Stephen Jardine: ‘An alternative future for Princes Street’

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.

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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?

Royal overseas league club, Princes Street has closed down. Picture: Lisa Ferguson

Princes Street now faces the biggest challenge in the 50 years since those demolition days. 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. The city can fight to keep retail on Princes Street, but that probably means a battle to the bottom. But there is a glimmer of hope for Scotland’s best-known street and it comes in the shape of the forthcoming £150m Johnnie Walker Whisky Experience in the old House of Fraser building at the West End.

Without it, Princes Street may well have been doomed, but with it comes a possible fresh start. The grandeur of the magnificent south-facing vista from Princes Street suggests an alternative future. With a fresh, more flexible approach to planning ... 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.