Over the last couple of weekends I have been in Edinburgh and London, and for various reasons spent some time in arguably the two major off-centre shopping centres in each city – the Gyle in Edinburgh and Westfield Stratford in London.
Now London can not be compared really to Edinburgh – insert your own reasons and biases here – but the comparison between the two shopping centres was stark.
Westfield is new, built in part I suppose to be part of the regeneration Olympic Legacy. When we were there it was heaving with people, all shops taken and some interesting new entrants and experimentation going on. The unit size is quite distinctive in parts and retailers have responded by doing a few slightly different things. It looks and feels very new, which you’d expect as it is. It is really big, which can be off-putting, though it has its own app to guide you round if you get lost.
Crucially, it is also at the heart of a network of public transport involving rail, underground and bus.
Gyle on the other hand (and it was the same day of the week) was reasonably busy, but is now clearly showing its age (it was opened nineteen year ago last week). It has some bus links but is dependent on car traffic. You can though see the tram works clearly enough (though that is true of much of Edinburgh).
Most striking however was the level of vacancy in the centre. I counted eight empty units and it is beginning to give off a problematic air, especially when it is the not a huge mall by today’s standards. Maybe there’ll be Christmas pop-ups to fill in the gaps, as has happened in recent years.
We are not comparing like with like, whether in newness, connectivity, scale or market on which to draw. My comparison is clearly not a fair or reasonable one, but it does serve to pose some questions about the future of shopping centers in Scotland:
- Is newness the main difference here? And if so what does this mean for Edinburgh in terms of retail policy and future development?
- Is this difference a reflection instead of the London/Rest of the UK split? This is really visible in things like vacancy reports and retail sales data? Does this imply Scotland is going to have to put up with “lesser” quality retailing for some time?
- How critical is building in strong transport links to all our off-centre developments (and not just retailing)? Should this be a stronger condition of permission or redevelopment of sites, given the obvious benefits derived?
- How should or could the Gyle be renewed to perform a suitable function? Must this entail retail expansion here or should we be considering an alternative use and a new start elsewhere?
- More generally, as our shopping centres age what are we going to do about them, or are we willing to accept the blight we see across US cities on arterial roads?
Much, rightly, is being made at this time of the plight of the high street and the wider nature of the town centre, but we might spare a thought for the underperforming off-centre assets that places have. How might we re-use or re-energise these, rather than thinking about adding new build elsewhere to the problem? And this time, how might we make them more accessible to all?