Jan 142011

By Bob Smith.

Noo listen here  aa ye citizens
Chynges ye maun embrace
Tis the cry o some developers
Union Street’ll recover it’s grace

Knights ridin’ ti the rescue
O oor eence bonnie toon
Their armour’s a bittie tarnished
Their motto is “Knock it doon”

Us billies ken fit should be deen
Is fit wer aywis hearin’
Mair o the same bliddy mess
Is fit gweed fowk are fearin’

Let’s aa think aboot their crack
“Oor plans will gie ye a boost”
Bit  I’m feart it’s mair than likely
Gless an concrete will rule the roost

The toon’s already bein’ run
Bi chiels in pin strippit suit
The cooncil hisna got a clue
As the suits pick up the loot

“Ye’ll aa be better aff” they purr
If ye let us hae  oor wye
Better ti trust Auld Nick himsel’
Than some faa are richt fly

Union Street’s fair doon trodden
An lookin’ like some auld crone
Caused by the lack o foresicht
An shops fit lower the tone

Lit the developers hae their wye
They wid seen ging ower the score
Instead o lookin like some auld hag
She micht turn oot a flashy whore

Gweed citizens o Aiberdeen
The ba’s in yer ain court
Tell the numpties faar ti ging
An their stupid plans abort

©Bob Smith “The Poetry Mannie” 2010

Nov 122010

By Tom Shepherd.

Wee drookit, soaking, rained on lassie
Fit wye d’yae nae tak yer coat wi ye?
Yer soakit tae yer skin an’cauld
An’ affae sniffly.
Yer dolled up fine fer clubbin’, aye
But worse off now.

Doun Union Street an’ Windmill Brae
Ye totter wi’ a partial sway.
Aw glammed up fae a grand night oot
Wi’ pals an’ fellers.
But wind an’ rain or hail an’ snow
Aren’t strangers tae us.

Ah’d feel sae sorry for you freezin’
But you can’t feel it ‘cos yer bleezin’.
The morn you’ll nae doubt wake up sneezin’
Wi’ a hangover.
Oh, to be young an’ hack the weather
With nae jersey!

Nov 052010

By Alex Mitchell.

There is widespread concern about the dingy and run-down state of Aberdeen’s principal thoroughfare of Union Street which runs all the way from Holburn Junction to the Castlegate and the town end of King Street. This is manifest in the number of empty shops and in the distinctly low-rent character of many of such shops as there are.

It seems the more odd that this situation has developed during some thirty years of oil-boom prosperity, low unemployment and substantially-increased population.

If one thinks back to the Union Street of the nineteen fifties and sixties, the following comes to mind: Union Street was jam-packed with shoppers along its entire length every Saturday, as was also St Nicholas Street/George Street. People dressed up to go ‘doon the toon’, and you met everyone you knew in Union Street. In that sense, Aberdeen really was a village. The open-air markets in the Green and Castlegate were very much going concerns. Buses went all the way from Hazlehead to the Sea Beach and back again, via Queen’s Cross, Union Street and the Castlegate, which served as the city’s main bus interchange, where you nipped off one bus and on to another.

As a result, far more people had reason to go to the Castlegate than nowadays. Union Street and St Nicholas Street/George Street were full of interesting, up-market shops: grocer Andrew Collie & Co. Ltd. at the corner of Union Street and Bon Accord Street; Watt & Grant’s department store; McMillan’s toy shop, under the Trinity Hall; Woolworth’s, backing on to the Green; Falconer’s, Isaac Benzie’s, the Equitable, the handsome and elegant old Northern Co-op building in Loch Street; the Rubber Shop.

So what happened? Much of the population moved out of down-town tenements and into the new housing estates and suburban residential developments, ever-further from the city centre. Car ownership became the norm, and car-borne customers prefer shops they can park next to. Supermarkets became superstores and greatly extended their range of merchandise, destroying one specialist retailer after another. Butchers, bakers, fishmongers, hardware and electrical stores, shoe-shops and, most recently, pharmacists, bookshops and record shops have all been subsumed into superstores.

