Last week saw the opening of parts of the St James Quarter in Edinburgh. Conceived a long time ago, and without any conception of the possibilities and impact of a global pandemic, the centre is in some ways of a different time and place. A long time in the making, it is however beginning to open now, starting with the retail and hospitality components. According to the website:
“St James Quarter is a new retail led, lifestyle district that fully integrates into and enhances Edinburgh’s City Centre providing an inspiring, attractive, and vibrant destination for locals and visitors to live, shop, eat, sleep and play. St James Quarter will house an enviable line up of restaurants, cafés, bars, shops, public spaces and leisure venues covering 1.7 million square feet. St James Quarter is set to become a welcoming cultural and lifestyle hub for art, culture and fashion that will complement the city’s world-renowned cultural offering and support its vibrant events calendar.”
When completed, with hotel, cinema and the rest of the various components, it will be a huge statement in the east end of the city core. Something of this size and scope is bound to have a range of impacts at various scales. It is these impacts that most journalists who contacted me around the opening were focused upon. (You can see how they used some of my comments in the media section of the blog).
St James Quarter is an asset for Edinburgh and whilst it will not be to the taste of everyone (and reading the website blurb above, it is not hard to understand why), it will be an attraction for businesses (new to Scotland retailers are present and coming) and for visitors and residents alike. The website blurb continues: “St James Quarter is a brand-new, exciting hub created and curated for the people of Scotland“. It is going to be interesting to see if the people of Scotland recognise what has been “curated” for them.
St James Quarter furthers the move of the centre of gravity eastwards within the city, which is one of the concerns some have. This is however simply the latest in a series of changes over history in the city and in the core itself (which has of course moved over time). There will be impacts – how could there not be for something of this scale? Whilst it is a replacement for the much un-loved St James Centre which had outlived its design life, there is additionality here. It is the response to this scale, breadth and newness that will be important.
Will there now be some scope for a more interesting, less corporate (even a non-curated) area in Edinburgh? One has to think that there is a market for interesting, organic places. Can Princes St be rethought as something more than a shopping street? It really isn’t just this and we need to get beyond seeing it in such a mono-functional way. There is so much more that Princes St can be at the heart of a city, not just a shopping experience. I would be confident that this is additional to the attractions of the city, but work will have to be done (and is underway) to enhance other areas and attractions.
The next few years will be instructive in terms of the success (or not) of St James Quarter. Opening in a pandemic, with reduced tourism and much lower commuting to work is a risk, but it will allow a transition as the city re-awakens. Quite how things will go will be something that all will be interested in.
But for now, Edinburgh has a new shiny attraction and no doubt many will want to explore it – virus permitting. Whether it is “curated” to suit the needs of residents and tourists and they will want to return regualry will be a major test.
At the heart of St James Quarter is the new revamped John Lewis store, replacing its very tired offering in the pre-existing centre. But, in other news it has been confirmed that John Lewis will pull out of Aberdeen and thus have no stores north of the Central Belt. I remain of the view that this is a short sighted decision – I get the issues with the particular Aberdeen store and scale, but to walk away from the entire North of Scotland may not be easily forgotten (or perhaps forgiven). Especially as they announced this at the same time as the businesses within Aberdeen City Centre showed more confidence in their own city and future by voting in the 5 year re-ballot to continue their award winning Business Improvement District (Aberdeen Inspired). There may be lessons here.