John McLellan: Reinventing George Street’s not that easy

It's camera phones at the ready as fireworks light up the night sky above George Street. Picture: Ian Georgeson
It's camera phones at the ready as fireworks light up the night sky above George Street. Picture: Ian Georgeson
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As the Christmas lights were switched on in George Street on Sunday, its traders will be hoping for a bigger than usual boost after what has been a tough summer and autumn, with four consecutive months of falling sales.

Retail sales in the city centre fell one per cent in September, but increased by 0.9 per cent across Scotland, according to a market report from Essential Edinburgh last month.

The difference in footfall in a couple of hundred yards is striking, with more than 35,000 people using Princes Street every day in October compared to just over 5000 on George Street. The bus and tram stops obviously have a significant impact, but while the difference is stark so too is the potential.

A report to the city council today highlights the need to provide a “high-quality summer festival offering” on George Street as part of a plan to relieve overcrowding at Festival pinch-points, but the council’s recently published vision for a graceful, tree-lined, car-free boulevard is its response to growing concern all year round.

READ MORE: Edinburgh’s ‘world class’ masterplan to create car-free George Street

Most people would agree with the general principle of making it a much more attractive place to stroll, shop, eat or drink, but the Essential Edinburgh report also highlights the recognition that car access and parking in the New Town is already regarded as worse than the rest of the city.

Indeed, in all the many past consultations which now sit on council shelves somewhere, there has never been much argument that George Street would be much better if the middle of it wasn’t a car park. Some readers might remember the much-derided public transport evangelist David Begg suggested putting them underground instead. Not as daft as it might seem –that’s what they do in places like Bruges – but the problem is cost.

The issue of removing cars has never been so much one of principle but effect. By all means end parking on George Street, but don’t reduce parking, say drivers. The Princes Street car ban meant more cars on George Street and Queen Street, so taking them off George Street as well could turn Queen Street into an impromptu car-park thanks to congestion.

Making it more difficult to access also makes it a less popular place to live. Make it a more attractive environment for visitors – and that means visitors from the suburbs as well as further afield – and that affects its desirability as a home.

And will turning George Street and the nearby streets of the First New Town into a very attractive, historic leisure centre but without the pool and the gym create the kind of lived-in community the council administration also says it wants to encourage? Serviced apartments and short-term lets will become the order of the day and there is already evidence of this happening as the owners of smaller offices and flats consider their best options. Would that give retailers the boost they need? That’s not so clear.

Even the trees might be an issue because the protection of the New Town’s “outstanding universal value” means the preservation of as much as possible of the original James Craig vision. Given the 18th century masterplan only featured trees on the two squares at either end, planting trees the length of George Street might actually pose as much of a threat to the Unesco World Heritage status as, say, using limestone for the new St James Centre.

Despite the use of Portland limestone for the Royal Society building and red sandstone at the Portrait Gallery, the planning view was that St James Centre should be built with yellow sandstone as close to the Craigleith original, and although councillors eventually decided otherwise it illustrates how the legitimate desire for maintaining authenticity can create problems.

The reinvention of George Street has been a long, long time in coming, but finding the right balance seems no closer.