The obvious way for the city-centre to fight back was to build down-town malls like the St Nicholas and Bon Accord shopping centres

Superstores and their car-parks require huge expanses of land and prefer edge-of-town locations where large sites are available and cheap and accessible for both customers and delivery lorries. DIY sheds like B&Q, furniture and carpet stores and ‘big box’ retailers like Curry’s similarly prefer edge-of-town retail parks.

Edge-of-town retail complexes, such as that at Garthdee, may be banal, unhistorical and characterless, but they are also convenient as to access, offer easy and free parking, and are generally clean, safe and relatively easy to secure against break-ins and vandalism. The obvious way for the city-centre to fight back was to build down-town malls like the St Nicholas and Bon Accord shopping centres. These offer the kind of accommodation retailers want, and are relatively secure overnight, but they may tend to abstract business and custom from the High Street. The case is unproven. Without the down-town malls, the major retailers might have moved out of the city centre altogether.   Or they might not.

If, however, the supply of retail premises outruns the demand, it follows that the less attractive premises and locations will become hard-to-let, the rent obtainable falls, lower-status tenants have to be accepted; ultimately, premises may become unlettable on any terms. This is what seems to have happened in the west end of Union Street, and not only there.

We are assured that Aberdeen is not oversupplied with shops, but there have been significant increases in the down-town stock of retail premises in recent years, e.g., the Academy in Belmont Street and the Galleria in Bon Accord Street, neither of which were quick to fill up with tenants. The proposed Bon Accord Quarter will substantially increase the capacity of the present St Nicholas and Bon Accord malls and the Union Square development at Guild Street comprises some sixty new retail premises.

What else happened? Down-town, the general decline in church attendance after the First World War, combined with the exodus of population from the city centre, rendered many churches redundant. Similarly, whatever else we may say about the banks, they did put up some very handsome and impressive buildings. But, by the 1990s, the Bank of Scotland had abandoned its splendid and purpose-built 1801 premises at the corner of Castle Street and Marischal Street, as did the Clydesdale Bank its 1842 Archibald Simpson premises at the corner of Castle Street and King Street.

What was once the centre of business activity in Aberdeen was so no longer.   Aberdeen Journals moved from Broad Street out to Lang Stracht. Aberdeen University withdrew from Marischal College and the Student Union (and Bisset’s Academic Bookshop) closed down. The Robert Gordon University moved out to Garthdee.

There never was a time when things stood still. Old trades and occupations become obsolete, redundant or move elsewhere, often when displaced by newer, more profitable activities in the Darwinian contest for the use of economic resources, land, labour, capital etc. There are no fishing boats in Aberdeen harbour now because they have been replaced by oil-industry vessels. Planning applications for change-of-use are the normal and desirable state of affairs. But neighbourhoods and communities go into a decline when long-established firms and industries fade out and fail to be replaced by new enterprises and activities, or are replaced by activities which are in some way damaging or undesirable.

bars, nightclubs, etc., are a youth-orientated business, and the relevant age-group is shrinking as families move out of the city

The increased number of vacant retail premises in Union Street results from the fact that fewer tenants are moving in than are moving out; there is a net exodus of retailers.   The sad truth is that Union Street is not nowadays that good an environment in which to try to run a shop.

Old buildings and ground-floor premises are difficult to make secure against break-ins and vandalism. Delivery access for lorries is difficult. Shop staff and customers are harassed by drunks, beggars and drug abusers. Shop doorways, windows and their surroundings are often in a filthy state at the start of each day’s business. It is difficult to find and retain staff who will put up with this. It is not surprising if retailers follow their customers and withdraw to the relatively clean, safe and secure environment of the down-town malls and edge-of-town retail parks.

Aberdeen has generally been a better-run city than most. But the situation described arises from the non-delivery, or inadequate performance, of very specific council and governmental responsibilities, e.g., to maintain law and order, to enforce the law, e.g., against drinking in public places, to deal with anti-social and criminal behaviour, to collect the rubbish and clean the streets and pavements. Putting down the odd tub of begonias is not enough.

