PRINCES Street could be opened up to food and drink outlets and leisure activities as part of proposals to help the famous destination “move with the times”.
The city council will launch a public consultation on Friday to ask the public for their thoughts on altering the authority’s strict planning guidance to make it “more flexible” for different types of businesses to take on premises along Princes Street.
With the St James Centre set to reopen next year in the east end of the city centre, property experts have identified at least 13 Princes Street stores they believe could quit the famous street including New Look, Zara and River Island. Coupled with last year’s closure of House of Fraser at the West End and a difficult retail climate, the council is moving to ensure Princes Street “remains vibrant”.
The proposal would allow planning permission for change of use to “assembly and leisure” and food and drink trade, “allowing a third of units in each frontage to be in non-shop use” and where shop units have multiple levels, the policy would apply to “the ground floor only”.
Planning convener Cllr Neil Gardiner said: “Despite pressures from online shopping nationally, Edinburgh has a buoyant retail industry evidenced by the £1bn investment in the Edinburgh St James development due to open in 2020. It is important though that we look to the future and regularly review our planning policies to make sure they are flexible enough to move with the times.
“The future of Princes Street is already changing with plans for the £150m Johnnie Walker visitor centre progressing as they received planning approval for their development at the West End.”
He added: “We need to keep active frontage in Princes Street but there is plenty of scope and opportunity for other uses as well including the upper levels with truly outstanding views of the castle and gardens. Princes Street has over time been adaptable – first set out for residential use, over time it emerged as a place for grand hotels and members clubs and shopping. With appropriate policies it can continue to evolve to meet changing needs in a way which respects its place in this city.
“This forthcoming consultation also ties into other positive changes we’re making such as our proposals under Edinburgh City Centre Transformation, a bold strategy to reshape Edinburgh through a series of radical interventions aiming to significantly improve public spaces and prioritise movement on foot, by bike and by public transport.
“I’d encourage everyone to take part in our consultation and give us their views and ideas.”
A leading business group hopes the changes will encourage other firms to take on vacant units and fill “unsightly empty premises”.
A spokesman for the Federation of Small Businesses (FSB) in Edinburgh said: “Central Edinburgh is still a great retail destination but like many shopping strips, Princes Street has found it tough to fill every unit. By loosening planning restrictions, we could see some non-retail businesses – like bars or restaurants – take up some hard-to-fill spaces. These operators could bring important footfall to the existing shops while eliminating unsightly empty premises.
“On the other hand, officials have a tough job to ensure that we don’t go too far in the opposite direction, and we lose all of our shopping spaces. Further it’d be great to see more high quality independent firms in this historic area – not just more chains.”
City centre ward Cllr Joanna Mowat, questioned whether the proposals would be able to keep pace with the complex changes in the retail industry and called on planning bosses to listen to what is fed back in the public consultation.
She said: “This is for consultation so I’m quite happy for it to go out in its current form.
“If this comes back looking for real changes, is the convener and are officers willing to make changes if it’s not what we expect – because we haven’t had a good history with that?”
Cllr Gardiner said the feedback “would have to be reasonable” and it “would depend what comes back” from the engagement.
The consultation will run until September 20.