FOR years, the West End was the place to be seen, a meeting point under Fraser’s clock was the place for courting couples and the lively bars and restaurants brought the corner of the city to life.
As the years rolled by, it became the area for some of the city’s best independent shops, niche designer boutiques and personal service, an antidote in the heart of Edinburgh to the big, impersonal retail giants.
It was all ticking along nicely. There was just one large tram-shaped problem on the horizon . . .
Now, after five years of almost non-stop agony, the area around the West End is finally returning to normal, the misery of the tram works is at last being cleared away, buses are running and the pavements cleared to welcome shoppers back in their droves.
For businesses in the area, it heralds a long-awaited opportunity to not only say “good riddance” to the works, but to finally get back on an even keel.
It was back in 2008 that Shandwick Place was closed the first time for tram works, with Cockburns Deli and the Phone-In telecoms store on Queensferry Street the first to put their leases up for sale, blaming the disruption. Many more businesses would disappear, including sweet shop Sugacane on Shandwick Place last year. Three independent clothes and accessories shops within 50 feet of each other on William Street also shut up shop.
Michael Apter, who is boss of Paper Tiger and Studio One, as well as being chairman of the West End Association, says businesses are now desperate to move forward and avoid dwelling on the difficulties of the past.
The tram works may have been challenging, he says, but it hasn’t stopped exciting new businesses investing and opening up.
“The Edinburgh Larder Bistro has just had a makeover, and there are many other new independent businesses such as the Affogato ice-cream parlour on Queensferry Street, and Hogarth on Stafford Street. Run & Become recently relocated to the West End, and Rae Macintosh Music has moved from Queensferry Street into larger premises on Shandwick Place.”
With bigger players like Sainsbury and Morrison along with the Co-op in Shandwick Place, a revitalised Caledonian Hotel and new serviced apartments in the area, the West End is finally once again on the up, he says.
“For generations, the West End was the place to meet up in Edinburgh,” he adds. “As the tram works clear, as the bus services resume, and as the trams finally arrive in the West End, it is set to return as the place to meet, eat, drink and shop this autumn.”
THE DESIGNER BOUTIQUE
The trams disruption took their toll on Sam Withall’s designer boutique business Sam Brown, eventually pushing her into administration and causing her shops to shut down.
“We were doing well for 15 years, then three years ago it really hit. It was like our throat had been cut,” she says. “We were losing thousands and thousands of pounds every week. I stuttered along for a while, but eventually we had to go into administration. I had to close all four shops – the two in William Street, one in St Andrews and another in Perth.”
She immediately reopened her shop at 5 William Street, determined to keep going in some form and confident that eventually things would improve.
Now she’s back in business – and looking forward to seeing the back of the tram works that caused so much misery.
“It was emotional. I had the shops before I had my children,” she recalls. “At the end of the day, no-one died, it was fine, we got through. But it was very difficult and pretty scary. But three years on and we’re doing fine.”
She says the closures were partly down to the recession but mostly the result in the loss of business brought about by the roadworks in the area. “People simply couldn’t get to us. If they lived in Morningside or Southside, to get to me they had to go via George Street and they would say ‘Stuff that, I’ll just go to George Street then’.
“The route to us changed all the time, people couldn’t be bothered finding a way through it.”
Now as the West End village returns to normality, her thoughts are with traders in Leith Walk. “I feel sorry for those who went through all of this and aren’t even getting the trams. There were family businesses that lasted for generations, it’s so much worse for them. For people in Leith Walk and places like that, it’s so much harder.”
She wants the council to support businesses affected: “I think we should have a rates amnesty for three years so we have time to pay back what we owe without the bailiffs arriving on the doorstep.
“Some signage would be good, too – shoppers need to know that we are here. And free parking at 4pm would be amazing, so people coming by after work have the incentive to stop and park.
“It’s important, because what’s here is niche, it’s different from the high street, we are bringing something different from all the other towns and high streets.”
THE BEAUTY SALON
Since May, the premises at 6 William Street have been home to Sleeping Beauty, a luxury beauty salon.