As banks, churches and big stores have withdrawn from Union St, so mega-pubs and bars, nightclubs and fast-food providers have moved in. To an extent, the new arrivals have been welcome, occupying old buildings which would otherwise have remained empty and neglected. In addition, some of this may be regarded as legitimate change-of-use, in response to changing tastes and lifestyles.

Similarly, there is a place for pubs, bars and nightclubs; but perhaps for fewer of them, and of a different character. The bars, nightclubs, etc., are a youth-orientated business, and the relevant age-group is shrinking as families move out of the city in search of better-value housing and more stable and higher-achieving schools.

In the meantime, the issue is one of whether the alcohol industry can peacefully co-exist with other economic sectors, retailers etc., and with the resident population of the city centre. All the evidence is that a neighbourhood which loses its settled, long-term resident population is doomed, finished, over. So if the interests of the local resident population and the alcohol industry are in conflict, then the former must take precedence.   It may be that the drugs, alcohol, gambling, etc. sectors will be cut down to size only as and when people get bored with and/or turn against this kind of activity, much as they mostly have in relation to tobacco.

Similarly, a locality and micro-economy which has long been in decline, such as the Castlegate, can be revived only by rebuilding its resident population and base of custom and trade from the ground up. The buildings at the west end of Union Street (originally Union Place), used to be private houses; people did their shopping in the street markets or in Archibald Simpson’s New Market of 1842, Aberdeen’s first enclosed shopping mall.

One of the more positive developments in recent years is the conversion of the upper floors of these old buildings, often long out-of-use, into modern residential accommodation.

It is a pity that the long-proposed Bon Accord Quarter was put on hold, possibly whilst the proprietors of the two down-town malls assessed the impact of the Union Square development, south of Guild Street.

This writer was broadly in support of the outline scheme for the Bon-Accord Quarter, because it would have secured the desirable objectives of removing St Nicholas House and bringing Marischal College back into an appropriate usage; also because it confirmed and consolidated the traditional retail heart of Aberdeen as the premier shopping destination in the North-East, the natural and obvious location for up-market and quality retailers like Marks & Spencer, John Lewis, Debenham’s, Next etc., which serve to pull shoppers and visitors into the city centre to the benefit of all the other retailers and service-providers.

Contributed by Alex Mitchell.

Sep 032010

Alex Mitchell takes another wander through Aberdeen’s streets for Aberdeen Voice.

Planning Blight: Concerns have been raised about how long the present uncertainty concerning Business Rates and the anticipated chaos attendant on major construction projects will have on business activity in the vicinity of Union Terrace Gardens. Even the relatively small-scale resurfacing work around the Green has seriously disrupted trade & commerce there.

Princes Street in Edinburgh, for example, has been devastated by their Tramways project. The usual effect of ‘planning blight’ is that existing businesses and householders decide to sell up and leave whilst their properties retain some market value, while others who had been thinking of moving in to the affected area – setting up shop, investing in leaseholds etc. – decide not to.

The locality goes downhill as existing proprietors and residents move out and are not replaced by incomers and new entrants. The normal turnover in a healthy property market slows down and grinds to a halt. Property values fall; properties may become effectively unsellable at any price. Basic maintenance, repairs & renewals are neglected as properties come to be regarded by their owners as expensive liabilities rather than as profitable assets worth investing in. The whole area goes into a downward spiral, even if the development proposal never comes to anything.

Chaos, Destruction: In her book Lost Aberdeen (2004), Diane Morgan describes the hitherto-vibrant & successful St Nicholas Street/George Street shopping thoroughfare as being reduced to the condition of the Somme battlefield of WW1 for years on end during the 1980s comprehensive redevelopment by a public/private-sector partnership (sounds familiar) between Aberdeen City Council and the developer Bredero.

At that time ACC was in the dubious and compromised position of being both co-developer and the planning authority. All this destruction and the loss of many famous locally-owned stores, for the sake of a pair of undistinguished shopping malls and the questionable amenity of the top deck of the St Nicholas Centre. And George Street has never recovered. Now Fortuna’s Wheel has turned full circle and ACC are about to do it all over again!

