Once a popular shopping district, Sauchiehall Street has fallen on hard times. Now the council has big plans to turn this Glasgow stalwart around, Jessica Cargill Thompson reports, with photography by Murdo MacLeod
Glasgow’s Sauchiehall Street district must be cursed.
First, fire struck the Charles Rennie Mackintosh building at the Glasgow School of Art (GSA) in 2014, then in March 2018, another major conflagration took out the block that contained popular nightclub Victoria’s. Finally, in June 2018, a second fire devastated the GSA building, throwing restoration into question.
Collateral damage included the Art Deco O2 ABC cinema that backed onto the art school, now scheduled for demolition, which sparked a passionate campaign to save it. It also caused the temporary closure of several streets, all taking a toll on the local community.
A longstanding local trader, one of the only independents left on the main drag, says he knows 30 independent businesses that have gone under; in 2018, the city’s Evening Times reported 75 empty retail units.
In the wake of the fires, 30 independent businesses have gone under; in 2018, the city’s Evening Times reported 75 empty retail units
Although the fires loom large in popular discourse about the city’s misfortunes, the Sauchiehall Street neighbourhood is a familiar example of city-centre decline, exacerbated by economic doldrums and changing shopping habits: a strip where the glittering shopfronts of John Lewis and co. swiftly peter out into Poundlands, phone shops and empty sites.
Look above this dispiriting scene and you see the street that once was – imposing sandstone facades in the fashionable architectural styles of their day, once housing the department stores that served the city’s wealthy mercantile classes.
Grand buildings that are simultaneously heritage assets and drains on maintenance budgets cry out for forward-thinking, creatively-minded investors to reinvent them for the 21st century. Those that limp on, such as Watt Brothers, celebrating its centenary, have the air of a closing down sale. There is talk that even they might be selling their city-centre site.
But Glasgow is a tough, proud city and it doesn’t give up that easily. There is confidence that the area can be successful again. Glasgow’s city centre is still the UK’s number one retail district outside London’s West End.
Jane Laiolo, group manager for city centre regeneration at Glasgow City Council, says: “People want to see Sauchiehall Street returned to what it used to be. It was big department stores and it was the premier shopping street. But those days are gone.
“Retail of those days is gone. The demands from retail investors has changed since the crash in 2008. Anyone who thinks we can return the city centre to that is not fully understanding of economic trends.
“We want to support the district,” Laiolo adds. “We want to return it to a street that people aren’t disappointed by – that you would go to on a Saturday night, or a Saturday afternoon.”
“We want to support the district. We want to return it to a street that people aren’t disappointed by”
Jane Laiolo, Glasgow City Council
To this end, the council has made the Sauchiehall Street area the first of eight districts to complete a regeneration framework as part of its 10-year city centre strategy, launched in 2013-14.
Laiolo says there are more than 52 different regeneration strategies affecting the city centre: at Sauchiehall Street £7.2m has been spent on public realm improvements, part of a wider £115m Avenues project of walkable cyclable routes across the city; in addition, a city centre-wide upper-floors policy seeks to fill the underused spaces above the shop units, with a view to increasing city centre living from the current 20,000 residents to 35,000 by 2030.
Christopher Martin, lead designer of the Avenues project and director of urban strategy for Urban Movement, says: “Something that we have taken forward in the design of Sauchiehall Street and the Avenues in general is to shape the city... as a catalyst for social inclusion, shared prosperity, healthy lifestyles and enjoyment.
“The way Glasgow’s streets and public realm has been shaped has undoubtedly led to challenges... with 25% of land in the city centre being given over to vehicles and not people, compared with 18% in Manchester, 14% in Newcastle, and only 12% in Edinburgh.”
