What now for Princes Street? The iconic shopping thoroughfare is facing a perfect storm of declining retail footfall and the shift of big name brands to the new St James centre.
In a few weeks, Edinburgh City Council is due to unveil the results of its public consultation on the street’s future. So what better time to test the health of this 250-year-old Edinburgh institution?
I begin my journey outside number one Princes Street. The Balmoral stands sentry at the east end and looks as good as ever but I’m on the wrong side of the tracks and across the road the problems begin.
Things start well with the Apple Store, a shining example of the need to create a shopping experience to counteract Amazon but a couple of doors down come the phone shops and the first empty site. Outside discarded fast-food detritus blows in the breeze.
Heading west is the first great reminder of past Princes Street. At street level only a few inscriptions evoke memories of the old RW Forsyth department store but look up and architectural brilliance is everywhere.
A few steps further brings a tartan tat store – all of which promote what no Scot wants Scotland to be. Then the first of the modern blocks on Princes Street. Dull, functional and uninviting.
But hang on, next it’s Jenners. The window posters may scream 20 per cent off but it remains the grande dame of Princes Street. Sadly, nowadays its main purpose seems to be as somewhere to get out of the rain.
Back outside and past another couple of phone shops and the giant Marks and Spencer, the old BHS site is being redeveloped into a Premier Inn with ground-floor retail if anyone is brave enough to take it on.
Next comes the New Club and some shoe shops, this brutalist central block a proper carbuncle on the face of Princes Street. I pause at the door of World of Sweets, a retail celebration of our obesity crisis but carry on to the last surviving example of Princes Street as it once was. Except it’s gone. The Hector Russell kiltshop preserved much of the original 95 Princes Street but a coffee chain has now taken over the building. I’m too disappointed to look inside.
Instead I cross Hanover Street and pass the boarded-up Royal Overseas League, some of the giant stores about to relocate to the St James and what will soon be Poundland. Then the curious site of three phone shops in a row, all flogging the same technology and the same deliberately confusing tariffs. Then it’s the end of the road, 145 Princes Street, currently taking shape as a £150m Johnnie Walker Whisky Experience. I stop and look back.
It wasn’t as bad as I’d expected and the street is still busy but the worst is yet to come when the big department stores close, as close they will in the next few years.
The solution for Princes Street has to be different. We are so fixated with the state of the shops we forget the view. With vibrant street-level cafes and housing above, Princes Street can have a future as much as a past but only if Edinburgh City Council accepts the responsibility and grasps the opportunity.