Opinion: Change is Brewing on High Street

Visualisation of the High Street as a social square with new speculative facades

The people of Penicuik did something brilliant last week, they believed in the town.

On Tuesday 29 March, plans to open a community run “Storehouse” containing a bakery, indoor market and a host of local facilities, won the approval of the public and the project reached its minimum funding target to open.

This is a momentous juncture in the town’s history and could signal a marked change of attitude in Penicuik towards its ailing centre. Why? Well the Penicuik Storehouse is a community benefit society, owned and operated by its shareholders. For it to succeed there has to be a stamp of approval from the public, an unspoken belief in the intentions and aims of the business. Despite common conception that Penicuik is not much more than a commuter town, the success of the share offer now gives a clear signal that a vocal faction is pushing for change, for a reimagination of our purpose.

We must seize upon the community driven plans behind the Storehouse to push for the wider regeneration of the town centre, based on sustainable local business and contemporary, yet historically minded, architecture. We should not be afraid to do something different, for Penicuik has nothing to lose.

This regeneration must begin with a revaluation of space. We must ask ourselves, does this need to be a shop unit or can we release it for residential use? Does this road need to be open to traffic all the time, or could it become a public square? Could this vacant unit be utilised until it is let?

In the face of a failing shopping offer, the solution is looking increasingly like a radical one. Using this revaluation of the town’s needs, we could masterplan a new centre putting single and double bedroomed residential use at the heart. This isn’t to say that shops should be forgotten, quite the contrary in fact. The retail provision should remain largely unchanged but refined with an emphasis on either quality or necessity. Though there are also short term solutions that could do a world of good.

It all starts with the historical High Street. This avenue should once again be the life and soul of the town. To do this, the northern parking offshoot should have the ability to be closed at short notice, with a shared surface implemented to increase its presence as a public square. The Penicuik Market would run from John Street and down into High Street, connecting with the restaurants and shops in the thoroughfare. During times of rare nice weather, seating could spill out from the Railway Tavern and Clippers into the square. Social gatherings at Christmas and during Hunter & Lass would again take place on the High Street. All of this would aid the creation of a new social space that encourages footfall throughout the entirety of the centre.

However, alongside this use of space change there must also be an architectural change to the much altered northern High Street. A re-imagination of the architectural style of the elevation must be sympathetic to the architectural heritage of the site, whilst remaining contemporary. The design of the new Railway Tavern could serve as a basis, using traditional bare stone and sash and case windows at first floor level but a modern timber, steel and plate glass windows at street level. Lamb’s Pend arch should be reinstated without hesitation. Shop signage should be unified and reduced in size; awnings encouraged. Wares should have the ability to overflow carefully into the exterior space to lure customers into the stores. This wouldn’t be a pastiche recreation of the 19th century facade but a modern reinterpretation of it.

Moving into John Street and the solution is a lot less clear. It is a soulless space 350 days of the year, only coming to life on the occasional market day, during the Summer or Christmas fairs or in late May. Empty units may be partly to blame for this, after all who wants to visit a half vacant shopping precinct, count me out. These could be put to better use as pop up shops (not of a charity shop nature) until a permanent tenant is secured. Failing that, they could at least be dressed with local art or tourist information.

As previously mentioned, I would argue for further radical change, perhaps considering the layout of the street, altering the Store 21 block to increase cohesion with the street. At the moment the shopping precinct appears linear, with input only from the eastern side of the street. This isn’t ideal since it doesn’t encourage browsing and increased spending time. A stronger anchor store to accompany B&M Bargains but within the precinct would bring people into John St. I am told that the new development owners are working on this as I speak.

Of course I could argue for de-pedestrianisation, reopening the precinct to occasional one way traffic. There’s nothing to say it couldn’t work but I think it has more potential as a green and social space rather than a pollution riddled thoroughfare. Studies would need to be conducted to ascertain whether it would actually increase footfall or whether it would hamper accessibility, thus causing more problems than its worth.

Car parking is a more immediate problem and, in a survey of business owners, is a top priority in the town. The provision somehow needs to be increased, or at least better managed, to increase short term capacity. Parking charges beyond 2.5 hours in the car parks could help stop use as an impromptu park and ride and new short term parking bays on John Street, High Street, Bridge Street and West St. could also increase provision. Edinburgh style permit holder bays could remain for garage or driveway-less homes. This though isn’t about raising money but increasing footfall. Any money raised should be injected into the town centre, not used to plug an ever growing budget gap.

Penicuik Town Centre, unlike Dalkeith and other Midlothian towns, is no longer owned by the council but instead by a cacophony of different landlords. This makes change very difficult but for the large part, owners hold control over multiple neighbouring units. For example on High Street, only two owners need to agree to upgrade facades: G2 Property Ltd. and Scotmid. They should all be interested in increasing footfall as in the long term a healthy town can mean higher rental yields.

All this being said, change is coming to Penicuik and it is emanating from our heart, the High Street. We must use the momentum behind this to push out from The Storehouse, creating a new public space on the revamped High Street. Eventually this must reach into the precinct and other surrounding areas. However the change must also start at home. Consider this question before shopping, can you get what you need within the town centre? Can you shop local? You’ve proven it recently with the Storehouse; We can be much more than a commuter town, if we just believe.

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