City centre vision ‘fantasy land’ say business leaders

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BUSINESS leaders today claimed plans to make the city centre a more pedestrian-friendly area could backfire on retailers.

Ambitious proposals to transform the shopping district, which includes reduced parking in George Street and curtailed bus movements along Princes Street, are set to be approved by councillors next week following a review by architectural firm Gehl.

The design guru, which has seen strategies proven successful in New York and Melbourne, was commissioned to assess the city centre.

Suggestions include widening footpaths and removing unnecessary street furniture as well as extending shop opening times and increasing the number of kiosks in Castle Street. Longer-term plans would be test-run with temporary projects enabling the council “to gauge the impact, both positive and negative, that such changes would have”.

Within the council- commissioned report are concessions that major proposals, which would require wholesale changes to city centre traffic flow and upheaval to public transport routes, could “affect the project’s delivery”.

Council leader Councillor Jenny Dawe said that while Edinburgh was a “world-class city”, there was consensus that public space in some parts of the city centre “lets us down”.

She said: “The starting point is the delivery of temporary short-term projects, which can be done quickly and cheaply to bring much-needed changes to the dynamic of the city centre.

“Gehl’s findings reinforce the clear correlation between good public places and economic performance, as already demonstrated by the success of recent redevelopments of St Andrew Square and the Grassmarket.”

Graham Bell, a spokesman for Edinburgh Chamber of Commerce, branded the blueprint a “massive foot- shooting exercise” and said it could adversely affect footfall.

He said: “This plan shows no understanding of how this city functions. These people are in fantasy land.

“We would all like a more environmental city but [with some of these proposals] it would be a city devoid of people.

“We have the most wonderful bus service in the UK – Lothian Buses has collected two awards for its service – so there’s no need to stop people arriving by bus. If they can’t make use of the bus service what are they supposed to do? How are they supposed to get into the city centre?”

On plans for pedestrian spaces in George Street, he said: “You will not find a single retailer here that thinks this is a good idea.

“The city needs an economic heart that beats, that’s vibrant – if people cannot get into it they will go somewhere else.

Echoing these views, Joshua Miller, vice-chair of the George Street Association, said: “I know within the association there are mixed views about the proposals for George Street, especially with regards to the temporary reduction in parking and increasing the width of the pavements.”

Mr Miller added he would like to see further investigation into the possibility of underground parking in Charlotte Square.

The council’s policy and strategy committee will debate the proposals on February 22.

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