At one time it might have been appropriate to call Shandwick Place Edinburgh’s “Cinderella Street” – always busy but somewhat under-appreciated, not boasting the big stores of Princes Street, the upmarket ethos of George Street or the varied entertainment venues of Lothian Road.
And in recent years its reputation deteriorated rapidly. Strolling down Shandwick Place during the latter stages of the beleaguered tram project was thoroughly depressing with the litany of vacant shop units adding to the grim atmosphere.
At one time, I counted no less than 14 “To Let” boards as landlords valiantly tried to market their properties, hardly helped by the jackhammer pounding away outside their front door. Meanwhile, with little or no support from the city council, existing retailers were left to try and generate custom when it was probably best to avoid the street altogether. Several businesses went to the wall.
How the survivors must have heaved a collective sigh of relief when the street reopened in October last year after 18 months of misery caused by the tram works.
Nowadays Shandwick Place paints an entirely different picture. Since my depressing observation last year there are only six “To Let” boards compared with the previous 14. Around lunchtime the place is full of people going about their everyday business and, most important of all, spending money.
The continued regeneration of the street must also be a welcome sight for the city council which needs Shandwick Place to thrive. It is, after all, the principal retail thoroughfare en route to the more favoured Princes Street and George Street and into which many visitors and commuters coming from the west are funnelled. The blizzard of vacancy and construction debris during the works was polarising the city’s tram and retail woes all in the space of about 200 metres and sending the world a very unpleasant image of Scotland’s capital.
Sainsbury’s, which opened its flagship Local store in November 2012 on the former Habitat site, deserves credit for showing initial confidence in Shandwick Place and kick-starting the revival. Ironically, its decision to invest heavily and create 50 new jobs was driven by the nearby tram stop but its belief resulted in others following suit. Last summer Morrisons opened directly opposite in a unit vacated by the now defunct Jessops to complete a triangle of supermarkets alongside the existing Co-op.
In August the well-known musical instrument and sheet music trader, Rae McIntosh, relocated to Shandwick Place from round the corner in Queensferry Street, citing the pending post-tram works “buzz” as a major incentive to its move. The 170-year-old institution was a great catch and is drawing people from all over the city and beyond.
A walk I took to a meeting the other day revealed that the health and beauty chain Savers is commencing a fit-out for a sizeable new outlet on the east side of the street, while the newly opened sandwich shop Social Bite is causing quite a stir with its sandwiches and salads prepared by a Michelin-star chef. And there is rumour of more interest in some of the remaining vacant units.
Of course we can’t overlook the basic economics in all of this. Rental levels on the street were falling even before the tram works got under way so tenants are taking advantage of the attractive deals on offer, which is one reason for the jump in take-up. Nothing new there then, but Edinburgh is not exactly short of empty retail units so despite the choice elsewhere in the city and the potential for greater and more focussed footfall, these companies are clearly recognising the revival on Shandwick Place.
Iain Mercer is managing director of the Almondale Property Group, which is based in Edinburgh