How Princes Street can step up its transformation

Murray Stewart

By Murray Stewart, partner and head of real estate at Gilson Gray

THE new St James Quarter in Edinburgh is grabbing the headlines as high-end retailers and eateries sign-up. It’s clear that the St James’ proximity to Multrees Walk, St Andrew Square and George Street – already a magnet for upmarket shops and restaurants –  feels like a natural extension for shoppers and tourists too, when they return.

But where does that leave Princes Street?  If it cannot compete with the new kids on the retail block, then how can it carve out a role in Edinburgh’s city centre offering?

The City of Edinburgh Council has a coherent and welcome vision to transform the capital’s streetscapes and in particular the city centre retail core. The direction of travel can be seen in the Supplementary Guidance issued under the current Local Development Plan, the Edinburgh City Centre Transformation Strategy (ECCT) and, most recently, plans for the future of George Street and the First New Town.

I expect this will continue with the proposed Local Development Plan – City Plan 2030. But I am concerned focus has shifted from Princes Street, and an opportunity for a council-led revitalisation is missed whilst George Street assumes preferred status. The emerging City Plan 2030 may provide further direction.

The question is whether the wheels are turning fast enough to prevent developers and landlords from submitting planning applications for Princes Street that do not lend themselves to that vision of transformation. And that’s a worry, because it was market forces, and the debilitating effect on retail of the Edinburgh Trams fiasco, that led to Princes Street losing its retail crown in the first place.

But I do believe that there is a promising future for this famous mile, and it doesn’t involve the so-called ‘Big Box’ retailers such as large department stores and anchor tenants.    

For me, much of Princes Street should focus on smaller-format retail, eating and experiential outlets where the emphasis is on style and sustainability. This would perfectly complement the West End opening of the substantial Johnnie Walker visitor centre and the anticipated reinvention of Jenners on the corner of South St David Street.

By creating welcoming havens to relax with friends and family, the area could become an attractive destination too. And it has something that the St James retailers and most of George Street does not – unparalleled views of Edinburgh Castle.

The views plus the south-facing aspect have never been properly harnessed to create an appealing continental style café culture place-to-be.

Princes Street gets more sun than George Street so for me, that has to be factored into the plans.

But it’s upstairs at Princes Street where I believe the most interesting opportunities lie. Right now, many of the upper floors are forlorn and under-utilised. Access is often only via internal stairs or escalators. This has happened gradually because the retail playbook dictates large, wall-to-wall panes of glass attract more footfall for retailer and higher rents for investment landlords. As a result, almost all the external staircases have been removed – largely cutting off these upper floors.

And that’s a great pity and a missed opportunity because, with the right checks and balances in place, the upper floors of Princes Street present huge development potential.

I’m thinking experiential outlets such as high-end spas or boutique hotels and restaurants. Anyone who ever dined at the much-loved Oloroso or Chaoprahya, enjoyed a cocktail at Juniper or watched the fireworks from an upstairs window will realise the potential of capitalising on these stunning views.

Another option for these upper floors is conversion to high quality Grade A offices. As the UK’s second global financial centre, Edinburgh continues to experience strong demand for quality business space — even in these post-pandemic times.

A Princes Street address and castle views would command huge interest and drive competition if occupiers can compete with the hospitality sector for such sought after space.

This approach would, I believe, ensure that Princes Street has a distinct identity – perhaps even its own brand – which complements rather than competes with the St James and George Street, particularly if the plans to pedestrianise the latter come to fruition.

The result would be increased footfall and dwell time in Princes Street and which, collectively, would help to deliver the ambitions for the city centre. It’s time to bring the staircases — and the people — back.