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How Edinburgh's long-delayed trams could create a new shopping bonanza

It has been a long time coming, but the promise of Edinburgh's trams may be on the verge of being fulfilled, says  GORDON KING, partner at Baird Lumsden

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As the lines begin to snake along the capital's streets, it is clear that they will run at last.

There is no longer any threat of abandonment of the project and, though modified from the original vision, it will be completed.

It still remains to be seen, of course, how much of the original vision for the tram route is delivered. But it is now a reasonable bet that, as the high-tech, shiny and comfortable new trams start to glide quietly up Shandwick Place, at least some of the controversy generated by the construction will begin to fade into collective memory.

When the final piece of track is in place and Princes Street starts to return to some semblance of normality, the sheer convenience of regular, well run mass transit along the capital's main arteries will almost certainly alter public perceptions.

Look at Amsterdam, Vienna, or San Francisco, where trams are not only an integral part of the cities' infrastructure, but are also a part of the national heritage and a tourist attraction in their own right.

Or, closer to home, look at Manchester's Metrolink, which introduced a whole new concept in public transport in the form of the country's first modern street operating light rail system. It was embraced enthusiastically by Mancunians whose loyalty to it has helped transform the city centre and its position as a retail destination.

These cities have long since found out for themselves the upside of a tram system once the necessary disruption of the construction phase comes to a halt. They are:

·         Environmentally friendly, emitting no fumes and virtually silent.

·         Convenient, with level access for push-chairs, wheel chairs and disabled passengers.

·         Free of obstructions, making them fast, safe and effective.

·         Cheap to run, once the construction phase is over.

·         Adaptable, as battery technology improves.

One of the major issues affecting the retail sector in Edinburgh is parking and, though the capital's citizen's famously refused to accede to congestion charging, it is generally recognised that taking a car into the city centre is a fruitless exercise.

The presence of the trams may well transform the way people access the main shopping streets. If consumers can park at the outlying tram termini and whisk quickly into town (Ingliston is the only park and ride at the moment), the trams may achieve for congestion what the councillors' edicts could not.

As P T Barnum used to say: "Build it and they will come." This may well be the case with the tram system and if the crowds do begin to repopulate the city centre in 2014, the opportunities for retailers will be significant.

There are plenty of vacated premises along most of the main shopping highways which will be readily available. And the likelihood is that the streetscape will be radically altered - given the money that has already been spent, it would be surprising if the tramways were not made as attractive as possible.

This increase in amenity levels could allow some parts of Edinburgh to reinvent themselves, with the West End already seeing a shift away from office and retail space back to residential with the conversion of townhouses and developments such as the former Habitat building that will bring ground floor retail and apartments to Shandwick Place.

With less traffic noise, congestion and pollution - the original aim of the tram project, after all - there will be also be a chance for a cafe culture developing, with more streetside restaurants, bars and bistros.

It is obvious to all that the handling of the trams project has been something of a debacle. But it is close to being over and it is time to look to the future and to the eventual benefits it will bring to what is still one of the UK's most attractive cities.

The potential for a new Edinburgh shopping bonanza is there. All it needs is for retailers and developers to think along the right lines.

 

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