The Sauchiehall Street district is a neighbourhood of mixed uses, a cluster of possible tensions, but also a rich base waiting to be activated. Walk one street north up the hill from the main retail drag and you are amid the relatively quiet residential neighbourhood of Garnethill, with its four-storey tenements, Catholic high school and local park. One street south is genteel Bath Street, with private art galleries and bespoke wedding outfitters. A couple more streets along and you hit the prime office district of St Vincent Street. Up against all of this rubs a famous night-time economy that accommodates rowdy bars, student dives and famous clubs, as well as several theatres and cinemas.
New projects and forward-thinking developers are recognising the potential of this diversity, taking big buildings in hand and reimagining how they might be used, acting as possible catalysts for wider change in the area.
Inside the Savoy Centre (140 Sauchiehall Street) – Glasgow’s oldest indoor market – the two floors of retail units had become something of a backwater, but a new initiative by the Savoy Centre’s owners is attempting to bring colour, activity, and a new generation of patrons into the space.
COLAB launched in December, a mash-up that sees hip start-ups (a Poke cafe, arts installations and streetwear designers) sell their wares cheek-by-jowl with established, traditional traders (a Turkish barber, Scottish butcher, Chinese herbalist).
On top of that, COLAB is working closely with the arts community and has become home to the new Glasgow Gallery of Photography. After hours, there might be live music events; at weekends market stalls, wellness workshops and vinyl fairs; and at the rear of the building an art platform of commissioned exhibitions animating a particularly gloomy stretch of Renfrew Street.
“We are looking to create a traditional central market unlike any other market in Scotland, incorporating a mix of retail, community, culture, art and cuisine,” says Natalia Codona, project manager at COLAB. “It’s a place to reintegrate families back into the city centre by creating a wide offering of free arts and crafts, activities and entertainment.
“Given the recent tragedies on Sauchiehall Street, it’s not only the Savoy Market needing attention but the street in general. COLAB is the beginning of the rebirth of Sauchiehall Street.”
“We are looking to create a traditional central market unlike any other market in Scotland, incorporating a mix of retail, community, culture, art and cuisine”
Natalia Codona, COLAB
While COLAB says its ethos is “collaboration over competition”, not everyone feels they are part of this brave new world housed in white cubes.
Some of the long-time traders, especially those who have been asked to move to the first floor, feel cut off by COLAB (not helped by a long-term broken escalator) and have expressed fears of being gentrified out of the space. Glasgow’s Evening Times has reported that many feel pushed out because they do not “fit into the COLAB aesthetic”.
Paul Abrahams, who has been running second-hand bookseller The Book Tree since the 1960s, is happy to make room for the new – as long as everyone is included. “The days of the 5,000-10,000 sq ft shop are gone. The only thing you can do with these buildings is to subdivide them and revert back to the entrepreneurial ideology of 100 years ago. Give people coming out of the art school and the universities the opportunity to do their own thing.”
A couple of blocks further west, backing onto the GSA’s McLellan Galleries, Bywater Properties has bought a whole block to provide flexible office space for a creative SME crowd. McLellan Works, as it is being marketed, is a commercial departure for an area that is outside the traditional office district, and renowned as down on its luck.
“We like down on its luck, because that’s where interesting things emerge,” says Theo Michell, principal at Bywater.
“This is still a primary location with John Lewis at one end of the street and then at the far end [across the M8] bleeding off down to [food quarter] Finnieston and the West End, and the major powerhouse of the Glasgow School of Art right in the middle of it behind you.
“St Vincent Street may be the core office district but occupiers are beginning to realise that staff want to work in the places that are down on their luck, where things are sprouting up, not in relatively sanitised grade A areas,” Michell adds.
The building (Breckenridge House, 274 Sauchiehall Street) was once home to department store Tréron et Cie, but only the neoclassical facade is original due to another fire back in the 1990s. The interior will be ’defurbed’ this summer, stripped out to leave exposed ceilings and services, with two floors of subdivided office space aimed at small to medium creative enterprises above street-level retail and a basement gym and bike storage.
