The dramatic plans for the new St James Quarter will have a similar impact on the Capital as the hugely successful Bullring complex had on Birmingham, one of the country’s leading retail experts predicted today.
The vision for a £850 million shopping and leisure district on the St James Centre site echoes the revamp in 2003 which saw a shabby 1960s carbunkle in the centre of the English city turned into one of Britain’s most popular shopping destinations, attracting up to 36.5m visitors a year, according to Professor Leigh Sparks.
The blueprint for the 42,500sq m shopping precinct – double the floor space of the current St James Centre – boasting three sweeping crescent-shaped levels, premium office space, a theatre, five-star hotels and 138 flats “would put Edinburgh back on the retail map” after years of decline, he said.
But the professor warned that taking Scotland’s retail crown from Glasgow would be a “very tall order”.
The Capital is aiming to reverse a trend which showed its retail offering was ranked 56th out of 57 European cities and just 46 of 250 international retailers had a presence in the city.
Last year’s Jones Lang LaSalle survey also suggested Edinburgh had fallen behind similarly sized European cities such as Dublin, Lisbon and Lyon.
Prof Sparks, of the Institute of Retail Studies at Stirling University, the changes about to take place in the Capital would put it back at the top of the retail league.
“There are interesting similarities with the Birmingham Bullring which was in the city centre and redeveloped in a very dramatic and interesting way.
“The Bullring was dated and a single use complex – shopping.
“It was dark and pretty unpleasant for a while and was showing its age,” he said.
“If you saw the original Bullring towards the end of its lifespan there are massive similarities to the St James Centre now.”
Prof Sparks said a tranche of new investment followed the Bullring’s revitalisation in 2003 and hailed the St James Quarter designs “impressive and what’s needed to bring Edinburgh back into the league of excellent retail destinations”.
He added: “Rather than thinking about trying to leapfrog Glasgow, Edinburgh ought to be thinking about becoming a great retail destination in its own right.
“The Birmingham analogy is what Edinburgh is aspiring to.”
Restaurants, shops and pubs around Leith and Stockbridge may also experience a boon from the St James Quarter development if marketing chiefs successfully promote them and encourage visitors from the St James to visit them too, said Prof Sparks.
But he warned the city centre could become unbalanced with the gravitational pulling power of a near £1 billion shopping complex on the east end of Princes Street.
“This really could be transformative and it will be interesting to see the effect it has on the west end of Edinburgh, which could be a bit more problematic,” he said.
“George Street has been coming up so much in the last few years but how many retailers on George Street might now want to be part of this development and what might that do to George Street?
“With Waverley at one end, and Multrees Walk, Harvey Nics and the St James Quarter development, it means the East End is somewhat stronger than the West End. But that unbalancing has been there for a little while.”
Echoing these concerns, Gordon Henderson, senior development manager of the Federation of Small Businesses in Edinburgh, said there was a danger visitors and shoppers could become “sucked” into a concentrated area of the city centre.
He said: “I’m not against this development because for too long the front door to high end designer retail has been Waverley Station and the train to Glasgow.
“If you want big labels and fashion names you need to do a development like this and that will be good for Edinburgh.
“You clearly wouldn’t want to see everyone being sucked into the east end of town. You would hope it’s going to bring new people in rather than the same people moving somewhere else.”
But he hailed the development a “massive opportunity” for local firms who could stand to benefit from huge footfall and sub-contractor work during the construction phase which is likely to run from 2015 to 2021.
And he added: “Of course I hope there will be a drip down effect for independent businesses but that will be down to the city’s marketing firm to highlight that there is a citywide offering.”
Chief executive of Marketing Edinburgh, John Donnelly, said while the project’s impact would be most greatly felt at the east end of Princes Street, there was a “strong sense of vitality” coursing through the city with the West End buoyant following the Haymarket station refurbishment and phase one of a £200m mixed-use development getting under way next door.
He said: “You simply can’t overestimate the economic benefit that this £850m investment is going to bring to Edinburgh.
“It’s an incredibly positive development and one that is going to have significant repercussions for decades to come. Edinburgh has so much going for it to attract visitors and our residents into the city centre.
“From our beautiful architecture, thriving restaurants and world famous attractions, this development feels like another important piece in the puzzle, enhancing the variety and quality of the Capital’s retail offering to a new level that we can be really proud of.”
Welcoming the demolition of a much-derided eyesore, City Centre Tory councillor Joanna Mowat warned that the “innovative” funding package to kick-start work would be put under the microscope.
It involves a £61m loan from the Scottish Government that will see Holyrood claw back its investment through heightened business rates over the next 25 years.
She said: “It is good news that the long standing plans for the redevelopment of the St James Centre are coming to fruition and people are very much looking forward to the removal of the St James House. However, we have concerns that we are being asked to approve £61.4m of council borrowing to secure this development and will be carefully scrutinising this proposal especially given the new and untried method of funding proposed to ensure that we are not exposing the council to unnecessary risk.
“This project was to have been delivered through private funding and we need to ensure that the public funding is necessary and will deliver additional benefits to the city.”
‘It’s designed so that it flows around the city’
The new designs for the St James Quarter will bring part of the original vision of New Town architect James Craig, below, to life, according to the owner of the St James Centre, TIAA Henderson Real Estate.
Director of development Martin Perry raised a few eyebrows by describing the current centre as a “beautiful piece of Brutalist architecture” but then said the new scheme would try to create something that “fits and knits” into the fabric of the New Town.
Talking through the plans, he said: “It has a very strong geometric form which is designed to fit into the sort of spaces you would see if you stand on Edinburgh Castle’s ramparts and look down on to the city.
“We are trying to keep that flow, there is a curve that links Princes Street with Multrees Walk, so what we are also trying to do is create a circuit that allows people to move around the city.
“This is not a typical retail environment, or a shopping centre, where you would go shopping and go home.
“It’s designed so that it flows around the city and moves people through it – beyond into Princes Street, into George Street and coming back into St Andrew Square.”
He said the fact that it is built into a hill allows three retail levels to “curve around the natural topography”.
“It’s completely naturally ventilated. It’s a completely sustainable scheme, we are manufacturing electricity on the site.
“A by-product of that is the hot water that is used for heating the apartments and heating the hotel.
“It’s a very sustainable opportunity on this site.
“What has happened over the years is that we have tried to build up something that expressed the streets on either side.
“We are trying to put in a little bit of James Craig’s original vision of having some sort of punctuation into the skyline at either end of George Street.”