Edinburgh city centre – accelerated change, Roddy Smith

MY first day at work in my current role at the business improvement district, Essential Edinburgh, was March 1 2015. Eight years on, I don’t think anyone could have predicted the pace of change we have experienced in the city centre since, or indeed the imminent radical further progress we are about to embark upon.

Back in 2015, my daily walk along Princes Street, from the west end, took in the House of Fraser, Debenhams, Next, Zara, the Royal Overseas League, British Home Stores, Jenners and Top Shop. All of these were either staple high street department stores or Edinburgh icons, but all are now just part of the city’s history.

There has been a perfect storm of circumstances: a rise in online shopping, the need for open floor plans, the opening of a modern, mixed-use development at the St James Quarter (at the east end of Princes Street) and, of course, a global pandemic.

It is a cocktail of change that most city centres around the world have had to deal with, to varying degrees.

Arguably, however, this has been the best thing to happen for Edinburgh in many generations.

George Street has already evolved to meet changing needs, with a transfer from banking to hospitality, supported by high-end retail and offices.

For me, though, the metamorphosis in the city centre kick-started with the reconfiguration of St Andrew Square, including the opening of its gardens to the general public and the development of Multrees Walk and Harvey Nichols.

The redevelopment of the south side of the square, led by Standard Life, breathed life into it, with its top-end offices and quality restaurants. Meanwhile, the repurposing of the former banking HQs on the east side – to provide world-class hotels and hospitality – has been further progress, supported by office space being provided on both the west and north sides.

When a new concert hall and hotel developments are added to the mix, as they are right now, we have a de facto city centre, especially with it leading directly into Multrees Walk and the St James Quarter.

Of course, the burning question being asked by everyone – including heritage bodies and local residents – is what might the future hold for Princes Street?

Strategies, masterplans and debates have been around for years, but the simple answer lies in two aspects: market forces and the success of our city as a tourist destination.

And thank goodness we have created an attractive tourism / hospitality offering and have a thriving visitor economy – if not, we would be having a very different discussion!

The faith put in Princes Street by organisations such as Diageo, Legal & General, Hunter Real Estate, Red Carnation Hotels, Anders Povlsen, the Coal Pension Fund and others, is based on our visitor economy, reflecting the experience of St Andrew Square and the St James Quarter.

The city has a lot to be grateful for in its thriving and hopefully increasing tourist numbers; a fact we need to applaud and develop, not just exploit.

During the next few years, my hope is that a new, vibrant mixed-use Princes Street becomes a reality.

Top-quality hotels, more evening economy destinations and exciting retail, living side by side with office workers and residents.

Princes Street must fit into the rest of the city centre and compliment it.

It cannot now be seen as the ‘city centre’ but part of the city’s wider amenities.

We also need to invest soon in supporting the infrastructure on the street, whether that be cleaning, fixing the public realm or better facilities for visitors – maybe something the much-anticipated visitor levy will address?

Of course, there’s always an ‘elephant in the room’: Rose Street doesn’t fit neatly into debates about Princes Street or George Street.

It needs an identity, investment and attention from planners.

And to that end, we hope to announce next week an ideas competition for the street, beyond re-laying the pavement.

Answers soon on a postcard, we hope…

The plans for the redesign of George Street – to make it a broadly pedestrianised street – are indeed impressive, albeit we have been advocating throughout – as you might expect of a business improvement organisation – that the needs of businesses are at the forefront. To be successful, a city needs to be vibrant throughout the day and night, be easy to get to and from, and be of a quality to attract residents and visitors to it.

George Street changes with the time of year, the time of day and the weather and now is adapting to flexible working practices of office workers, as well as changes to the tenants of the street. It is evolving and will continue to evolve but the plans going forward must be flexible and reactive to changes. If we can’t get people easily to the street so they can enjoy what’s on offer, then we need to adapt.

City centre businesses are facing many challenges on top of the current trading conditions. On the horizon is a low-emissions zone for the city, which will regulate what type of vehicles can come into the centre. Change may be constant in life, but it can feel at times that we are faced with several pretty seismic changes all at once.

I am hugely excited and optimistic for the future of our much-loved city centre, and we are in a much better position than almost anywhere else in the UK. But let’s be realistic to say we are in for a difficult period as we move from the current to the future.

The more voices and opinions joining this debate can only be a positive.

Roddy Smith is chief executive officer at Essential Edinburgh

He is to be the third guest interviewee in a weekly series of webinars being hosted by placedesignscotland.com. He is taking questions on Wednesday, July 5, from midday. Soon enough, these webinars (and accompanying archive) will be exclusive to members – sign up here.

Picture credit: Place Design Scotland

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