St James Quarter: Phase one complete

Edinburgh’s most ambitious retail destination opens its doors to the public

One the eve of its opening, despite still being filled with construction noise and 2,800-plus workers on site in hard hats putting ‘the finishing touches’, as the destination’s director of development Martin Perry puts it, Edinburgh’s St James Quarter has come a long way from the building site it was last time I was able to visit in August 2019– and is completely unrecognisable from the tired shopping centre I would visit regularly as a teenager.

Originally scheduled to launch last year, Nuveen Real Estate’s development situated at the busier end of Edinburgh’s most popular shopping street has finally opened its doors to the public. More than forty retailers are open for business, including brands such as Pull & Bear, Stradivarius and & Other Stories making their Scottish debut, and the genuinely-stunning new two-story Zara flagship.

From the wayfinding and the carefully selected tenant line up, to the vast underground car park, every single detail has been carefully thought out, tested rigorously, and even though it still has a few more phases to go before its final completion, the finished product is very clearly state of the art retail destination – pretty much what you would hope for a project carrying a one billion pound price tag.

The 1.7 million square foot scheme is more than 80 per cent pre let with only 13 vacant units, and the remaining brands are due to trickle into the centre in the months ahead which assistant-leasing director Ed Corrigan says “Will give reasons for shoppers to keep coming back”.

Among the most anticipated offerings is the Scottish food hall by Bonnie & Wild, which will consist of restaurant operators alongside fresh and packaged food and drink from a variety of artisan butchers, fishmongers, grocers, cheesemongers, chocolatiers and bakeries, and three unique bar concepts, all with a Scottish connection.

Another of the many unique tenants is Sook – a plug and play adaptive space for digital native brands to trial their offering in a bricks and mortar space. Brands can rent from as little as an hour to several months and can design their space from their living rooms, and Sook will get it ready for them.

It bears repeating that the Zara is, as Chris put it, global status or ‘the best Zara you can get’ – and he’s not exaggerating. The enormous façade and minimalist design make the 40,000 sq ft, two-storey flagship appears the height of retail design.

In addition to the retail and F&B aspects, the destination also houses a new Everyman cinema on level five, boutique bowling and competitive socialising operator Lane 7, serviced apartments, and residential units – 40 of which are already sold.

A state of the art destination

Walking through, it is obviously a very impressive scheme in terms of what it has achieved in the space it has taken on, being able to pack so much in without feeling over-crowded, and the glass ceiling giving an outdoor illusion: “You’d never know we had a roof,” points out Pyne.

Built on a hill, there are numerous entrances into the centre which allow you to go up or down a floor and come out still at street level. Due to its careful design, you can walk in off Princes Street, loop round past all your favourite retailers, and walk out on George Street, right back into the thick of it. Each level serves a different purpose. The lower ground level acts as a general high street, with a bank, a Boots, and some fast casual dining brands, with other levels dedicated to retail, F&B and leisure.

But it is in the many customer-serving details which really elevate the eight storey scheme. From the wall-to-wall LED-screen elevators showing over 3,000 different digital displays, to every single light being manually controlled and colour changing, to the colour-coded wayfinding in the car park, it is a triumph of customer experience.

Among the more visual attractions for the opening is an increasing rarity – a bright red phone box. A novel installation until on closer inspection you realise it is entirely made of Lego, provided by the new Lego store.

Due to Covid-19 restrictions, construction workers in Scotland were made to down tools for 8 months. Perry says this posed a significant issue as many construction workers moved south of the border to England where their line of work was permitted to continue, and there was difficulty coaxing them back. Once construction resumed, Track and Trace also caused delays, with whole teams being sent into quarantine and causing knock on hold-ups to the construction process.

Touring the destination on the eve of its official launch, it seemed incredible looking at all the work going on that so much of it would be done by morning, but Perry assures us that whilst it would be up to the wire, it would be finished in time. As the doors successfully opened the following day and shoppers flooded in, he proved right.

Plug and Play

Edinburgh is a city of events, from the globally popular Fringe festival to various film and art festivals taking place throughout the year. Whether or not the Fringe is allowed to take place, the St James Quarter is poised to give performers a home, with 9 built-in plug-and-play venues available, including St James Square which is like a mini-amphitheatre and can host up to 1,200 guests. Perry is confident that all venues will be booked out in coming years thanks to the baked in F&B offer readily available.

One of the centre’s greatest assets is its proximity to public transport links. It is on the doorstep of both Waverly train station and Edinburgh bus station, it sits on the main cycle route through the city, it is surrounded by tram and bus stops leading in all directions, and it is in walking distance of many of Edinburgh’s main attractions. It feels like it is built on top of the epicentre of the city’s transport links.

The destinations best kept secret is its 3-level basement car park, accommodating 1,650 cars, with colour coded and digitally intuitive wayfinding throughout, 250 electric vehicle charge points, and drive-in drive-out ANPR systems.

When it is not filled with cars, the car park also serves as one of the plug and play venues for event such as fashion shows, as well as the W Hotel’s underground night club.

The pièce de resistance for the scheme has to be the W Hotel, which beat out 35 competitors thanks to its unique spiralling bronze ribbon design which clinched the deal. The hotel group is making its Scottish debut right at the heart of the scheme, and is expected to open at the end of 2022.

The interior 5-star hotel is far from finished inside, but the sheer scale and scope of it is something to behold. On my last visit, Perry had been heralding the unrivalled panoramic view of the city the hotel could provide, and being allowed up a dubious looking elevator to the top level, this was not an exaggeration as the view was genuinely stunning and unobstructed in all directions.

On whether they are concerned about consumer hesitancy to come to such a large venue, or the fact that many retailers are yet to open their doors, Perry says that nothing about this project has been easy but that the people of Edinburgh have ‘a huge amount of goodwill’, and that this is, of course, a destination that is built to last, so there is little concern as to whether or not it is an overnight success.

Whilst there is likely to be a few casualties on Princes Street as big brand names migrate to their custom-built spaces in the St James Quarter, there is no doubt that the destination will play a big role in putting Edinburgh even more distinctly on the map.

This was first published in Retail Destination Fortnightly. Click here to subscribe.

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