If you want to know the future of Edinburgh, the past is a good place to start.
In the retail boom after the Second World War, Scotland’s capital city had a problem. Unlike most places, in Edinburgh the main shopping street only had buildings on one side.
In 1954 the Princes Street Panel was formed to address the issue. Three leading architects spent 13 years scratching their heads and came up with the most radical plan imaginable. They proposed demolishing every Victorian building and replacing them with a row of brutalist modern structures with an elevated upper floor providing extra retail space.
The old ornate Boots building was the first to go and be replaced by the drab modern premises of today and after a couple of other demolitions the plan was halted and the street has remained largely as we see it today. But for how much longer?
Princes Street now faces the biggest challenge in the 50 years since those demolition days. The decline in retail means planners now have some huge decisions to make to find a new purpose for one of the world’s best-known boulevards.
You don’t have to be a retail genius to see the problem. Rising rents and rates have coincided with the growth of online retail. Many shoppers now prefer clicks to bricks and that switch is obvious from the state of Princes Street today.
However the bad news is the worst is yet to come. Next year is due to see the completion of the £1 billion St James redevelopment as a shopping and leisure centre. With it, the retail focus in Edinburgh will increasingly switch from the shabby and old to the shiny and new.
That leaves Edinburgh with two options. The city can fight to keep retail on Princes Street but that probably means a battle to the bottom. This week River Island and Sports Direct were voted two of the worst retailers in Britain. It is no coincidence they both already have presences on Princes Street. But there is a glimmer of hope for Scotland’s best-known street and it comes in the shape of the forthcoming £150 million Johnnie Walker Whisky Experience in the old House of Fraser building at the West End. Earlier this month planners gave the project the go ahead on the basis that it would “sustain and enhance the city centre”.
Without it, Princes Street may well have been doomed, but with it comes a possible fresh start. Just think about that view. Retail works just about anywhere as places like Craigleith and Fort Kinnaird prove. However the grandeur of the magnificent south-facing vista from Princes Street suggests an alternative future. With a fresh, more flexible approach to planning and some proper joined up cooperation between planners and licensing officials, Princes Street could have amazing opportunities ahead as the best address for homes, restaurants and tourist attractions with residents and businesses relocating to take advantage of that.
It could be Scotland’s ultimate ‘street with a view’ but only if we embrace change and progress, work with operators with a proven track record in the city and accept what happened in the past doesn’t have to shape the future.