Becki Fleming, nail technician and therapist, says the new business has weathered the storm and now looks forward to a new phase without the disruption. “We moved here from the Gyle just when things were at their worst on Shandwick Place,” she recalls. “It was mad at that point. It definitely takes business away. We at least had the advantage of being a franchise and bringing a lot of our regular customers from the Gyle with us.
“Now Shandwick Place is almost back to normal, we’re hoping it’ll help. But it’s definitely been hard going.”
THE FAMILY BUSINESS BOUTIQUE
Jane Forbes, who runs Frontiers with daughter Kim, says trying to keep going while the tram works caused chaos has been exhausting.
“It has been an absolute struggle and we’re all totally exhausted with it. Everyone is delighted it is finally coming to an end. Hopefully, all our customers will now come back to the area. That is what we are concentrating on now, promoting things as much as we can.”
She moved Frontiers from the High Street in March 2007 to 16 Stafford Street, and recalls debating whether to gamble on the move. “The tram works didn’t put me off at the time,” she adds, “but never in my life did I think it would continue as long as it has. It has been astonishing.
“We really did see a massive change in sales and footfall and it was hard to continue running the business the way we were to.
“It would have been easy to close the doors but why should I shut? I’d been doing this for 25 years, I didn’t want to close down because of the incompetence of someone else. Now is the council’s chance to help us promote the area, it’s in their own interests to do that because if everyone shuts down they are not going to get their business rates paid.” Like other traders she is looking forward to welcoming back customers who may have been driven away by the disruption.
“We have fabulous customers that love coming here, they know the people that run the shops and rely on and trust them. It’s a pleasant experience coming here, you’re not going up and down lifts and escalators, you know what you buy will be unique. We are all just looking forward to Christmas and New Year, and hoping for a much better future.”
THE DESIGNER SHOE SHOP
Helen Scobbie, manager at luxury shoe and accessories experts Helen Bateman at 16 William Street, is confident business will improve now the streets are to reopen.
“I know from experience that on a Saturday we used to be buzzing and that’s not quite so much been the case recently.
“A lot of customers found it too difficult to get to us. They’d find a route then it would change. It put a lot of people off even bothering.
“At a guess, there’s been a 50 per cent drop in footfall. The area around Shandwick Place has looked a mess for a long time and it didn’t make people want to come.
“It wasn’t all to do with the trams, the recession didn’t help either.
“But people love the area – I just had a couple in who said what a lovely street William Street is, now we need to let more people know we’re here.”
“It would be nice now if something could be done by the council to highlight the area, some new signs maybe.
“Hopefully in the next couple of weeks we’ll start to see a real difference.”
THE LINGERIE and BEAUTY PARLOUR
Sarah Connolly opened Odyssey, a one-stop shop for beauty, hair and lingerie, in August 2010 after searching for a niche area that suited her business plan. But while 39-41 William Street was the perfect location, the downside was obvious. “It was right in the middle of phase two of the tram works – and in the middle of the recession,” she recalls. So I think I’ve done incredibly well to have reached our third birthday in August. And it’s great to be heading towards Christmas with the roads and traffic finally open.”
She believes the tra works simply made it too tricky for people to battle their way through. “So many people have told me that it’s such a struggle to get here. Every time clients come they’d find the road system changed – it caused real heartache for everyone, especially people trying to get here for an appointment. They’d ring saying they were running late, that they could see the shop but they couldn’t actually reach it. I started to feel I was operating a tourism service, directing people around town, telling them which streets to drive down.
“It was such a pleasure to actually drive through Haymarket on Saturday. Now we have new road surfaces, Haymarket is open, the train station has been improved, everything looks fresh and clean. Now we’re all eager to get people to come back.”
The end of the road
ROAD closures linked to the £776 million trams project will come to a much-anticipated end this Saturday.
The stretch from Manor Place to Shandwick Place will reopen in three days, finally clearing the West End of major roadworks in what is a huge milestone for motorists and traders. The lifting of barriers will come a week after those around Haymarket welcomed a return to normal traffic conditions.
The carriageway from Manor Place to Haymarket Junction reopened last Saturday. Restaurants have already reported an upswing in trade as diners return to the area.