Union Street, Aberdeen – Occupier Update (9th Aug 2020)

August 13, 2020

Back in February I carried out a survey of Union Street’s commercial units; how may vacancies there were amongst the 188 total on its North & South sides. It’s fair to say that everyone’s world has changed since February. I carried out the 6 monthly survey again yesterday.

Union Street had changed hugely given the physical distancing measures that have been put in place but there have been relatively few changes in occupational terms. Note that the survey reflects the situation as at a specific date even although there will, as always, be deals in the pipeline.

The number of voids has gone up from 33 to 35, that’s 16.6% of the total. Over the past six months there have been a number of movements. Departures include Molton Brown, Three, Ladbrokes, RS McColl & Greggs.

It is a pity to see Molton Brown leave the City, relying on online transactions and the availability of their product at John Lewis. Three have closed their Union Street store relying on their St Nicholas Centre branch where they have recently renewed their lease.  An example of retailers seeing Aberdeen as a single unit City. This trend will continue.   

It is disappointing to see the Greggs towards the West End of Union Street close after a relatively short period, they had no doubt anticipated higher footfall including from the office workers of the West End and Capitol / The Silver Fin office occupiers. Greggs have had mixed experience in Aberdeen, also coming out of their Schoolhill unit a number of years back.

The closure of the Ladbrokes within the “YMCA” block adds to them leaving one of their West End branches together with William Hill and Betfred. This trend is likely to continue in the industry given growth in online betting and Government Legislation regarding in store fixed odds betting terminals.

On a positive note (in terms of unit occupation) Taco Bell are fitting out the former Clarks footwear. Aberdeen City Council have shown the required flexibility there in terms of planning change of use, flexibility that will be required in spades going forward.

Horizon Direct Holidays have taken a small unit in a block that is under pressure given that the former Betfred and Hydro units are still seeking occupiers. There are a number of pipeline deals including those involving Tesco and Poundland. Those will see a couple of meaningful voids go.

Some blocks continue to hold up very well, at least in terms of the level of occupation. This is the case from the very West end on the North side right down to Huntly Street. The same cannot be said for the South side at the West end with multiple voids between the Tesco Express at Holburn Junction and Bon Accord Terrace. These couple of blocks would benefit from a specific study to unearth all that is going on and what solutions might be. Challenges include current high rateable values, vacant units still on long leases at high rents, costs of fitting out, multiple ownership preventing redevelopment and property condition in general. As an agent this is an area we thought would look after itself following the arrival of the impressive Capitol & The Silver Fin office developments.

We take enquiries every day for the shops we are marketing on Union Street and we will continue to see a few lettings complete. This will unfortunately be against a tide of more retailers / service providers leaving. To stem that tide there needs to be some game changing action throughout the entire area as a place people want to spend time. That means a completely different quality of public realm, a modest part of that will be delivered by the regeneration of Union Terrace Gardens. That must only be seen as a beginning. The presence of domestic and commercial bins requires to be much more discreet throughout the City Centre and sensibly sized pocket parks require to be introduced wherever possible. An aspect that has frustrated many over the years has been the specific location, quantity and design of bus stops on our main thoroughfare. Bus stops dominate already narrow pavements on many parts of Union Street, there is very little distance between them and shopfronts. This creates a negative claustrophobic effect in certain spots. Their presence has been a deal breaker in the past.

The essential temporary social distancing measures we see on Union Street right now illustrate the size of the challenge ahead if the environment is to be transformed. A few trips to the local garden centre won’t cut it and a proper solution for the relationship between cyclists and pedestrians will be needed – there were a couple of close shaves yesterday and that was within the fully pedestrianised section! 

What is appreciated in relation to the extent of the public realm challenges is the significant public funding required. Given the widely held view of the importance of our city centre such funding needs to be secured.

The next snapshot in February 2021 will come round soon enough. I sincerely hope the survey trip will start from my office in Albyn Place as opposed to deepest suburbia. The novelty of home working has worn off for this particular surveyor.

Richard Noble

E: richard.noble@fgburnett.co.uk      

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