AS an army of construction workers prepares Edinburgh’s gleaming St James Quarter retail complex to welcome shoppers next week some residents may fear it could become a white elephant or just a playground for the rich.

The first phase of the centre at the east end of Edinburgh’s famed Princes Street is due to open on June 24, in an event that has been awaited for years.

The centre will include shops, leisure facilities and apartments when complete. It replaces a brutalist concrete assemblage that housed shops, offices and a multi-story car park and which was loathed by many. The St James Centre as it was looked like a classic case of architects designing buildings to please other architects.

After more than five years of huge disruption amid the demolition of the old centre and work on the new quarter there will be some sighs of relief among locals.

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Those who have spent years walking past the site will be curious to have a look inside what the publicists claim will be “a new retail led, lifestyle district”. They claim that this “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”.

June 24 will see the opening of the sweeping retail ‘Galleria’ which it is said will link Edinburgh’s shopping districts and form part of a new pedestrian route to Leith.

Hotels, apartments and an Everyman Cinema are to follow in coming months.

Amid indications that the Galleria is some way from being fully let, there will be fear that so much has changed since work started on the new centre in 2016 that the prospects for the retail element are not great.

The big development that retailers in the centre will have to contend with is the rise of internet retailing, which has put huge pressure on bricks and mortar operations.

This has of course been accelerated as a result of the pandemic, which posed huge logistical challenges for the firms working on the construction of the centre. It was originally expected to open in 2020.

HeraldScotland: The roof of the new W Hotel rises above the St James Quarter in Edinburgh Picture: St James QuarterThe roof of the new W Hotel rises above the St James Quarter in Edinburgh Picture: St James Quarter

Concern about the spread of the Delta variant of the coronavirus could make lots of people wary about visiting shopping centres, however well ventilated they may appear to be. There remains great uncertainty about when restrictions on bars and the like will be lifted.

Given the challenges the investors leading work on the St James Quarter have had to contend with some may think they have done well to get where they are. The quarter’s website lists 33 retailers and leisure operators that are opening outlets this summer, ranging from beauty and fashion businesses to the Lane7 bowling operation.

The names of some firms that have signed up have not been added to the website, including Bross Bagels. It is understood that four more brands could be added to the list of tenants as soon as today.

Noting that some firms have signed up for more than one unit, a spokesperson from St James Quarter said yesterday: “Covid restrictions have severely impacted work on site however, at this current stage, we anticipate to open 43 frontages on 24th June - with a further 26 opening by the end of the year. “

A range of retailers have chosen the St James Quarter to be the location of their first Scottish stores. These include the Pull & Bear, Bershka and Stradivarius fashion businesses.

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The decision to open in the St James Quarter provides a vote of confidence in Scotland and in the prospects for bricks and mortar retailers.

The quarter will also include the Bonnie & Wild marketplace, which will feature food stalls operated by independents, bars and a private dining area. This is billed as Edinburgh’s first ‘Food Hall’, presumably to differentiate it from the grim food ‘courts’ that shoppers have been making the most of for years. The one in the old St James Centre was especially bleak.

However, as the Galleria includes 80 units it seems other new signings will be required to make the centre feel full. The spokesperson noted that it is 81 per cent let in terms of internal area, in line with expectations set two years ago.

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The operations that open this summer can expect to benefit from that fact that many consumers have accumulated savings amid lockdowns and will be keen to indulge themselves.

But that may have only a temporary effect. It could be more than offset by the increase in unemployment which is likely when the Government- supported furlough programme ends in September.

It could be that some of the stores that open in the St James Quarter don’t last long.

Some may fear that any success the quarter enjoys would result in at least some investment and valuable trade being taken from other parts of Edinburgh, posing fresh challenges for shopping destinations such as Princes Street.

There may also be concerns about the upmarket focus of some of the retailers in the St James Quarter.

The fact the quarter will house 152 apartments described as ‘premium’ and a W Hotel, with a walnut-whip shaped roof, could increase the risk it becomes a place primarily for the international elite. On the website of the W Hotels operation the business claims to be redefining revelry for the modern jet set.