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Short, sharp shop for Princes St?

IMAGINE Princes Street without crowds crammed on one pavement, fighting their way past empty shop fronts and discount stores.

Imagine there are no cars, not even buses, and the Gardens roll right across the street to meet a pedestrian walkway where the strains of classical music drift over the heads of shoppers enjoying a break at a host of pavement cafes.

You’re now envisaging the dream of Gordon Reid, chief executive of Edinburgh City Centre Management. It may be ambitious, even radical, but one day his vision might just become reality.

As the man tasked with developing a strategy to revitalise the city centre, he is better placed than most to make it happen. And, as the former head of city centre management in Dundee, he has ample experience. In the past decade, the heart of Dundee has been virtually transformed. Most of its main shopping streets are now pedestrian zones littered only with tasteful sculptures.

Sitting in his modest office at New Parliament House, Reid admits there is little in Dundee to compare with the affluent and architecturally stunning Edinburgh. But he says much can and should be done to build on Edinburgh’s strengths.

"Dundee has been dramatically turned around," says the softly spoken town planner of his home city. "I don’t think Edinburgh needs to be turned around in that sense. Edinburgh is thriving, successful and it’s a World Heritage Site. But it’s my view that, like any good business, you continue investing or you fall behind."

Perhaps the key area in which Edinburgh has been falling behind is shopping. This week it emerged that Cardiff, Southampton and even Reading are now more popular shopping destinations. The city is losing 140 million a year to Glasgow and the lure of its Buchanan Galleries. And critics are scathing of the quality and range of retailers on Princes Street, which has several empty units and bargain-basement short-term lets despite its beautiful location.

Reid agrees it’s far from ideal, but says it’s complicated to resolve. The city council, let alone his company, has no power to dictate which retailers move in.

Attempts to attract high-quality, permanent retailers to Princes Street are being hampered by its old-fashioned buildings. Slap-bang in the middle of a World Heritage Site, little can be demolished or even altered. But that doesn’t stop Reid from suggesting at least some should be knocked down.

"This issue of temporary shops happens in every city in the UK. Nobody likes it, and we want to do something about it," he says. "The best way is to try to attract permanent tenants. But on Princes Street there are shop units that are less desirable for modern retailers - they are described as dysfunctional retail space.

"Retailers are very particular about the size and shape, right down to the type of frontage and windows. What we have advocated is to explore the feasibility of replacing some of the buildings, and we have pulled together a forum to examine this."

One of the buildings in Reid’s sights is the former home of C&A and Burberry. He claims retailers would have snapped up these units months ago if they had been suitable.

"If they had thought that building was ideal for them, it would have been occupied the next day. That hasn’t happened and that tells us what the retail market thinks.

"Its owners have proposed its replacement, and I understand there is considerable interest from retailers in the building if and when it’s reconstructed."

But it’s not all doom and gloom on the shopping front, he says. Indeed, the latest shopping survey didn’t include the Old Town, which is awash with tourists for most of the year, and Princes Street itself is still the most successful shopping street in Scotland.

However, Reid acknowledges that promoting Edinburgh as a shopping destination is a key priority. ECCM recently produced a stylish guide aimed at tourists, which was also rather cheekily distributed to passengers at Glasgow’s Queen Street Station. He also has tactics to dispel the perception that Edinburgh is not car-friendly - he wants to see dedicated signs informing visitors where they can park.

"Visitors are too often cruising the city looking for parking spaces. But the car parks in Edinburgh are never full, even on Christmas Eve, the busiest shopping day of the year. You just need to know where to go."

If Reid has his way, however, the car eventually won’t be welcome on the main streets of central Edinburgh. The company has proposed that Princes Street and George Street be completely pedestrianised.

They are currently working with design consultancy Gillespies and international town planning guru Jan Gehl from Copenhagen on a "streetscape" plan for the pedestrianisation of Castle Street, which they hope the council will endorse.

And Reid hopes this will be the first step towards a "bold" pedestrianisation of the city centre.

"We responded to the council’s traffic management proposals last year and expressed the view that they were right to try to control and limit certain types of traffic, but we wanted to encourage them to be more bold.

"It’s our view that we should take a step back and plan for a city centre that we would like in terms of retail, in terms of environment. Then transport is a means to an end, it’s not an end in itself.

"It’s our view that whether you arrive in the city centre by bus or by car or by train or by parachute, you become a pedestrian.

"We should be designing first and foremost for the pedestrian."

