Union Street: Empty stores on the rise in Aberdeen city centre

Almost a fifth of prime retail space in what was once Aberdeen’s flagship shopping street is now empty.

Union Street runs through the heart of the Granite City and was once its main retail hub.

It has about 190 street level business spaces. In 2017, BBC Scotland research identified that 24 were not in use or were closing down.

That fell to 17 the following year – but a fresh study has found that the figure now stands at 36.

Like many other high streets in Scotland, shops are closing and units are lying empty.

Union Street already faced stiff competition from the nearby Union Square complex, which opened in 2009 and is home to big-name shops, restaurants, and a cinema.

Now the coronavirus pandemic has added to the challenges.

Last week, new research suggested deserted High Streets and home working were stifling the job market’s recovery.

The Centre for Cities (CfC) think tank said Aberdeen had recorded the steepest fall in job vacancies in the UK. At the beginning of October, they were 75% down on the same time last year.

On Thursday, city leaders sounded warnings about the potential impact of latest Covid curbs on jobs and businesses in Aberdeen. They are urging ministers to place Aberdeen in level one, rather than two of the new restrictions.

In both 2017 and 2018, BBC Scotland counted the number of stores along the length of Union Street which were either empty or closing down.

When we repeated the exercise this year, the number had risen to 36 of the 190 which are available.

More than 30 of the premises which are open are occupied by restaurants, coffee shops and bars – with some now offering outdoor space.

There are also a total of 19 bookmakers, charity shops and vaping outlets.

Lorenzo Maraviglia works at Union Cafe and Bistro, at the Castlegate end of Union Street.

He said despite closing from 18:00 each day, they were managing to survive with both sit-in trade and takeaways.

He said: “I hope for the future that the whole street will get busier.

“The road itself is empty, no matter what the weather. Our end especially is not that busy, the amount of people is much reduced.

“Right now for us it’s not that bad. We are starting to get back some students which is great for us, a good asset, and people for a quick lunch or early dinner.”

But he said the future was “a very big question mark”.

“We are trying to figure out the next move,” he added.

Aberdeen City Council co-leader Douglas Lumsden said the fortunes of Union Street had not been helped by the pandemic.

He said it was a “worrying time” and the focus was trying to ensure more businesses did not go under.

“We need to get more people living and working in the city,” he said.

“Of course anything we are trying to do is difficult in this current situation.

“It (Union Street) is not going to be back to the levels it once was.

“People are shopping online more, people have changed their habits. And the pandemic has sped up the changes in retail.

“It’s going to be difficult over the next six months.”

‘A positive voice’
Adrian Watson, chief executive of business-led initiative Aberdeen Inspired, said: “I think we all understand for some time now the scale of the challenge to our high streets up and down the country and beyond, with Union Street no different.

“Covid-19 has only served to accelerate this, with the current vacancy rates a symptom of where we are.

“Aberdeen Inspired continues to support our businesses on the ground with a range of initiatives to get us through these challenging times and continues to be a positive voice for this great city centre.”

He added: “We can reassure the city and wider north east public that we still have a very strong retail and hospitality offering in place.”

Aberdeen City Council, Aberdeen Inspired and Historic Environment Scotland have funded the £2.4m Union Street Conservation Area Regeneration Scheme to restore and enhance buildings, and encourage new businesses into empty commercial spaces.

Since it was launched in 2017, a total of £289,000 has been spent on projects. A further £206,000 of grants have been awarded, and contracts for a further £500,000 are currently being drawn up.

A further 30 projects are at various stages of development, ranging from replacement windows to the repair and refurbishment of complete buildings.

The five-year scheme has been extended until 2023 due to the impact of Covid-19.