John McLellan: What next for Rose street?

Waxy O'Connor's in Glasgow. Picture: contributed
Waxy O'Connor's in Glasgow. Picture: contributed
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How many people think what Rose Street needs is another pub? And how many people think another pub on Rose Street will make any difference to the middle of town?

I’ve not done the research but I suspect it will be very few to both questions. And so the Baptists of the Charlotte Street Chapel at the end of Rose Street probably thought they were on safe ground to plan ahead with their move to a new home in St George’s West, the former Church of Scotland on Shandwick Place for which they paid £1.5 million.

Around half the purchase price was to come from the sale of their base since 1908 at Charlotte Street, which had become too small and would itself require around £500,000 of work to bring it up to scratch.

So the Chapel was to be sold to the family-owned pub business Glendola to be turned into Edinburgh’s Waxy O’Connor’s. But the sale was on condition that permission was granted for the change of use from a place of worship to a palace of indulgence.

And until this week all was going according to plan, with city council officials backing the scheme on the basis that despite the new pub being able to cope with 900 drinkers, for most of the time it would operate well below that number.

Waxy O’Connor pubs are well-run businesses, with multiple small bars split into different levels rather than the cavernous affairs so beloved of JD Wetherspoon. This cut no mustard with members of the development management committee who this week went against official advice and rejected the application.

The Baptists are left with a massive problem, having bought St George’s West but now with no way of paying for it.

Opposition to the pub plan amounted to just 24 letters of objection, 22 of which were late, and a petition with only 42 signatures. And while the concerns of people living very close by will be real enough, it does pose serious questions for the future shape of the city centre.

The main argument against the plan was the feared impact of 900 drinkers spilling out into the West End and ironically one of the objections was from the nearby Roxburgh Hotel which itself caters for up to 350 party-goers in its main function room.

But the big question is what happens to a substantial building like an old church in a location like Rose Street if a pub is not deemed acceptable?

The problem is that leisure use (under which pubs, cafes and restaurants are classified) is likely to represent the future for that part of the city, especially when the plans for the St James Centre are taken out of mothballs, as they will be very soon.

While there is much talk of very high-end retailers like Hermes and Banana Republic looking for suitable homes in Edinburgh, the main thrust of the St James revamp will be at the middle market retailers found in most shopping malls. These are the same type of shops which have traditionally made up much of the Princes Street shopping experience – and those still there will be encouraged to consider a flit to the bright and airy covered walkways of the new St James Centre.

So if there is a traders’ exodus to the East End, what happens to the premises in and around Princes Street? If the council lets it be known that operators like Glendola will get nowhere with new schemes, they might find there are a lot more empty units than they would like.

A report this week from Stirling University’s Professor Leigh Sparks and the Local Data Company shows that only some 13 per cent of Edinburgh’s 3890 shops are vacant. OK, so few, if any, of those vacancies are in the heart of the city, but it’s not necessarily going to stay that way.

With more shopping development likely to cluster around new St James, a new network of streets behind Register House and the draw of St Andrew Square, the West End could find itself with a problem.

When the St James Centre comes on stream in the next ten years or so, the pressure to find tenants for older properties will increase. And anyone in the City Chambers who thinks they can revive the “String of Pearls” vision for linking up refurbished Princes Street/Rose Street buildings needs a long holiday.

For the future, look at the experience of the Festival. I don’t hear many councillors moaning about the impact of an influx of people to the West End when the Book Festival is in full flow on Charlotte Square. Nor is there much by way of official concern about the noise/traffic impact on residents of the Spiegeltent on George Street.

And what about the impact of all those thousands of people flooding in to sample the Christmas markets?

These are all leisure experiences and represent the way forward for the development of a vibrant city centre.

So here is a suggestion. Welcome quality leisure operators to Princes Street and Rose Street and if they can add a cultural twist even better. Waxy O’Connor’s was to feature acoustic music and presumably offer something of a challenge to the monopoly of more traditional music now packing them in at Ghillie Dubh across the road on Rutland Street.

And let’s go further with George Street and pedestrianise it all year round. Most car drivers avoid it now anyway and we somehow manage to cope in August when the city swells by around twice its population.

Shop in the East End and drop in the West. And help the Baptists with more than a prayer to move into their new home.

Get the ticketing right and market will be a winner

IT’S an understatement to say that not just the tinsel has dropped from Edinburgh’s bold new Christmas market. First there was general anger about the prices, then near tragedy with the broken seat on the Star Flyer. And to put the furry red bunnet on it, out flounced Santa over the production-line approach to separating parents from their folding.

Ever since an annual trip to SC at Lewis’s on Glasgow’s Argyle Street, I can never remember a time when it wasn’t an excuse to over-charge for a cheap toy.

And I’ve yet to come across a Christmas market which didn’t try to sell wooden stuff you didn’t know you needed for the festive mantelpiece.

But how many people knew what they really wanted for Christmas was flavoured coffee beans? I came across at least four stalls selling them and I haven’t a clue where that idea came from. Did Prince Albert introduce them along with Christmas trees?

But amid the gluhwein and foot-long sausages it’s good to see suburban traders such as Toys Galore opening up temporary outlets and let’s hope the aggressive pricing seen elsewhere doesn’t mean they are not rewarded by a decent return for their enterprise.

So if Charlie Wood and his Underbelly team get proper ticketing deals sorted out – and guarantee no-one will be catapulted into Harvey Nicks’ restaurant – the new market is a positive addition to Edinburgh’s Christmas.

Focus on change, not crisis

THE survey of Scottish town shops this week provides a fascinating snap-shot into the changing face of the high street, but the accent should be on change rather than crisis.

It’s only a crisis if nothing is done, or if the authorities want to rail against the storm in a bid to keep things the way they once were.

Produced by Prof Leigh Sparks and the Local Data Company, the survey shows Edinburgh is doing well, but with vacancies slightly up the warning signs are clear. One surprising statistic was the relatively low number of charity shops in the city, at only 0.28 per cent. It doesn’t feel like that in Raeburn Place or Morningside Road, but Musselburgh is the Scottish capital of charity shops at 7.1 per cent.

Similarly, the number of pawnbrokers and cash converters in Edinburgh is relatively small at 2.3 per cent. But not surprisingly, at just over a third of premises given over to leisure, including cafes bars and restaurants, Edinburgh is by some way Scotland’s capital of relaxation.

Away from the big urban centres, places such as Dunbar, North Berwick and Linlithgow seem pretty resilient, but if it’s something different you’re after new towns like Livingston are not the places to go.