A 1949 plan to demolish Edinburgh’s Princes Street was thankfully ditched and similar good decision-making now can see this fantastic street prosper despite its current problems, writes Donald Anderson.
THE news that Poundland is to open in Princes Street and that shops are upping sticks to move to the new St James Centre has again focused the debate on our most fantastic of streets.
Whenever Princes Street is discussed, I am invariably drawn to a damning quote from an almost forgotten council report from 1943, which stated, “Finally, there is Princes Street. In the minds of many the jumble of buildings along this street is now irremediable.”
That report led to the famous ‘Abercrombie Report’, launched in 1949, which basically (and horrifically) proposed demolishing the whole of Princes Street and replacing the buildings with a two-tier walkway with shops on the ground and first floors.
Thankfully that didn’t happen, but you can see the brutalist 60s blocks that were built in some places. Those plans were finally dropped in the 1980s – thank goodness.
Various plans and strategies have come forward since. These include: creating underground shopping in ‘Princes Street Galleries’ (which I actually put to the sword myself when council leader); great plans brought forward by architect Malcolm Fraser; a review by a ‘design tsar’ with a view to creating a new vision; and major change and plans from international architectural guru Jan Gehl.
But for a variety of reasons, like many ‘grand plans’, they helped change but didn’t transform Princes Street. For property owners collecting some of the highest rents anywhere in the UK, change was unnecessary.
No great masterplan
There have been great successes. People get sniffy about Primark, but I think it’s been one of the best modern developments in Princes Street and looks miles better than the monstrosity it replaced. It’s also great fun to watch the smiles on shoppers as they come out of Primark with armfuls of shopping. Long may it stay.
Other successes include the replacement of the old C&A building, the Apple store which is a triumph, and retaining the façade of the old Woolworths. But change has been slow.
It’s about to get a lot quicker. The combination of online shopping, which most of us love, and the arrival of Edinburgh St James next year is creating a huge shift in Princes Street. There just isn’t enough shopping to go around anymore.
We should not fear the changes as there are huge opportunities too. The new Johnnie Walker Visitor Centre is a sign of new opportunities and new focus. The tired Frasers Store is being replaced with a visitor attraction that will bring hundreds of thousands of people to the city centre and celebrate our national drink.
More stores will inevitably close but that will make space and increased opportunity for other leisure offerings, and the council is adapting planning policy to take account of the changes, which are being driven not be any great masterplan, but by commercial pressures.
Getting higher value developments in what are in many cases empty buildings above the ground floor can remake and improve Princes Street. Edinburgh’s been talking about delivering the café culture in Princes Street for about as long as I can remember. Indeed, it’s happened just about everywhere in the city centre bar Princes Street. Looks like it will finally be arriving. With some judicious decision-making, Princes Street’s future, and that of the city centre, will be even brighter than its past.