The good news, I think, is that there are plans to save Union Street, or what nobody actually calls Granite Mile, or Aberdeen’s main thoroughfare. Someone involved in the rescue plans said it was the city’s beating heart, but I’ve always pictured it more like a spine, with George Street and Market Street as its long, outstretched arms. The spine used to be strong, but now it is weak. It’s in trouble.
The problem is obviously not unique. Aberdeen has fallen victim to the same change that has affected other cities: the fact that people used to shop with their feet, but now they shop with their fingers, on their iPads and mobile phones. To make matters worse, there are the self-inflicted wounds of the Bon Accord Center and Union Square, and longer term, the city faces the decline of the industry that used to pump oil and gas into the country’s pipelines and cash into the country City coffers pumped. Not for long.
As said, there are some plans to improve things. There’s a community-led group called Our Union Street that did a report a couple of weeks ago in which they suggest some ways the city’s main street could be improved. It was also announced this week that the group is funding a support package that means some new Union Street businesses will not have to pay rent or business fees for up to two years. That’s all good stuff.
The municipal council also brought in some ideas and some money. A grant program has been launched to help owners of vacant businesses pay for improvements to attract new tenants. There are also plans to fund the redevelopment of the section from Market Street to Bridge Street. The hope is to encourage landlords to do the same and invest.
But as positive as all of these ideas are, I worry that the plan to save Union Street has already failed. The report prepared by Our Union Street is perfectly fine and positive, but I find it extraordinary that it doesn’t talk about the street’s housing opportunities. The conversion of buildings into houses and apartments is also expressly excluded from the municipal subsidy scheme. It has to be business and that’s all.
I can understand why the city council still thinks like this: There is more money to be made in business (at least in the past). But I’m afraid city officials are missing the bigger point, which is that the way people shop has changed fundamentally in recent years and won’t change again. Union Street is a pretty street – the prettiest street in Scotland, in my opinion – but the idea that it might be bustling with shops again is something the seagulls love. You need buyers for that, and they won’t come back; They sit on their sofas and scroll, scroll.
Part of the solution might be encouraging a cafe culture, but the cold and rain will always be a problem. However, the other solution is to change our approach to Union Street (and other major streets) and look for housing opportunities. I lived down the street and it was great: I could walk everywhere, it was cheap compared to the suburbs, and if I felt like going to the pub, all I had to do was go downstairs (result!)
What Aberdeen might do now is turn to places like Melbourne, where an audit has been conducted that has identified more than 80 uninhabited or underutilized buildings suitable for conversion to housing. This is not only good for the environment (you don’t have to build so many new houses elsewhere), but it also accepts the new reality.
And the new reality is clear. We Aberdonians love Union Street, we really do. And we miss the stores that used to be there (notably Watt’s and Grant’s). But we are also aware that the old ways, or even a modern version of it, are no longer an option. Scotland’s greatest road needs to do things differently.