What is future for Edinburgh's Princes Street now new £1 billion St James Quarter is up and running?

The opening of the new St James Quarter will bring a dramatic change to Edinburgh’s shopping scene, with thousands expected to flock to the long-awaited new centre and spend money on brands not available in the city before.

Monday, 5th July 2021, 4:55 am

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But the £1 billion development, which will eventually also include hotels, flats, a cinema and a bowling alley, will inevitably have an impact on the rest of the city centre and in particular on Princes Street, which up until now has been the Capital’s premier shopping street.

Several stores, including Next, Zara and New Look have transferred from Princes Street to St James, leaving behind empty units.

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A sign in the former Next store directs customers to the St James Quarter   Picture: Lisa Ferguson
A sign in the former Next store directs customers to the St James Quarter Picture: Lisa Ferguson

And famous names like Jenners, Debenhams and House of Fraser have already disappeared, victims of the rapid change in retail which has seen customers move online and department stores go out of fashion.

So what does it all mean for Edinburgh’s most famous street?

Liz McAreavey, chief executive of Edinburgh Chamber of Commerce, says: “St James is a welcome addition to Edinburgh, bringing some fantastic brands, creating about 3,000 jobs and transforming the retail offer in the city centre.”

She says Princes Street has been changing for a decade or more and the council’s change in planning rules, allowing more flexibility on the use of properties, was a recognition that its future would be different.

Jenners is now closed - and they even took down the signage until they were told to replace it

“We need to re-imagine what Princes Street will be like,” she says. “People have learned to shop online, particularly during the pandemic; we’ve got out-of-town shopping malls where there’s free parking. So there have been challenges to retail for some years; now we’re getting to the perfect storm where a number of things have come together.”

And she is worried about the lack of footfall in the city centre with so many offices not being used during the pandemic.

“I think we’re at a point where we need to really preserve the major asset of our city centre – it’s the thing that attracts talent, provides quality of life and the reason why people invest in Edinburgh. It’s critical for the city’s recovery and we need to make sure we have reasons for people to come into the city centre.

"I don’t think we should be afraid of change and progress and evolution, but we need to be careful we manage it. We don’t want to make what I heard someone call ‘decisions of regret’ – we could make decisions now that come back to haunt us in a decade or so. We have to be careful and make sure we consult with residents, community groups and businesses.”

The former House of Fraser store is being converted into the Johnnie Walker whisky centre

Former city council leader Donald Anderson also emphasises his support for the St James Quarter

"For the first time Edinburgh has got a state-of-the-art shopping centre. St James is probably the envy of cities the length and breadth of the country. It’s a huge asset for the city.

"But over the period it has been constructed retail has changed dramatically and Covid has driven up online shopping, so essentially there’s not enough retail to go round. Department stores have crumbled and disappeared and that has huge implications for the city centre.

“St James hasn't caused the decline of the big department stores and the big changes in retail, St James is part of the solution to those problems.”

To Let signs are sprouting along Princes Street Picture: Lisa Ferguson

He expects Princes Street will in future see a mix of shops, hotels, restaurants, leisure and even residential use.

“It’s inevitable there will be a period when there are empty shops in Princes Street,” he says. “What needs to happen is the right mix is developed so those can be filled as quickly as possible with the right quality of operation, whether that's retail or food or leisure. The secret is trying to keep the quality up – if you hang on to too much of the retail space then quality will drop.”

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The transformation of Princes Street is arguably already under way. The Johnnie Walker whisky visitor centre is due to open soon in the former House of Fraser store; plans have been approved to turn the Debenhams building into a boutique hotel and hospitality hub, including a restaurant and roof-top bar; the former New Look store is to become an extension to the existing Premier Inn hotel with a new restaurant on the ground floor; work is nearing completion on the former BHS store which will have a hotel on the upper floors and a roof-top restaurant, but with the ground floor still retail; and there are plans for Jenners to reopen as a department store with a hotel on the upper floors.

Mr Anderson suggests future developments could include another visitor attraction like the whisky centre, possibly even a cinema and perhaps flats – or even student accommodation – above the ground floor.

"Princes Street is not going to be all retail as it was in the past, there is going to be a mix – what is in that mix we may not know for three to five years.”

Debenhams is just one of the big names to disappear Picture: Liaa Ferguson

Colin Proctor, store manager at Urban Outfitters towards the west end of Princes Street, says many retailers think the arrival of St James means Princes Street is now dead.

"Johnnie Walker is great – it will being people down this end of the street, but it's a completely different clientele from my customers. I can't see it having major effect on my trade. It’s always good when something opens, it brings new traffic – but whether it's relevant traffic to you is the thing.”

He says he is lucky that Urban Outfitters is seen as a destination store. “We're not in every UK city, so when visitors come to Edinburgh, if they know there is an Urban Outfitters a lot of them will go and find it. But since House of Fraser closed, the passing trade at this end of the street has been in decline and with St James opening it's the end of major retail in Princes Street.”

His store is next to the old New Look shop, where the council granted the first licence for a ground-floor restaurant in Princes Street. “I can see this end of the street ending up as restaurants and hotels.”

For Roddy Smith, chief executive of Essential Edinburgh, the key thing is what happens to footfall in the city centre.

"What we're keen to do is make sure people do go and see St James because it’s fantastic, but then come out and move along Princes Street and George Street and Rose Street.

“All the parking is at St James, so if people are coming in by car they will start and finish their journey at St James – the important thing is they don’t just go to St James.

"St James coming on board is going to change the dynamics in the city centre, but it doesn’t change what Princes Street has – magnificent views and history.”

And he says a big positive is that people are always keen to develop on Princes Street. “All the big buildings that have come up recently have been taken on by developers with really great projects – Johnnie Walker, Debenhams, New Look and Jenners.”

Garry Clark, of the Federation of Small Businesses, argues a greater mix of businesses will give people a bigger range of reasons to come into the city centre.

"What we need is people to be there, whether they’re visiting, working or spending leisure time.

“People aren’t going to go there just for retail in the way they did maybe 30 years ago, but they will come for various reasons and retail will coexist with that. The fact you have footfall there will continue to support retail.

"I hope people will come to see St James but also spend some time in the city centre and spending a bit of money. Maybe we will only see the full benefit when have Johnnie Walker at the opposite end of Princes Street and we might see a bit of travel between the two.”

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Several shops have left Princes Street for St James Picture: Lisa Ferguson
Zara was one of the most popular shops in Princes Street Picture: Lisa Ferguson