Iain Mercer: City centre looks to future

Trams at haymarket junction. Picture: TSPL
Trams at haymarket junction. Picture: TSPL
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THE commercial heart of Edinburgh has managed to throw off its tram travail remarkably quickly. Apart from getting to and from the airport, Shandwick Place is unlikely to feature prominently on any tourist map of Edinburgh but it certainly matters to a lot of locals.

For several thousand office workers it is a place to pick up a sandwich, meet for lunch, shop for groceries and, at the end of the day, catch a bus to head home or hang around for a winding-down drink.

Yet barely a year ago it may have been more aptly named Ghost Place, made all the more eerie by the sound of mechanical screeching as tram lines were installed – for a second time after a botched first job. All the through traffic had been diverted elsewhere and a huge chunk of the pedestrian footfall, encumbered as it was by workmen’s barriers, was lost.

Nowadays, Shandwick Place paints an entirely different picture. The number of “to let” boards has more than halved and it is again full of people going about their everyday business and, best of all for retailers, spending money. The latest entrant is Burger which is looking to replicate its successful outlet at Fountainbridge.

Most encouraging of all is the feeling that Shandwick Place has become a metaphor for Edinburgh city centre which seems to be emerging, phoenix-like, from the recession and the municipally self-inflicted pain of the tram works. Demand for two of the three commercial factors which drive a central area, business and leisure space, are on the up while the third, retail, is performing much better than in many other cities.

At last Edinburgh seems to be learning the lesson that a successful city – no matter how historic – cannot stand still.

The local property industry will have been encouraged by the recent decision of councillors to overturn a recommendation from their own planners not to grant permission for an HBOS bank and restaurant above to replace the former GAP store on Princes Street west on the basis that the area was zoned for conventional retail.

Meanwhile, as regards business space, a huge peripheral business park relatively close to the airport might have killed or seriously debilitated the centres of some cities but in the capital, the central business district and Edinburgh Park seem to have co-existed remarkably well.

Earlier this year, the broadcaster Evan Davies presented a two-part series on BBC Television called Mind The Gap – a metaphor inspired by passenger experience of the London Underground – to highlight the massive, and growing, difference in business investment existing between the UK capital and the rest of the country.

Perhaps the time has come for a second programme looking, in the same vein, at Edinburgh and the rest of Scotland (or most of the rest if one excludes the special case that is Aberdeen). «

• Iain Mercer is managing director of property consultancy Elm Edinburgh