Four independent local businesses are calling for changes to be made to current restrictions in Aberdeen’s Belmont Street to offer a shared, safe social space for customers and visitors alike.
City food and drink businesses Siberia Bar & Hotel, Melt, The Tippling House and Latinway have rallied together to petition for a new era of cafe culture on the area popular with people enjoying hospitality.
Throughout the past few weeks, the street has seen an increase in restrictions to access for vehicles between 10am and 6pm.
According to the businesses, Aberdeen City Council did not consult them prior to the move, making it difficult for firms operating in the area to trade, receive supplier deliveries, and provide a space for customer and delivery takeaway collections.
The measures were put in place to ensure those venues on the street could reopen safely, with new queuing systems and space for passersby to travel through the area safely.
The council however have shown a willingness to now engage with the businesses on Belmont Street and resolve issues where possible. This has also opened up the opportunity for pavement tables and outdoor seating areas.
Owners and directors of the four businesses pushing for change are eager to see the city centre, and specifically Belmont Street, evolve into a shared, safe social space, comparable to the likes of Ashton Lane in Glasgow and Rose Street in Edinburgh.
There are similar case studies of pedestrianised leisure areas around Europe which have proven to drive footfall, regenerate and boost local trade.
If given the go-ahead, the four businesses hope that this could be in place by the end of July this year.
Stuart McPhee, director at Siberia Bar & Hotel, said: “Cafe culture works; it worked when it was piloted last time in the Belmont Street area for surrounding businesses and we are keen to see it stick this time. Cities such as Copenhagen and Stavanger, with climates similar to ours, engage with the concept.
“We executed a poll last week that had 297 respondents. Of those, 78% of those were in favour of a project like this, but understood that businesses needed to be listened too and issues ironed out. We are really encouraged at such a collaboration on our side of the street and to see other businesses ready and raring to engage with it, such as Cup and Books and Beans. We will be opening our outside areas from July 6 and we know from the success that this brings to our business that adding this on is a no-brainer.”
This is not the first time businesses have pursued cafe culture in Aberdeen city centre. In 2015 a scheme to try to create “cafe culture” in Aberdeen’s city centre saw the closure of Belmont Street, Little Belmont Street and Gaelic Lane for three months as part of the trial. The roads were closed from 11am to 6pm to almost all traffic for seven days a week.
Aberdeen City Council created the space in response to a request from business organisation Aberdeen Inspired which had received increased demand for the space from the city centre business community.
In 2015, The Press & Journal conducted a survey enquiring if outdoor seating on Belmont Street was a good thing.
More than 70% responded that Aberdeen needs more places to eat outdoors, with 16% saying it was a nice option to have. Only 13% of responses said no.
A second trial was planned for 2016 after the council received positive feedback from local businesses.
In 2017, businesses backed Aberdeen City Council proposals to restrict traffic on Langstane Place, Justice Mill Lane and Windmill Brae as part of the city centre masterplan.
Mechelle Clark, owner of cheese restaurant Melt, added: “The hospitality industry in Aberdeen has been dealt a large blow both with Covid-19 and the drop in the price of oil. We all have to adapt to survive and in the current climate there is no better way to make the best of our situation than to open up our streets to provide safe distancing to our customers.
“There’s a massive sense of community on Belmont Street and it’s great to come together alongside the other businesses to welcome customers back safely to the heart of the city.”
Collaborating with others has played a huge part in surviving throughout the pandemic and neighbouring businesses The Tippling House and Latinway have expressed a desire to work together on an outdoor area. Latinway hopes to serve up its Latin American street food alongside cocktails, Scottish craft beers and premium spirits from The Tippling House.
Adrian Gomes, owner of The Tippling House, said: “There are challenges from the road closures around both Union and Belmont Street, but there is an opportunity here to augment the cafe culture in the city. The Tippling House has always tried to evolve with the times, and these are indeed new times for all of us.
“We’re exploring a road-side seating area, working in partnership with street food outlet Latinway, to offer licensed areas outside both premises serving our drinks and their food. The support of our guests and regular Belmont Street users is crucial to this, so I urge everyone to consider the plans with an open mind.
“I think last time, they didn’t have the support of the street. But I think this time around it will hopefully be different. If we can get more seating and accommodate guests outside, it’s a great thing for us.”
Union Street revamp
Union Street is also undergoing changes and is partly pedestrianised for the moment as the council prepares for more businesses reopening in the coming weeks.
The city centre, and Union Street in particular, face challenges because pavements are not wide enough to accommodate the current two-metre level of physical distancing.
Lined with charity shops, vape stores, and betting businesses, the Evening Express reported that one in five shops on the main street were empty in February and of the 185 retail units, 37 are unoccupied with firms shutting up shop or moving on elsewhere.
Of the total number of units, more than 10% are either a betting, vape or charity shop and restaurants, bars, and takeaways account for 18% of the units on the street.
To help with the reopening of businesses, temporary pavement extensions will be installed within days to help to make the current pedestrian areas a more welcoming environment.
The temporary wooden structures comprise of a small area of decking with a bench, and a second version of a simple deck with no fixed features to allow flexibility in position or use, which are placed on a road and butted up to a kerb, creating a bigger pavement area. They are designed so two can fit into a standard-sized parking space and a total of 32 can be found in the city centre, and an additional 32 going in other places around the city.
The pavement extensions can also be used to offer queuing space and grouped together may be able to accommodate a few bistro tables and chairs for businesses offering outdoor seating as part of their phased response to opening, when allowed to do so from Monday (July 6). The council also plans to collaborate with local arts organisations with the aim of the getting designs painted onto the wooden instalments.
The works are being carried out by Aberdeen City Council after a ring-fenced £1.76 million grant from the Scottish Government’s Spaces for People fund which is being administered by Sustrans, and measures taking place in several locations around the city include temporary pedestrianisation, pavement widening, bike lanes, and one-way walking.
Aberdeen City Council’s transport spokeswoman, Councillor Sandra Macdonald, said: “It’s fantastic the pavement extensions are due to be installed so soon and I’m sure they will be welcomed by both people returning to shop and eat in the city centre, and by the businesses.
“As well as providing a space to sit down, the plants will provide a splash of colour alongside other planters filled with beautiful flowers which have been moved into the area.
“We look forward to the pavement extensions arriving and we hope they help to attract residents back into the city centre as part of the wider efforts to keep people safe and aid the city’s economic recovery from the coronavirus lockdown.”
The program of works has been developed with NHS Grampian, transport organisation NESTRANS, and Business Improvement District operator Aberdeen Inspired, and organisations which have been consulted include city centre businesses, bus companies, taxi firms, Police Scotland, the Disability Equity Partnership, and other local groups.
The length of time the temporary measures will be in place will be determined by NHS and Government guidance for physical distancing.