David Alexander comment: People power can save Glasgow’s shopping core

At the end of the last century Glasgow had a highly successful prime retail core, but out-of-town shopping centres and online retail changed that, says Alexander. Picture: Contributed
At the end of the last century Glasgow had a highly successful prime retail core, but out-of-town shopping centres and online retail changed that, says Alexander. Picture: Contributed
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Last week this column focused on the survival of Edinburgh’s world-famous Princes Street as a major shopping thoroughfare given an expected eastward drift of the capital’s retail property core following the opening of the St James Quarter, scheduled for October 2020.

However, big questions are also facing Glasgow which, despite being outstripped by Edinburgh in terms of economic growth in the past 20 years, remains Scotland’s largest retail centre. Glasgow also boasts that it gives “the best shopping experience in the UK outside London”, although I can recall Manchester and Birmingham making similar claims.

At the end of the last century, Glasgow had a highly successful prime retail core, almost in the shape of a “Z”. Anchored at each ends by strong covenants, Dunne’s Stores and the largest city centre Marks & Spencer branch in Britain, it comprised Sauchiehall Street, Buchanan Street and Argyle Street, with two major indoor centres – Buchanan Galleries and St Enoch – in between. At the time, conventional retailing was buoyant – as were the rents to landlords – and the city centre seemed able to co-exist with competition from shopping and leisure centre Braehead.

But two more edge-of-town centres followed Braehead – Glasgow Fort (initially 390,000 sq ft, latterly extended to 506,000 sq ft) and Silverburn (1.5 million sq ft).Online shopping then changed from a market in “difficult to source” items to an outlet for any product under the sun and the rest, as they say, is history.

Consequently, with the demise of Sauchiehall Street, Glasgow’s retail core is now looking less like a “Z” and more like an “L”; should in-store retailing continue its downward trend and infect retailer confidence in Argyle Street then the core will inevitably be condensed into an “I”, in other words just Buchanan Street anchored by the Galleries and St Enoch at each end.

Sauchiehall Street is a particularly sad example of a once prominent thoroughfare now looking down at heel, although in this case the rot had set in some time before competition from the internet. The situation has not been helped by two major fires last year, one of which destroyed the Glasgow School of Art. This has led to a proposal to demolish the adjacent O2 music venue (the listed former Regal cinema) which will hardly help the still buoyant night-time economy at the Charing Cross end of the street.

Yet sufficient architectural gems survive, among them the façade of the former Gaumont cinema, the Reid & Todd building, CR Mackintosh’s Willow Tea Rooms and the MacLellan Galleries. Not forgetting one of professional interest to this residential agent – the Beresford Building (once a hotel, now flats), whose art deco appearance brought a touch of Los Angeles to Glasgow when it opened in 1938. Even today it’s possible to imagine a Fedora-wearing Humphrey Bogart stepping out from the foyer.

This suggests that if Sauchiehall Street is to have any significant retail future it will involve boutique-type outlets rather than major retailers. Inevitably, this will have an adverse effect on property values and rents – but is that not what ‘s happening all over?

To its credit, Glasgow City Council seems committed to trying to reverse the situation through the £115 million “Avenues” project funded as part of the Glasgow City Region deal. Working with private sector engineers, architects and surveyors, this involves making aesthetic improvements to street infrastructure, giving more priority to pedestrians and better accommodating public transport (although let’s hope the spending power of motorists is not alienated as a result).

Once implemented, Glasgow city centre should be a more attractive and healthier environment for retail and leisure. Ultimate success will, however, depend on whether the public curbs its seemingly unquenchable desire to shop online. For our city centres to survive, all of us really need to get out more.

- David Alexander is MD of DJ Alexander