“We like down on its luck, because that’s where interesting things emerge”
Theo Michell, Bywater
Bywater is discussing a symbiotic relationship with its rear neighbour, the art school. The office space would gain creative energy from the world-renowned institution, while the GSA would have a valuable front door on Sauchiehall Street. In addition, some commercial units could be used for teaching while the Mackintosh building is out of action, and the double-height lobby space could house exhibitions and a coffee shop.
“It enlivens what’s going on upstairs and speaks to the overall spirit of the project and the bits the public don’t easily see, ie the upper floors,” says Michell.
New tenants are expected to be in place in spring 2020. Bywater is looking at less traditional rental agreements to encourage a more entrepreneurial tenant.
“There’s increasingly a theme across retail of partnering with operators on a revenue share basis,” says Michell, “so one of the ideas we’ve been kicking around is putting together what a restaurant might need, then offering it on a residency type basis to, say, a Finnieston restaurateur who wants to try out a new concept, or a frustrated sous chef looking to make a leap and do their own thing without the burden of a five-year lease.
“We want it to be local and entrepreneurial, which at the end of the day is the main commercial imperative from our point of view.”
While McLellan Works, COLAB and other developers are working on the revival of individual blocks, the council understands that these islands need to be joined up, ideally by spaces people want to be in and pass through. Enter the Avenues project, the city council’s ambition to create a more people-friendly public realm and attract investment.
Avenues connects 17 streets across the city centre and under the troublesome barrier of the M8 motorway, reducing space for private vehicles, planting green infrastructure, creating segregated cycle lanes, improving street lighting and introducing smart infrastructure (such as free wi-fi).
The Sauchiehall Street improvements were completed in summer 2019 – replacing two of the four traffic lanes with a widened paved area and a two-way cycle track and single row of deciduous trees. A second stretch, including the Sauchiehall Precinct, to the east of Sauchiehall Avenue, is due to begin on site in summer 2020.
Scott Parsons, director of strategy and marketing at GSA, is a fan: “The Avenues are quite interesting but they’re not about trying to create sterile environments, they’re keen on creating active and dynamic environments that still retain what is interesting about this place.”
What will benefit the Sauchiehall Street and Garnethill area, Parsons says, is the connectivity the Avenues will create, tying GSA and Sauchiehall Street to the West End in one direction and the Speirs Locks Creative Quarter (home to the National Theatre of Scotland and Scottish Opera) in the other.
“The whole balance of living and working and moving around the city will be shifted in a substantial way over the next five years. And that’s quite exciting.”
“They’re keen on creating active and dynamic environments that still retain what is interesting about this place”
Scott Parsons, GSA
But not everyone is convinced by the public realm ‘improvements’. Some independent galleries around Bath Street say the parking restrictions deter business – “£1 for 15 minutes! Our clients need to drive here. We’re tearing our hair out. No one buys a painting on a bike.”
Others are unimpressed by the recent landscaping of the avenue: “They spent £7m on some stupid trees!”
“It’s all very well improving the street to increase footfall,” says one local business that’s seen a significant dip in trade, “but you have to have something for people to walk down to. At the moment, from Hope Street there’s nothing. BHS has been closed for a couple of years... and there’s still a hole where the nightclub [Victoria’s] used to be.”
And yet glimmers of confidence are returning to this stretch of the city centre. Despite appearances, a 12-storey office block is planned for the Victoria nightclub site, with internal demolition already begun. Reactivating the upper floors with workspace and homes promises to bring more people, more energy and more paying customers into the area.
As COLAB and McLellan Works demonstrate, the revitalisation of the Sauchiehall Street isn’t just about filling spaces; it’s about forming wider partnerships across the city, from global institutions through to local success stories and new talent. It requires connectivity – physically via schemes such as the Avenues, and commercially through networks of entrepreneurs and profit-sharing contracts.
Most importantly, it requires a fine balance of blue-sky thinking with sensitivity to existing residents and traders. Success lies in leveraging the area’s diversity to ensure inclusive growth. There’s no sense in disrupting or displacing what is already here.