Union Street, Aberdeen – Occupier Update (15th Feb 2021)

March 8, 2021

Even during a global pandemic with our lives turned upside down time still seems to pass quickly. That was my thought as I carried out our 6 monthly occupier review of Union Street. Once again starting the journey from home rather than the office but hopefully there is light at the end of the tunnel on that front. Businesses are more than capable of getting staff back into their offices and operating responsibly and safely.

I hope many find our survey of some interest, over time the data will be useful in broadly measuring the health of our most famous thoroughfare. This time round however I did anticipate that there would be little change given lockdown and the limbo that businesses are living in, planning at the moment for most is about how to survive, batten down the hatches rather than how can we expand and which towns should we target.

Property vacancies may have been avoided because of specific assistance available to tenants / occupiers including rates relief, tenants negotiating rent holidays with their landlords and the irritancy protection brought in as part of the Coronavirus legislation. The worrying aspect is that all these are temporary, including any flexibility that landlords might have – they have also faced a torrid time of it.

In any event the facts are that as at 15 February 2021 there were 41 vacant units on Union Street, representing 22% of the total up from 35 units in August 2020. There were 12 voids on the north and 29 on the South side. There are circa 20 units more on the South side due to the presence of Gilcomston Church, the Music Hall and St Nicholas Kirk on the North side.  

New voids on the North side include units previously occupied by All Saints, Ramsdens and Currency Exchange whilst on the South side occupiers including Virgin Money, Mostyn McKenzie, Ponden Home, First Group & Dr Martens have moved on.  

One must assume that the pandemic has caused delays to the fitting out of units let to Tesco Express and Poundland. I am pleased to report that Tesco are now open and Poundland will not be far behind.

There are a total of 188 lettable units on Union Street and since February 2020 voids have increased from 33 to 41. Whilst we are all hoping for a very positive bounce post lockdown the longer term challenges facing the retail sector may see this trend continue.

I was reviewing the Aberdeen (City Centre masterplan and delivery programme) June 2015 – the 7 Intervention Areas with the exception of North Dee / Torry Waterfront are focussed around Union Street.

The revitalisation of Union Terrace Gardens is well underway, hopefully this is the catalyst to regeneration on Union Street and the remainder of the Denburn Valley. Work has progressed on other Areas of Intervention including Queens Square but urgent action is required in relation to the Area of Intervention titled Union Street West where the high level of vacancies is proving a stubborn problem, especially on the South side.  From the West End to the Music Hall requires specific attention, a dedicated team focussed on West Union Street and the surrounding arteries. Focussing only on the area historically earmarked for pedestrianisation between Bridge Street and Market Street is not the answer. The locations require different solutions; this is recognised by the Masterplan by having separate intervention areas. As always financial constraints will limit project progress – investment in people to run these projects would give an excellent return but that view does not seem to be widely held in the public sector.

Our City Centre BID (Business Improvement District), Aberdeen Inspired has its renewal ballot shortly. This seems unfortunate timing for such an important event, with levy payers going through lockdowns and some fighting for survival. The ballot should have been postponed for a year from its scheduled date of March 2021 rather than the several months permitted by Scottish Government. The role of Aberdeen Inspired has never been more important as we hopefully return to some sort of normality, the organisation that brought us Nuart, the Comedy and Restaurant festivals and delivers our Winter Festival in conjunction with the City Council is a key player in ensuring that the City Centre is a place people want to shop, live, work and visit. Its record in attracting funds way beyond that raised from the levy is excellent and its potential has still to be fully developed. Levy payers should look beyond the immediate challenges and support its next term.

We are beginning to see properties being purchased by developers for change of use from offices to residential on Union Street and adjoining streets. This is a positive and important step and should be encouraged in any way possible, particularly in the circumstance where an older property being refurbished might not entirely meet the letter of the current building standards. Getting more people living in the City Centre has always been an aspiration. As office requirements change opportunities will arise to create attractive apartments, improving the adjacent public realm will however be needed, more trees, pocket parks and more innovative solutions for dealing with waste disposal.

Working from home has lost any attraction it might have held for the majority. Workers will return to their offices as soon as they can and that will encourage activity in the City Centre. The Bank of England predict a public keen to spend savings that have accumulated during the last year, let us hope a significant amount of that cash is parted with in our retail, food and beverage and leisure activities to be found along and adjacent to our Granite Mile.

Next Update August 2021.

Richard J Noble E: richard.noble@fgburnett.co.uk

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