John McLellan: Give it our best shop

Princes Street has great potential but planning decisions suggest someone somewhere has taken their eye off the ball. Picture: Ian Georgeson

Princes Street has great potential but planning decisions suggest someone somewhere has taken their eye off the ball. Picture: Ian Georgeson

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When is a shop not a shop? Answer: when it’s a bank. That at least was the reason plans for an empty property on Princes Street came close to being thrown out this week.

The old Gap store at the West End has been in mothballs for four years now, resisting repeated attempts to find a new occupant, but now the go-ahead has been given for a scheme which will see the ground floor converted into a Halifax Bank branch and the upper two floors into what promises to be a spectacular restaurant.

Spectacular, of course if it isn’t another Burger King, but as the plan is for private dining rooms or bedrooms the chances of fast food being on the table seem remote. That said, as the developer has only said they are “speaking to a number of potential operators” anything can happen.

A planning technicality led to officials recommending rejection (a bank wasn’t a proper shop, or something like that) but thankfully councillors saw the sense of the proposal and unanimously ignored the advice.

What lay at the heart of the official objection was that a bank on the ground floor would detract from the shopping experience, but the flaw in that argument was that, having lain empty for four years, the one group of people unwilling to share the experience were shop owners.

At the same time it was acknowledged that the pull of Multrees Walk, George Street, and the redevelopment of the St James Centre would mean that retailers would want to be at the East End anyway.

So this would have ultimately meant a growing number of empty units as retailers moved out – many to take up space at the other end of town – while planners blocked perfectly reasonable suggestions to fill them.

There aren’t that many empty shops on Princes Street but take a ride upstairs on a double decker and see how many poorly-used premises you can spot.

I’ve not counted them but there are more than a few; several are the blacked-out windows of the upper floors of bigger shops, some are just empty, but only a few are places from where the public can enjoy a relaxing view of one of the most spectacular cityscapes anywhere.

What was revealed in the discussions this week is that a new set of guidelines for Princes Street is on its way and, by the sound of it, they will be very much for the better.

After years of argument about digging up Princes Street Gardens, “strings of pearls”, and all sorts of dreams for shopping heaven, the realisation is sinking in that Princes Street should be a place which people should be able to enjoy for its own sake, and not just a nice place to part with cash.

For both locals and visitors alike it should be somewhere to relax in all weather, and while this restaurant plan might be ideal for this particular site, it would not be ideal if a precedent was set and every available space had to be filled by a shop on the ground floor and a posh eaterie above.

Apart from the Starbucks, about the only place I know where you can enjoy something to eat or drink with an elevated view of Princes Street is in the New Club, the pukka private members club which, I think it is fair to say, would not be to everyone’s taste even if it was open to the passing public.

(I am far from alone in seeing the irony of such a conservative institution being one of the first to take advantage of the thankfully abandoned Abercrombie plan to turn Princes Street into a multi-level race-track. But the painstaking reconstruction of its Edwardian dining room inside the 60s shell has got to be admired.)

There can’t be many cities where the choice of venues for a refreshment at its most famous sight is limited to two: among retired judges and stockbrokers at one end and pre-pub age youths up town for a laugh at the other. But, of course, the first isn’t a choice at all if you’re not a member or a guest. So where retailers are voting with their feet, the answer is more places to eat, drink and be merry as and when they become available, and that means on the ground floor, too. No, there might not be much call for tables and chairs most of the year, but they should be an option when the weather is kind. And with the arrival of the trams and improved hybrid buses, the traffic noise levels should begin to drop and make it an even more pleasurable experience.

So the next test for the planning people will be when an application comes in for a pub or a ground-floor restaurant. What will happen then? Well, the debate will be a lot more heated than it was this week and the arguments which undid the plan to turn the nearby Charlotte Street Baptist Chapel into a pub will be resurrected. Going back to the New Club, the Victorian building demolished in the 1960s opened on to the street and the only reason the modern club is a floor up is because the club was able to do a deal to allow shops underneath which would then generate rental income. So the total absence of licensed premises at street level is only a relatively recent phenomenon.

Doubtless we will hear arguments about numbers of people at night, a handful of residents potentially being disturbed, there being no history of tables and chairs on Princes Street, and further erosion of the shopping experience. Meanwhile, ordinary people will think it might actually be quite nice to go there for a glass of wine and a bite to eat.

And if that sounds overly negative, at the same meeting, an objection to the re-opening of the Tron Church as a licensed Fringe venue on the basis of increased noise was raised on behalf of Old Town residents by Conservative Councillor Joanna Mowatt. An objection to a Fringe venue where the High Street meets the Bridges? It’s like living next to the airport and objecting to aeroplanes. Oops, that happened didn’t it?

Spiky Milligan is an Edinburgh treasure

It’s a long time since I’ve heard Councillor Eric Milligan in full flow and a magnificent thing it is to behold too. No-one can pronounce “this ciddee of Edinburrugh” with as much verve and passion as he.

