David Alexander comment: Princes Street faces a crossroads over its future

Given the travail currently being experienced by conventional retailers in most towns and cities across the UK – competition from the internet, high business rates – a vacancy rate of just 7 per cent will understandably be interpreted as a measure of the resilience of Edinburgh’s Princes Street.

As for my own metier& I believe that homes should be part of the solution, says Alexander. Picture: contributed.

But that is against a background of the city centre having lost a substantial percentage of its retail space with the closure, for redevelopment, of the original, 1970s-built St James Centre, which is due to arise from the rubble as the 850,000 square foot St James Quarter in the autumn of 2020.

That retail vacancy rates on Princes Street are likely to increase as a result of the re-emergence of St James is clearly obvious but just by how much has been revealed in an investigation by The Scotsman’s sister paper, the Evening News. This showed commercial property experts believing that 13 retailers currently on Princes Street – including some heavyweight brand names – could be lured to the new development. Also, looking at other factors, such as breaks in their leases and the profile of the type of stores St James is likely to target, they also identified a further 19 retailers whom they think could also switch to the new quarter in the east end.

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Given its location and unique outlook, Princes Street is nevertheless well-placed to survive. However, anyone who believes in a free market should have no objection in principle because cities would not survive if they simply stood still. Just as some of our oldest-surviving residential districts have gone from “sought-after” to slum and then been revived, so the same is true of the cluster of “mini-districts” that make up a city’s core. Just now, everything points to a retail move to the east end; yet 20 years ago, with the financial institutions departing St Andrew Square and moving to the new financial quarter off Lothian Road, there was much talk of the retail core of Princes Street becoming more orientated towards its west end.

But just as market forces currently pose a threat to Princes Street, so they are likely to be its saviour, which essentially means Edinburgh City Council adopting a more flexible approach to planning applications on the thoroughfare, particularly at its western end. The initial positive reaction to the application by Diageo to turn the former Frasers department store into a Johnnie Walker whisky visitor centre is an encouraging sign. That such a major quoted company is prepared to invest and hopeful of securing a return on this project shows there can be life for our city centres beyond conventional retail (although one assumes whisky and related sales will be a key element in the success of the scheme).

Edinburgh is fortunate in having such a big tourist spend, but the whisky centre proposal indicates there are tourist-related commercial opportunities other than budget tartan-themed shops. A commercially-viable “city history museum” with hi-tech features is common in other European cities popular with tourists – so why not Edinburgh?

As for my own metier, residential property, of course I believe that homes (especially for permanent residents, rather than as Airbnb lets) should be part of the solution. Our professional experience of flats in or around Princes Street suggests there could be a big demand for this location and I cannot think of a better way of utilising all the stock space no longer required by retailers. And I don’t just mean compact accommodation for professional singles or couples working in the nearby Exchange office district. There are others who would like to live in the thick of things – for example. middle-aged couples with older teenage children or spouses whose adult children have flown the nest but regularly come to stay with their own offspring.

And, of course, boosting the resident population of the city centre can do no harm to the future prospects of those retailers who – the internet and business rates notwithstanding – will continue to trade there.

David Alexander is MD of DJ Alexander