The air buzzes with conversation and laughter, interrupted only by a smartly dressed waiter bearing an aperitif of sangria and olives.
A rare afternoon of warm sunshine lights up one of the most beautiful mealtime views in the world: Edinburgh Castle rising over Princes Street Gardens, only partially obscured by the continuing traffic of Lothian Buses.
This could be the future vision of Princes Street, as Edinburgh City Council plans a ‘rebirth’, relaxing planning rules to allow a host of cafes and restaurants to open up.
The plans, which will now be examined by the Scottish Government, could see radical changes to a street facing a rocky future amid the departure of Jenners and opening of the new Edinburgh St James centre.
One year on from a unique investigation into the status of shops on the street, the Evening News once again asks what the future may hold for Scotland’s most iconic shopping street.
According to Liz McAreavey, chief executive of Edinburgh Chamber of Commerce, the changes should see Princes Street “blossom into a more European space, with bars, restaurants, cafes, hotels, homes and offices sitting side by side.”
Roddy Smith, chief executive of Essential Edinburgh, said: “The changes made by the council are a very positive step in the right direction.”
Mr Smith welcomes the idea of more restaurants along the street, as well as the Johnnie Walker experience centre at the West End and the potential for a new hotel or offices to take the place of Jenners in the East.
“Three years ago no-one would have imagined that Frasers would be replaced by Johnnie Walker, or that Jenners would be leaving,” he said.
“But I don’t think we could have got a better outcome for that space than Johnnie Walker – it will drive people down the street. It’s great that both Frasers and Jenners have been re-imagined.
“We’re looking at big old retail buildings that are no longer fit for purpose, the retail space that is wanted is very different now.”
Retail will not be altogether banished from the street, as the new Council plans will allow only one third of units per block to be given non-retail uses.
The new non-retail spots will not be given to pubs or hot takeaway traders, meaning they are likely to be filled by restaurants and cafes, or even a cinema or other performance space to echo the Jacey Cinema at number 131, which closed its doors half a century ago.
“We need to have the flexibility to respond to the market,” said Mr Smith. “What’s stopping us having more restaurants at the moment is rents and rates and commercial viability.
“There is not one fixed solution, it has got to be a mixed-use street and that will be decided by the market.”
Garry Clark, East Scotland development manager at the Federation of Small Businesses, agrees that more diversity will help to rescue Princes Street and ‘restore its vibrancy’.
“With its commanding views of the Castle, the street is ripe for a more diverse use, with more food and drink, accommodation and premium office developments and the City Council is right to relax planning rules to enable this to happen,” he said.
Mr Clark would like to see more small, independent businesses on the street to “fully represent the breadth and depth of character that encapsulates the city”.
However, this may currently be unlikely due to very high business rates. For Ms McAreavey, the opening of the St James centre will present a ‘new challenge’ for Princes Street. But with the challenge comes new opportunity. “The enormous investment being made at Edinburgh St James is a billion pound vote of confidence in our city and its future,” she said.
“However, it is also very likely to provide a new challenge for one of Europe’s most famous and iconic places, Princes Street. Once Edinburgh’s premier shopping street, there is no doubt that retailers will be more focused in future on the new development at Edinburgh St James.
“Whilst this will have an impact on the success and future of Princes Street, it provides the opportunity to re-think its role as our city grows over the next three decades.”
Edinburgh City Council is unsurprisingly positive about the future of the nation’s most iconic street.
“This is the decade we’ll see Princes Street reborn into a much more welcoming place for people to stroll, relax and interact with a range of shops, cafes, restaurants and venues,” said Council Leader Adam McVey.
“We’re also working to transform the way people interact with Edinburgh’s streets under a number of new strategies for creating accessible, affordable and environmentally-friendly travel.
“There is no question that Princes Street will change as a result but our strong economic performance gives us an opportunity to look at a range of new options for improving and enjoying the vibrant heart of our city centre for many years.”
The changing face of Princes Street
Who remembers the Hepworths on Princes Street? What about the Smalls, Woolworth’s, John Menzies or many other stores present in the 1970s and 80s which are no longer seen today?
Scotland’s favourite shopping street has changed beyond recognition in the past decades, along with the rest of the city.
In the last ten years the street has lost an HMV and a Bookworld, as well as gaming arcade Nobles Amusements.
The biggest change since 2014 has been a marked drop in the number of clothes stores on the street, with just 12 now compared to 17 six years ago.
This is expected to drop further in future following the announcement that Next will close its Princes Street outlet in favour of the new store opening in Edinburgh St James.
There has also been a clear trend towards more take-away food and cafes, with eight currently on the street compared to five in 2014.
And there are more outlets selling high-end watches and jewellery, as well as more general stores like Poundland, The Works and Smiggle.
Since 2014 there has been no change in the number of ‘tourist’ shops selling goods such as kilts, shortbread and postcards. This figure spiked in 2019 at eight, but has now returned to five, the same as in 2014.
Since last year Royal House of Scotland has become Kingdom of Sweets, Wrapchic has become Caffe Nero, and Pride of Edinburgh, together with Card Factory, has been replaced by Poundland.
The number of empty or under-development lots on the street has also remained broadly stable at around four, although this dropped to three in 2019.
Aside from the iconic Jenners store which has been present on the street since 1838, one of the oldest stores still on the street is the McDonalds at number 137, which has been in the same spot since the 1980s.
The Evening News revealed in November that Jenners will leave Princes Street in 2020 or 2021, with plans for the building including a hotel, cafes, a rooftop restaurant and a bar, as well as a total restoration of the Category A listed building.
The Johnnie Walker experience, due to open by Christmas this year, will include ground-floor retail space alongside an immersive three-floor visitor space, a bar academy, performance areas and a rooftop bar.
Eleven stores on the street have announced they will open premises at the £1 billion Edinburgh St James development, set to be open by October.
Of these only Next has confirmed that it will close its Princes Street store, and Three, Superdrug and Boots have told the Evening News they plan to stay.
With the change in planning rules, and over 50 stores still to be announced for the St James centre, it is likely that Princes Street will see many more changes in the years to come.