At the opening party in 2001, I met a man who’d worked on the site in Leith when it was the Henry Robb Shipyard. He was flabbergasted by the area’s transformation into a shining palace of retail, hospitality and entertainment. I suspect he’d be equally shocked today.
Princes Street offers a glimpse of the problems facing bricks-and-mortar retail right now but for the full floorshow, look no further than Ocean Terminal. With rows of empty units, it has a dystopian atmosphere.
On Monday, it felt like we’d broken in with other Armageddon survivors to scavenge for supplies. I suspect Claire’s Accessories and the Build-A-Bear Workshop wouldn’t sustain us for long at the end of days but beggars can’t be choosers.
Drifting through, it’s hard not to hark back to the golden days. Ocean Terminal was supposed to offer everything you needed for a great day out. You could arrive for lunch, shop in the afternoon, have a drink then dinner followed by a film.
When I visited, the main attraction seemed to be that it was a good place to stay out of the wind and rain. That’s not a great business model.
None of this is the fault of the owners and operators. Ocean Terminal was a fabulous idea at the time but 20 years and the pandemic have not been kind and the new St James development has only exacerbated the problem by drawing away even more shoppers. Add to that the rise of online retail and places like this are facing a perfect storm.
The solution has to be a new way forward and the owners are bravely trying things like providing space for a brilliant local history hub and an affordable Leith art gallery but that won’t be enough to draw back the crowds.
When Ocean Terminal first opened, it was a great food and drink destination with the only Scottish branch of Sir Terence Conran’s fancy Zinc restaurant chain. That has long gone and walking past an almost empty Greggs the other day, the slide from Fillet Steak to Steak Bake summed up the scale of the challenge. But could food provide the new way forward?
Most European cities have an indoor food and drink market. Time Out Lisbon has 32 restaurants and kiosks, eight bars and cafes, specialist shops and even a flower market under one roof. Why couldn’t that happen here in a country that is supposed to be a land of food and drink?
Fashions change and shopping habits change but we all like to eat at least three times a day and not even a pandemic stops that.
With hundreds of empty car park spaces, lots of space for deliveries and trams set to arrive in the area soon, why couldn’t Ocean Terminal be rebranded as Scotland’s Market and become our number-one food destination for visitors and locals alike?
It would take vision and ambition and cooperation from Edinburgh City Council but since they approved planning permission for the St James development which has helped create the problem, perhaps they might like to solve it?