Developers behind the £1 billion transformation of Edinburgh’s St James Centre have bought a neighbouring leisure complex – sparking hopes of a resurgence in the wider area.
Bosses at TH Real Estate fought off competition to buy the Omni Centre in January for upwards of £75 million and plan to transform it into a “leisure destination”.
TH Real Estate director Andrew Rich said development of the 200,000 sq ft leisure complex – which is anchored by a Vue Cinema and home to restaurants including Nando’s, Frankie & Benny’s and The Filling Station – was an early sign that the St James revamp would lead to improvements in and around the Capital’s east end.
He said: “We strongly believe that the development of the St James Centre will transform the eastern end of Edinburgh, and that this will benefit the surrounding real estate, including the Omni Centre.”
TH Real Estate plan to introduce a “new and exciting” leisure offering which Mr Rich said would complement the St James.
Early ideas have prompted speculation that the centre will offer outdoor eating areas, covered linked walkways to protect from the elements and children’s play areas.
One industry insider said the investment was a “fantastic vote of confidence in Edinburgh”, adding: “This will breathe new life into Omni centre and shows the St James Centre has already given a boost to the east end of Edinburgh.”
The developments are set to create a chain of enterprises from St James and Omni to the Playhouse, and it is hoped these will encourage shoppers to trickle down from Princes Street, boosting business in the east end and transforming Leith Walk.
Business expert Graham Birse, who runs his own consultancy firm in Edinburgh, said the move could spark a “halo effect”, attracting more investment to the area and creating a “cluster” around the St James and Omni centres.
“The future of retail is in high profile, high quality shopping areas with rich heritage, like Edinburgh, in which the retailer is mixed with leisure, food and beverage and nightlife,” explained Mr Birse. “And I think that is what is developing at both ends of Princes Street.”
However, traders are concerned current disruption may already have deterred shoppers. Florist Gillian Nicoll owns Garlands on Elm Row and worries about what impact the continued upheaval will have. “We supply the pubs near the Playhouse but they have been less busy which means they’ve cut back on their flowers. It’s hard to predict what it is going to be like when the St James Quarter comes into force but the worry is, in the meantime independent businesses will not be able to survive.”
Gillian Norval, owner of the Creative Showroom on Leith Walk, said: “Leith has got its own vibe and unique character. Too much significant change from re-development could threaten that character and potentially price out local independent business. At the same time every business wants to encourage and embrace more custom and any redevelopment that raises Leith’s profile will help to increase that trade.”
Leith Walk SNP councillor Lewis Ritchie said maintaining a varied retail sector would be crucial, adding: “TH Real Estate’s purchase of the Omni centre is confirmation of what we already know – that Leith Walk is by far the most exciting, vibrant and dynamic area of the city. What makes Leith so successful is having world class developments like the St James Centre sit at ease with the rich network of cool, distinctive, bars, cafes and shops that make Leith what it is.
“I’m excited by the opportunities this acquisition presents, but will be pressing to ensure it augments, rather than detracts, from the thriving businesses that mean so much to local residents.”