IT’S been a ten-year wait prolonged by the 2008 financial crash, the Scottish independence referendum and Brexit.
But now the £1 billion revamp of Edinburgh’s St James Centre has finally got underway – with construction starting on the site yesterday.
When completed, the massive new development will boast a staggering 1.7 million sq ft of retail and leisure space, dwarfing what’s currently on offer anywhere else in the city centre and representing one of the UK’s largest private sector regeneration projects.
Residents and visitors will be able to enjoy 85 new shops, 20 restaurants, three new public squares, 150 private apartments, an “ultra-luxury” cinema, 1600 car parking spaces and a five-star “ribbon” hotel.
Meanwhile, up to 3000 permanent jobs will be created in retail, management and logistics.
Demolition will begin in a matter of weeks, with the old 1970s block gradually torn down by high-reach cranes over the next 18 months.
Then, after two years, locals will begin to see a sprawl of new buildings rise up from the rubble – to transform the city forever.
Exclusive images published today reinforce the scale of the development, which will open to the public in 2020 – 14 years after the site was first snapped up by Henderson Global Investment.
TH Real Estate, which is pushing the plans forward, said the fact it was going ahead at all was a “show of confidence” in Edinburgh at a time of global instability.
They blamed delays on the political and financial upheavals surrounding the financial crash, 2014’s independence referendum and this year’s shock Brexit result.
Martin Perry, director of development at TH Real Estate, said the decision to leave the EU created uncertainty among international investors, who were needed to bank-roll the huge project.
He said: “The difficulty with the scale of this development was getting the investment. We needed to have an international investor. There’s only a handful of investors worldwide that will entertain this kind of development.”
A deal struck over the weekend eventually saw Dutch pension asset manager APG buy a 75 per cent stake in the scheme, leaving TH Real Estate to hold the remaining 25 per cent.
The final agreement was signed off at exactly 6.07am on Saturday.
Mr Perry said the new Edinburgh St James would “weave into the fabric of the city”, with a sweeping, glass-covered indoor street – or galleria – offering restaurants, cafes and landscaped terraces across several levels.
Meanwhile, three new public squares – dubbed Register Square, St James Square and Cathedral Square – will be designed to easily host events during the festival, complete with hidden wiring and cabling to feed into massive outdoor screens and speakers.
“The development aims to blend in with the city, and that includes taking part in the festival,” said Mr Perry. “We have deliberately tried to create three venues.
“We have been working hard to try to create almost this ‘leisure spine’ that runs through the middle. We think that’s the future of retail – it’s being a part of an integrated offer.
“To actually deliver this shows an enormous amount of confidence [in Edinburgh]. We feel we have had quite a lot of knocks.”
Bosses said the entire complex would help move Edinburgh further up the UK retail rankings, boosting it from 13th to 8th place.
But while the retail and leisure offerings will open in 2020, the striking “ribbon” hotel at the development’s centre – set to be operated by W Hotels & Resorts – will remain closed until the next year.
Boasting 214 rooms, as well as restaurants and a public roof terrace, its striking design has proved to be among the most controversial aspects of the revamp.
Developers said it would be aimed at a young, wealthy, trendy crowd who might be put off staying in more “traditional” hotels such as the Balmoral and Caledonian.
Elsewhere, a host of big-name retailers have already confirmed they will open “flagship” stores in the complex, though exactly who they are is still under wraps.
And those who move into the scheme’s posh flats can expect “staggering views” of the Capital, as well as full use of the W Hotel’s gym.
Scottish Government economy secretary Keith Brown said Edinburgh St James would have a “significant positive impact on construction activity, jobs, and the economy”.
Both the Government and Edinburgh Council provided cash to help regenerate the surrounding area as part of the plans.
Mr Brown said: “This is a major signal of investor confidence in Scotland, and provides further demonstration that Scotland is open for business.”
Councillor Gavin Barrie, the city’s economy leader, said: “The new St James will transform the east end of Edinburgh’s Princes Street, providing much needed premium retail space and leisure facilities, new homes and a world class five-star hotel in the heart of the city – creating thousands of jobs in the process and adding millions to the Scottish economy each year.
“I am delighted the council has played its part getting this development off the ground and supporting TH Real Estate reach this important milestone.”
John Lewis will remain open throughout construction, with a new entrance from Leith Street in addition to the main entrance. Meanwhile, an internal revamp will see 60,000 sq ft of extra space opened up inside the store.
Laing O’Rourke, which had been appointed on a consultancy basis to advise on pre-construction works over the last year, has now been appointed as the main contractor for the overall project.
Robert-Jan Foortse, head of European property investments at APG, said: “The Edinburgh St James project is one the UK’s largest and most significant regeneration projects.
“We are excited to become part of this scheme that will transform and reinforce the heart of Edinburgh city centre with the creation of a new shopping destination.
“Furthermore, we believe that the addition of the W Hotel will help attract even more tourists to this Unesco World Heritage city.”
The old St James Centre, first opened in the 1970s, shut its doors for the last time on Sunday evening after more than 40 years of trading.
Financial climate made finding cash tough
IT was a deal two-and-a-half years in the making.
That’s how long bosses say they have been trying to secure the necessary investment to kick-start work on Edinburgh St James.
And on Saturday morning, their hunt was finally brought to an end. At exactly 6.07am, the last deal was signed with Dutch pension asset manager APG.
The firm bought a 75 per cent stake in the scheme, leaving developers TH Real Estate to hold the remaining 25 per cent.
The agreement unlocked the funding to begin construction on the £1 billion project, with work getting underway yesterday.
It had been a long time coming. The city centre project is so huge that developers needed an international investor to provide the cash to get things moving.
But political and economic upheavals such as the financial crash, independence referendum and Brexit made for a tough climate.
It’s understood TH Real Estate appointed Cushman & Wakefield to find a partner to fund the project in May last year.
Attempts to secure a deal with Australia’s largest pension fund AustralianSuper previously fell flat.
Luxury cinema planned for St James
AS well as shops, restaurants, bars and the eye-catching “ribbon” hotel, the new Edinburgh St James will boast an “ultra-luxury” cinema unlike anything the city’s seen before.
Developers insist the boutique offering will be a far cry from the standard “popcorn and coke” multiplex.
Instead, they told the Evening News it would be the sort of place where punters simply push a button on their seat to be served an ice-cold drink of their choice.
Martin Perry, director of development at TH Real Estate, compared it to the Everyman Cinema at the heart of the £350 million Trinity Leeds shopping centre, which opened in 2013.
It offers 500 seats across three auditoriums, as well as a private screening lounge, outdoor terrace and stylish bar.
And its website boasts that each state-of-the-art auditorium comes “complete with luxury sofa seating, individual foot rests, tables and wine coolers, offering a totally unique cinema-going experience”.
No such details are yet available for its Edinburgh counterpart, but it is understood an operator has already been lined up.