The wait is over. After more than half a decade of construction, Edinburgh’s St James Quarter opened Phase I to the public for the first time last week.
The Scottish capital’s largest development opened its four-storey shopping district, bringing a much needed boost to the city centre as Covid-19 restrictions ease.
Located at the east end of Princes Street, the £1 billion St James Quarter replaced the 1960s St James Centre and the New St Andrews House office block. The 850,000sq ft shopping gallery boasts a glass roof, Edinburgh’s first Lego shop, independent restaurants, and Scotland’s first W Hotel – which is set to open at the end of next year.
Harrods is due to open a beauty store there in the next few weeks, and a further 40 shops will open over the coming weeks. Meanwhile, the centre’s hospitality and residential elements are set to open over three phases through to 2022.
St James Quarter development director Martin Perry told Retail Gazette that the centre opens amid Level Two in Scotland, which meant that Covid-19 restrictions such as social distancing and mask-wearing are currently in place.
“Normally, we’d open the scheme with a big fanfare, a ribbon cutting meeting, and a firework display to attract crowds – that’s exactly what we weren’t allowed to do,” Perry said.
“Watching customer reaction is going to be interesting.”
According to Perry, St James Quarter opened 75 per cent of shops on its first day of opening last week, which coincided with the first day of Scottish school holidays.
Due to Covid-19 restrictions, retailers at the centre have struggled to recruit workers. In addition, some shops were still waiting for a shop front and had “coming soon” signs at the door.
Despite this, Perry was upbeat. He told Retail Gazette that he expected the centre to have just six per cent vacancy rate in the run-up to Christmas this year, compared to the current 20 per cent vacancy rate. He said at least 90 per cent of St James Quarter’s units will be let by the year’s end.
“As a result of Covid-19, the Scottish Government – unlike the English Government – shut down construction entirely,” he said.
“Many of our construction workers disappeared and went on to work in England. So when we restarted work, it was an enormously difficult job trying to reassemble the whole construction team again.
“We lost one retailer that was signed up because of financial difficulties after it went into administration.
“We then decided that we’re not going to take in any new stores until everything was reopened, which meant that you just basically chopped off a bunch off your target list.”
Local Data Company recently predicted that up to 70 shopping centres out of 700 across the UK could be forced to close due to the effects of the pandemic, but Perry remains confident that St James Quarter would draw footfall.
“The whole development is designed to help boost the city,” he said.
“If you look around the country, there’s an awful lot of shopping schemes that are well past their sell-by date,” he said.
“We are confident that global investors will acknowledge our immensely complicated site.
“We offer everything they are looking for, such as strong tourism, wealthy local catchment, well-educated industries and good sustainable travelling.
“What we did was that we sifted down to 35 locations in the whole of Europe that we were prepared to invest heavily into. One of those was Edinburgh.
“The site is slap bang in the middle of the city with tram links and the main train and bus stations literally 30 seconds from your door.
“We want to be a central part of a thriving industry, not the sole example of good practice.
“We need to reform business rates, apply fair online taxes, rethink our retail mixes and work together with the public sector to rejuvenate high streets and town centres up and down the UK.”
Perry said his team went about to develop “more than just a shopping centre”.
“We went to a whole bunch of focus groups to present the project, and they thought we were just building a shopping centre,” he reflected.
“The fundamental difference is that St James Quarter is not a shopping centre but a mixed-use environment that is socially, culturally and physically integrated into the city and where the retail element is only a part of the overall attraction.
“There have been shopping centres that have added other uses peripheral to the retail offer, but our project sets out to create a piece of the city with uses that work together to enhance the whole to a far greater degree than they can achieve individually.
“We call it St James Quarter estate for a reason – it’s a quarter of the city. We’re not a shopping centre. We have a hotel, offices, a leisure operation. Our focus groups didn’t realise all that.
“My responsibility is to ensure St James Quarter delivers true long-term, social and economic investment into the city.”