When it comes to swelling with pride about his roots, Eric makes Alex Salmond look like a soufflé from an S2 home economics class.

And he fair got his dander up this week when it turned out that support for the redevelopment of the Tron Church, involving replacing the floor and putting in bar facilities, was not quite as unanimous as he expected, most notably when Councillor Joanna Mowatt compared the proposal to something from Alice in Wonderland.

“Well, I can tell Councillor Mowatt that I do not live in Wonderland but in the real world of this city of Edinburgh,” he said, and cranked up to denounce her as having little positive to say. “We have heard an awful lot of small grumbles, grumbles which are just pathetic,” he spat.

Poor Tory leader Cameron Rose obviously felt he needed to voice some support for his colleague, but then voted to approve the plan anyway.

From this bystander’s position, Eric was not without some justification and his brief history lesson of a landmark regularly closed down for no apparent reason hit the mark.

“When I was lord provost I was proud when we opened up the Tron and Prince Charles was able to declare that this part of Edinburgh was open for business, “ he said. “The floor was good enough for a prince of the realm to walk on but then some bright spark in the council decided to remove it to see what was underneath.” Classic Milligan.

He is indeed a civic treasure. The days of jolly Labour joshing with his Glasgow counterpart Pat Lally and swigging Buckfast in Gorgie seem so far away.

SOME ARE AVERSE TO THE CRITICS

In approximately 15 years of trudging up and down from Holyrood to the Canongate past the Scottish Poetry Library I think only once did I ever witness a poetry reading on the wee steps outside, the purpose for which they were intended.

All bearded and sandalled, it was, unfairly I admit, quite a hoot and looked as if it was a set-up for a comedy sketch show.

Now it seems the poets have written the last stanza for the steps and they are to be replaced by an extension.

It looks fine, but original architect Malcolm Fraser is up in arms because his alteration plan was rejected and new designers brought in to finish the job.

As the bard might have said: hell hath no fury as an architect scorned.

Flood funds: Be prepared

People living along the Water of Leith and the Braidburn will be watching tales of the flooded riverbanks from the South with bitter memories of the floods of 2000 when water levels rose by four feet and scores of people had to leave their homes.

The problem was not just torrential rain, but with not a breath of wind the clouds just sat over the city and fell vertically for day after day.

As well as damaging hundreds of homes, it nearly wiped out Murrayfield’s first-ever rugby league Challenge Cup final but the rain eventually died away and water subsided with only about a day to go. And the pitch was still better than it was last weekend.

We’ve not had it quite so bad since, but the legacy of the wash-out lives with us, with the scaling back of the planned flood defences announced only last year because of cost increases.

Now with questions being asked about actions not taken in the South of England which could have prevented the current disaster, surely there is an opportunity to review the progress of Edinburgh’s flood prevention measures before we find ourselves, almost literally, in the same boat.

A Scottish Government report last year shows that 34 per cent of Scottish neighbourhoods are in areas potentially exposed to flooding and given what we’re seeing now in England, a proper appraisal of what is needed to be done and how much it might cost needs to be carried out. Indeed that’s pretty much what the paper recommends.

Low-lying in the Forth valley, Falkirk is by some distance the most vulnerable to flooding with 10 per cent of its communities potentially affected facing an extreme risk compared to about one per cent in Edinburgh. Here that amounts to about five communities, all along the Water of Leith with about five along the Water of Leith said to face an extreme risk.

Much talk just now in the affected neighbourhoods along the Thames centres on building over flood plains and that too could be an increasing issue here, especially with proposals for business development earmarked for Gogar where much of what is currently farm land is necessary for drainage.

The main concern will be anything which leads to regular flooding of the airport runway and even expensive and expensive culverting could easily cause quick displacement of high volumes of water and cause a problem elsewhere.

For now, the priority here must be to ensure that the shortfall for flood defences at Murrayfield (£6m) and Canonmills/Stockbridge (£12m) is found and the communities properly protected.

Despite David Cameron saying that money will be no object to restore the flood-damages areas of the Thames Valley and Somerset, it’s not the same as saying the cash has suddenly sprouted from well-watered trees. It must come from somewhere.

So too here, where the responsibility lies with the council and the Scottish Governmnent, must the cash be found. The lesson from England is it’s cheaper to find the money now than to need even more when freak weather causes a disaster.

Why all the fuss?

Of the many nondescript office buildings thrown up in the 70s, the block on Queensferry Road next to Stewart’s Melville College and the Dean Cemetery is a typical example.

Too far out to be a prime business location, the other offices in the area are one by one being converted to flats and so too is this now the plan for the block which opens out onto Ravelston Terrace.

Amid arguments about whether or not the car parking is correct or whether the windows let in enough light (or the usual stuff about affordable housing) the developers have been sent back to think again.

It’s another of those cases where the average person will wonder what all the fuss is about.