gem that has lain empty for years – even before it was bought by former Hearts chairman Vladimir Romanov in 2007.
The property at 42 St Andrew Square, and those adjoining it on West Register Street, were bought by development firm the Chris Stewart Group, which specialises in converting historic properties into luxury apartments, bars and restaurants and is credited with reviving Advocates Close in Edinburgh’s Old Town.
Cllr Ross added: “This area has been under our microscope for quite a while, but it was always held up by the fact that two of the buildings at the entrance on St Andrew Square were tied in the Romanov administration.
“The fact the Chris Stewart Group has managed to acquire these two buildings out of the administration in Lithuania has been the catalyst to get everything moving.”
The development is viewed as an important link between George Street and the planned £850m redevelopment of the St James Centre.
Martin Perry, of TH Henderson Real Estate, the firm behind the game-changing St James project that will see the brutalist 1970s eyesore demolished, said: “We welcome the council’s report and we share the optimism about the potential of the Register Lane area to become an area very similar to Covent Garden in London. We see this as entirely complimentary to our proposals for St James, and to Multrees Walk.”
Andy Neal, chief executive of Essential Edinburgh, which represents 600 city centre businesses, said: “We’ve had a prime site that has sat empty, and not only has that been a missed opportunity, but some of the space in front of it has been used by people sleeping rough. West Register Street as a lane is not a good advertisement for Edinburgh as things stand at the moment.
“If someone gets off the tram at St Andrew Square, and looks at a map to find out how to get to the Balmoral Hotel, they might walk through West Register Street, but apart from the two fantastic pubs, it’s not a great street. It’s not well-kept and it’s a bit dark.
“Anything which gives that building a lift and gets it being used positively we are absolutely in favour of and give our full backing to.”
The plans are contained in a £60,000 study compiled by council officials which will be debated by councillors on August 19.
Housing part of original plans
Like much of St Andrew Square, the area around West Register Street was intended to be for housing when the New Town was developed in the 18th century. Most of the buildings were grand townhouses, except for one that stands out today: Dundas House, the headquarters for the Royal Bank of Scotland throughout the 19th century.
Built in 1774, the house took the place of a church planned for the site. Named after Sir Lawrence Dundas – its first occupant – the house was sold on by his son, and was a customs house before being passed on to RBS in 1825.
• £97m in total development spend
• £6m of improvements to public spaces
• 40,000sq ft of retail and leisure accommodation
• 178 hotel bedrooms or 97 quality services apartments
• 23,000sq ft of new office space
• 250 new jobs
• £6.6m boost to the city economy every year
• Estimated completion date of January 2019
UKIO Bankas building
This grand 1942 neo-classical building guarding the entrance to West Register Street has lain empty since the collapse of UKIO Bankas in 2013, and is on the “at risk” register of listed buildings.
Acquired by development firm the Chris Stewart Group at the start of August, a future as a boutique hotel, serviced apartments or a top-quality leisure venue looks likely.
Together with neighbouring buildings, they will provide 130,000sq ft of development space.