John McLellan: City centre faces biggest challenge in 70 years

The work is cracking on apace at the new St James Centre, due to open in October 2020. Picture: contributed
The work is cracking on apace at the new St James Centre, due to open in October 2020. Picture: contributed
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Now we’re well into March 2018, the opening of the new St James Centre in 2020 – and the transformation of the East End of Princes Street it promises – doesn’t seem so far away.

The big cranes moved in this week, the work is cracking on apace, and although the complex is not due to open until October 2020 new incentives are being put in place to encourage the construction companies to finish the job in time for that year’s Festival season. It will be a remarkable achievement if they do so.

Project director Martin Perry says it will be “a major new landmark for the city, opening up the East End of Edinburgh and creating a truly inspiring place for people to live, shop and play”. While I still have reservations about the golden ribbon design, in the broadest sense he’s not wrong.

The 3,000 jobs it will create will have a significant impact on retail and hospitality employment across the whole city and, along with the new St Andrew Square concert hall, it will change the whole focus of the New Town. The continued swing from traditional high street to malls and out-of-town centres is obviously fine for St James, which will pitch itself not so much as a shopping centre but a leisure hub with entertainment to complement the dining and drinking experience with the opportunity to shop at the same time.

READ MORE: Will Scarlett: Why wise investors are looking to Edinburgh’s east

But it’s not such good news for the rest of the city centre, vulnerable to changes in shopping habits away from in-store purchases to click-and-delivery anyway. The sale of the House of Fraser store to property developer Parabola this year almost certainly means the end of shopping in the building after 124 years and conversion to offices is thought to be the most likely option.

Although the Stafford Street area retains its charm, the West End of Princes Street and Shandwick Place have been looking tired for some years; it’s not as if the challenges facing this part of town are something new and anchor retailers will be encouraged to relocate to the new airy, weather-proof St James.

So what’s to be done? The first draft of the Edinburgh Economic Strategy published by the city council earlier this year had very little to say about what’s needed to prevent tumbleweed blowing through the West End. If anything, it hinted at more controls, saying: “We will ensure that the right balance is found between competing priorities, realising the area’s economic potential, and enhancing it as an attractive place to live.” It does not spell out what that balance should be, but instead promises a new Central Edinburgh Transformation Project which “will guide future development, ensuring the city centre improves its value to all residents, meets the needs of a growing economy, and reflects Edinburgh’s status as a capital city”. All well and good, but what does this actually mean? “The project will improve the public realm in the city centre with the aim of improving conditions” is hardly the most instructive and “prioritising access for pedestrians, cyclists and public transport users” is about as specific as it gets.

That is all it has to say about the biggest challenge for the city centre since Patrick Abercrombie dreamt up a double-decker race track for Princes Street Gardens in 1949. The sooner it starts the better, after all New St Andrews House was only emptied 23 years ago.

READ MORE: The 1949 plan to demolish Princes Street

Tram consultation kept small to avoid complaints?

The council’s new £30,000 consultation on the tram completion project is interesting in one regard; the only people being consulted are those who live in the vicinity.

We are told this will be a city-wide asset and we know that all Lothian bus users will be helping to fund it through their fares, so why is the consultation not city-wide too?

Perish the thought that it’s because the comments about trams in the budget consultation were predominantly negative.

Ownership of Jenners uncertain again

The ownership of Jenners is again uncertain with reports that House of Fraser’s Chinese owner Nanjing Cenbest is talking about selling half of its 89 per cent stake to Chinese tourism development company Wuji Wenhua,

It’s only four years since NC bought the whole business for £155m and the £46m the Douglas-Miller family got for selling the store to House of Fraser in 2005 now looks like a good bit of business.

Why were we so defeatist about the Beast?

I received an email telling me meetings were cancelled because of the Beast from the East “or Wednesday as they call it in Finland”, it said. Quite.

The lesson from the Christmas snow dump of 2010 seems to be to keep everyone at home, even if it means total shut-down to the extent there were still shops without basics like milk by Tuesday.

Rather than have a resilient disaster recovery plan, is the strategy to admit defeat from the start?