The Post Office fronting on to Upperkirkgate has been empty for years. This is pretty much what the proposed City Square on the Gardens could be like, albeit on a much bigger scale.

We checked out the top deck of the St Nicholas Centre recently, on a warm, sunny weekday afternoon. It is exposed to the elements, isolated and cut-off from the mainstream of activity, cluttered with ventilator shafts and was mainly frequented by various unfortunates swigging cider surrounded by empty retail units. Only W H Smith is still in business. The Post Office fronting on to Upperkirkgate has been empty for years. This is pretty much what the proposed City Square on the Gardens could be like, albeit on a much bigger scale.

Bridge Street: Amusing news stories on 30th July 2010 about naked cavortings up on a roof; but there is a wider significance. Bridge Street is a major city-centre thoroughfare, linking Union Street with Guild Street; but the upper floors of the huge granite building in question would seem to be empty, whilst even the ground-floor shop premises, formerly occupied by Jessop’s, are described as being not only empty but in a derelict condition, and a second-floor roof recently collapsed under the weight of a teenage girl.

Much of our city centre is like this – magnificent but largely empty granite buildings, e.g., the Victoria Buildings of 1881 which dominates the westward view along Guild Street, where even the ground-floor premises are either boarded up or in very poor condition. Why is ACC seemingly hell-bent on throwing away public money on a largely unwanted City Square when the basic fabric of our city centre is falling apart all around us?

Saturday 14th August 2010: Sunny and warm. Union Terrace Gardens looking beautiful. Flowering plants like fuchsia and begonias last much longer than in more exposed, windswept and sun-scorched locations. Lots of people, and all the trees appear in vigorous health, contra ACSEF. Up on to Union Street, then Justice Mill Lane.

Decided to walk back along the old road into Aberdeen from the south, via the Hardgate, Windmill Brae and through the Green.

Huge granite buildings loom above the lower reaches of Windmill Brae, e.g., the Royal Hotel on Bath Street, resembling an immense French chateau – also the impressive Venetian Gothic façade of the former Palace Theatre (1898) on Bridge Place. The main thoroughfare of Bridge Street itself was laid down in 1865-7, swooping over the old route in from the south to link Union Street with Aberdeen Joint Station, Guild Street and the Harbour area.

Bridge Street also links with Bridge Place, which stands on a ridge extending from Holburn Street to Crown Terrace. The ridge slopes steeply down to the Harbour, forming a natural amphitheatre, used in medieval times for the staging of various events. Along this ridge were fought the battles of the Craibstane, the Langstane and the Justice Mills.

So this is a topographically and historically complex area. As elsewhere in Aberdeen, the Victorian streetscape of Bridge Street, Bridge Place and Bath Street was superimposed or built on top of the alleys and wynds of the medieval burgh. Windmill Brae effectively goes underground, passing below Bridge Street and terminating at the TrinityCentre car park.

So I turn right and walk along an alley and up some steps and emerge facing the magnificent but ruinous frontage of Ellis & Wilson’s Victoria Buildings of 1881. It is seriously difficult – I take my life in my hands – getting past the entrance to the TrinityCentre car park and the junction with the Denburn By-Pass on the urban motorway of Wapping Street. Thence along Rennie’s Wynd to the Green for a much-needed cup of coffee at Café 52 with Dorothy Bothwell. People walked this route (more-or-less) into Aberdeen for some 600 years before Union Street was built. Now it’s hardly worth trying.

Why should we have to scuttle about underground, in the dark, like half-blind rats in a sewer?

However, in effect, I walked around three sides of the huge TrinityCentre; west, south & east. The trouble is, once you’re on the Wapping Street motorway, there’s no obvious way out! We wonder how much of an older Aberdeen was wrecked to create this urban nightmare – truly the road to nowhere.