Since ECCM, an independent company funded mostly by the city council, was launched in late 2000, it has been Reid’s job to liaise between key players in the public and private sector to promote Edinburgh as "the regional, national and international destination for shopping, business, culture, leisure and tourism".

As if that’s not enough, the company also promotes "a clean, safe and friendly environment". In practical terms, that has seen STARS - the Street Team And Response Service - hitting the streets.

The Guiding STARS offer friendly advice and directions to visitors, while Shining STARS have the less enviable task of cleaning up.

Every day, the Shining STARS spend hours removing graffiti and scraping chewing gum off pavements and illegal posters off vacant buildings and shops. It recently took 24 man hours to scrape eight layers of fly-posters off the former C&A. Perhaps this is why people were a little confused when Reid recently announced that the company was piloting a fly-posting "tolerance zone" at the same location.

If the experiment doesn’t work, they’ll scrap it, he says, but he thinks there’s a good chance it may be a problem which is almost impossible to eradicate.

"I am not aware of any city that has cracked the problem of fly-posting. The most successful examples involve the advertisers putting up noticeboards and drums at their own cost, but also utilising vacant property and temporary vacancies in shops.

"We have been approached by a company prepared to invest hundreds of thousands of pounds in the infrastructure for this. Ultimately it is a decision for the city council to make."

Perhaps it’s this no-nonsense approach that proved so successful in turning around the fortunes of Dundee’s city centre. Reid, who is a qualified town planner, was city centre manager there from 1987 until taking up his current job.

"The perception of Dundee in the late 80s was of a city centre that was under-performing in retailing terms, and which did not project the dynamic image that the city wanted," he says. "I think it’s fair to say that these things have been turned around now."

But how does Reid hope Edinburgh’s city centre will look in another ten years?

"If it were attainable, and if it could function properly, I would love to see Princes Street pedestrianised, with just a tram service and with the Gardens coming right into Princes Street.

"In 1877 I understand Princes Street was widened by 25ft to accommodate trams - I would like to see that restored. The Gardens would then start about two-thirds of the way across Princes Street, with soft landscaping.

"You would have your shops almost within the park . . . I think that would be world-class."

Can you ever have too many shops - or too few? asks Lynn Gilmour

THE future doesn’t look too bright on the shopping front, or so the financial experts predict. The economy is on the verge of a recession which could lead to increased prices and spiralling credit card debts.

But when nothing but a dose of retail therapy will do to shake off the dreariness of everyday life, will this threat of impending doom mean a curb on Scottish retail spending?

With the summer opening of the Capital’s new Harvey Nichols store in sight, not to mention the recent revamps of both the St James Centre and Princes Mall, is there a danger of Edinburgh’s shoppers being spoilt for choice and the market being overloaded? In the shopping stakes, can there ever be too much of a good thing?

Professor Leigh Sparks from the Institute for Retail Studies at the University of Stirling says that Edinburgh may fare better than other cities during a recession, although individual stores could notice a downturn in spending as shoppers spread their buying across more shops.

"That is the nature of competition," he says. "There will be an effect, but people are not set in their habits and all the evidence in Scotland is for changes in shopping patterns. But the range of shopping centres in Edinburgh do not necessarily focus on the same market, which means that all of them could have a successful future."

Edinburgh’s most recent addition to shopping is, of course, Ocean Terminal in Leith, which has been open for nearly five months.

It promised much when it welcomed its first customers last October, but it still feels very empty, with many windows promising that retailers will be there soon.

Sparks says many centres begin like this, and argues that with Ocean Terminal, the developers wanted to have it open before Christmas.

"This centre may be much more peaked in its trade than other centres. The success or failure of Ocean Terminal depends on the view the developers took of the market, whether it was to be mainly tourist or local.

"In the long term, this might be a worry to the developers and retailers, but much of this depends on the target trade. It’s the nature of commercial risk."

Marketing manager for Ocean Terminal, Fay Jameson, backs Sparks’ theory. "You have to open at some point, and for us that was October 4 because the anchor stores were in place to open then."

She is optimistic about the centre’s long-term success: "Mainstream retailers are signed up and ready to open numerous stores during April and May. We are particularly pleased to have the Arcadia Group on board, with shops like Topshop and HMV. Having these big-name stores here will encourage other retailers to join them."

Jameson says that she is happy with the footfall figures available to date. "We are averaging 73,000 customers a week, and that is a positive sign."

At the moment, Ocean Terminal still feels like a well-kept secret. Great news for shoppers, but not so good for the development’s owners, Forth Ports Ltd, who need to recoup their investment.

It would be a pity if the centre’s name was a warning of its future - terminal.

 
 
 

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