From Retail to Resorts and Residences: How to Save Princes Street Before it is Too Late
Long before the giant retail palace named Jenners closed its mighty and ornate gates, I once briefly glanced out from their second floor through a rare sliver of window and cherished the unparalleled view of Princes Street Gardens and Edinburgh Castle. I then looked around at the flourescent grey lighting in the claustrophobic sales room and thought, why are we not allowed to enjoy this magnificent and rare view?
Edinburgh is one of the few cities in the entire world that has an uninterrupted view of a UNESCO designated World Heritage city from the vantage point of a commercial district. However, depite this advantage, our view is actually prohibited by the retail design we have developed upon our main shopping street.
This was no accident. To produce the most profitable visual merchandising retailers seek to focus the customers attention solely upon the products they wish to sell. They do not wish to have any distractions. I learned this lesson the hard way when I was a young street performer and wandered into a jewelry shop where a woman was looking at wedding rings. I tried to amuse her and the manager quickly and firmly escorted me out the front door and said “Never, ever, distract a woman who is looking at diamonds!”
The new Edinburgh St James Quarter has established a new precedent in visual merchandising, however, they have also embraced the beauty of our city through their large expanse of glass windows and uniquely magnificent canopy. Customers have plenty to look at within this new temple of capitalism and when they need a break they need only turn their eyes to one of the many windows to enjoy some of our rare sunshine and our always ever present beautiful historic views.
Therefore, what shall become of Princes Street in the future? One clue is the legislation that our early city fathers and mothers enshrined in law to insure that nothing could be constructed upon the southern side of Princes Street. The only notable exception to this is the stately St John’s Church at Shandwick Place. This exception was granted because, according to local legend, some of the city councillors were actually also elders of this church and they decided to answer to an even higher power than the citizens who elected them.
This breathtakingly uninterrupted view provides many possibilities for future commercial development. Each of these plans must first and foremost exploit the view from the north side of Princes Street. Future businesses such as restaurants, cafes, hotels, and attractions could find a natural home in this location. In addition, a mixed use development such as that being planned for Jenners could offer highly desirable residential properties for sale. These residential properties must in my opinion also ring fence an appropriate number of residences for senior sheltered housing to provide convenient and low cost accommodation for the thousands of folk now on a waiting list in our city.
The last time that I visited Walt Disney World in Orlando, Florida I looked around as I did in Jenners and asked, “How long can this last?” The cost of constant reinvestment in new rides, structures and theming, personnel and major capital investment seem to be to be prohibitive in terms of generating sufficient future profits for the parent corporation. I suggested to a close friend associated with Disney that perhaps one day there would be more residential accomodation and restaurants on the property and fewer rides and attractions. To my surprise, Disney continued for many years to invest in retail shop development and now you can hardly move without being attacked by a retail sales assistant peddling their branded wares. However, as a result of the global pandemic and declining attendance at their parks, I wonder if their senior executives are now reimagining the parks to offer more residential accomodation and hospitality with a vew to generate greater future profits in the future?
This is one of the many challenges for Princes Street. How do we as citizens insure through proper planning that this scarce commodity of space is used in the best way to benefit us today and also for future generations. This is why I believe that the mixed use approach of a wide range of accomodation, hotels, restaurants and cafes colourfully theming Princes Street shall not only provide a welcome view for future punters but also for the citizens of Edinburgh. One thing is absolutely certain, a new view is needed and now is the time to begin to widen our present view to embrace every logical possibility.
Professor Joe Goldblatt is Emeritus Professor of Queen Margaret University and to learn more about his views about the City of Edinburgh visit www.joegoldblatt.scot