But we are told that one can walk directly from the foot of Windmill Brae through the lower level of the TrinityCentre car park. A pedestrian walkway follows the path across the one-time Bow Brig and emerges on to the Green. Ho-hum. I must admit I have never set foot in the Trinity Shopping Centre, nor its multi-storey car park. I don’t think we should have to, either, to get around our own town. The car park is described as “dark and dingy (aren’t they all?) especially at the Green end”. These places give me the horrors, even on a bright sunny day – urban-nightmare-in-daytime territory. Why should we have to scuttle about underground, in the dark, like half-blind rats in a sewer?

About the only positive here is the return of the place-name ‘Trinity’. When the former Trinity Shopping Centre was bought over by the group calling itself simply ‘The Mall’ in 2006, they rebranded the place as ‘The Mall, Aberdeen’, resulting in predictable confusion with all the other shopping malls in Aberdeen. They had in the process thrown away the medieval place-name ‘Trinity’, which goes back some 800 years on this site to the Trinitarian or ‘Red’ Friars, to whom William the Lion (reigned 1165-1214) is said to have granted his palace on the Green for use as a monastery.

The Mall group sold the centre in Dec. 2009, and it is now being promoted as the Trinity Centre. Otherwise the ancient name ‘Trinity’ would remain only in Trinity Street (behind the Tivoli Theatre) and Trinity Lane, which runs from Exchange Street across Market Street to Shiprow.

Sep 032010

I’ve got lots of money and want to build a car park, so f*ck off – A poem by Rapunzel Wizard, a locally based performance poet who is 96% human and 4% woolly mammoth, and refuses to get a proper job or a haircut.

Union Terrace Gardens is eyesore ugly
Out of keeping with the rest of Union Street
An island of green in a sea of grey
It would look better as an underground car park
Cost you 90 million to pay and display
Turn Aberdeen into a top destination
Sir Ian Wood say, but I would nae

Sir Ian’s got more money, than a bunch of skagheads
Sir Ian’s got more money, than the trees or grass
Sir Ian’s got more money, than a bunch of joggers
Sir Ian’s got more money, than Peacock Arts

Sir Ian would leave a legacy
Where you won’t see the trees for the wood.
Sir Ian would leave a legacy
Turn our parks into car parks

Turn our parks into car parks
Sir Ian Would
But I’d rather he didn’t.

Aug 202010

By Dave Guthrie.

Great, gallus, glaikit, glutt’nous beastie
Man wisnae pit on earth tae feed ye,
Nor wake tae hear yer raucous screechin,
afore day’s brakkin.

I unnerstan yer satisfaction,
yer honest, natural reaction,
that bin-bags are a great attraction,
tae easy snackin, Continue reading »

Aug 202010

By Ross Cunningham.

Aberdeen. The Granite City. As Billy Connolly once said, ‘’you could walk an elephant down Union Street and nobody would notice.’’ Such an obvious joke relating to the most prevalent colour of our fair city yet one which evokes a question in my mind: Does the greyness of Aberdeen affect it’s citizens and in what way?

Firstly, it would be helpful to assess how Aberdonians are generally perceived, both by outsiders and ourselves. Continue reading »

Jul 232010

By Alex Mitchell.

Monday 12th July 2010, warm and sunny. Left the car in the Denburn car park, walked under the Viaduct and into Union Terrace Gardens – the one substantial green space in Aberdeen city centre – beautiful, verdant, quiet, restful, and well-maintained as always by Council Parks and Gardens staff. A fair smattering of people sitting around, including women with children. No drunks. The trees all seem in good health, despite ACSEF propaganda. Up on to Union Street. The awful, tacky Sports Direct shop frontage – formerly Zavvi, before that the Virgin Megastore – is still in evidence, months after we were assured by the Planning Department that it would be dealt with. Continue reading »

Jul 092010

By Dave Watt.

There you go. Giving them £41.5 million a year isn’t enough. You have to pray for them as well.

With the ConDem government introducing what is widely accepted to be the new Screw The Underprivileged measures almost hourly you might think there are others in our society more in need of prayers but Gilcomston Church would appear to see things differently.

Continue reading »