Almost seven years ago, Union Square owners Hammerson unveiled dramatic expansion plans for Aberdeen’s biggest shopping centre.
Gone would be the windswept external retail park, currently home to brands including JD Sports, Hobbycraft and Decathlon.
That section, along with the neighbouring car park, would be swallowed up by an enormous extension of the enclosed mall.
Documents included in Hammerson’s 2016 application for planning permission describe Union Square as “one of the most successful retail developments” in its portfolio, which also includes sites like Birmingham’s renowned Bullring.
But recently, the company has put the centre up for sale, with the owner of Canary Wharf in London reportedly snapping it up for £140 million in August.
Stationery shop Paperchase closed its doors earlier this year, while the future of the Joules store is in doubt after the clothing and homeware retailer went into administration.
And with the effects of the pandemic, the cost-of-living crisis and the rise of internet shopping all adding up to Aberdeen’s roughest retail landscape in recent history, it is possible the Union Square expansion could be shelved permanently.
When asked for an update on the plans, Hammerson told us they had nothing to add.
What are the plans for Union Square?
- The retail park, which struggles in comparison to the indoor offering
- Restrictions with access and car parking
- The often nasty Aberdonian weather
- How close the centre is to the city’s harbour
A bigger Union Square would “provide a more comfortable and attractive scheme that will continue to attract customers to visit in all conditions”, it said.
As well as 30 extra shops, the owners suggested a hotel could be included in the development – not far from the Leonardo, formerly the Jurys Inn, on Market Street.
Last September, an application to extend the deadline for beginning the work was approved by the council.
That request for an extension may have signalled a willingness to push ahead with the plan – or it may have just been made to ensure the permission could be included in a future sales pitch.
Ultimately, the decision on whether the project goes ahead will be up to the new owners.
What is the wider context?
The expansion plan was not without controversy after it was approved.
Leading Aberdeen businessman Alan Massie told the P&J in 2018 that the council was “throwing Union Street to the dogs” by giving it their backing.
Two former planning chiefs, Michael Hastie and George Massie, echoed that view.
Mr Hastie said: “We have to protect the heritage that we have, and Union Street should be given priority over anything else in regards to shopping.”
Concerns for the future of the city’s main thoroughfare have only grown in the years since, culminating in last week’s emergency summit of experts and business leaders.
Difficult days for shopping centres
Aberdeen’s other two shopping centres, the Trinity and Bon Accord, are also up for sale at the moment, demonstrating the challenges such sites face.
In Glasgow, the Buchanan Galleries are facing demolition after only 20 years of existence, with the local council planning to build offices and residential spaces in its place.
There is no indication Union Square is anywhere near that stage, as new stores such as Superdrug and restaurants such as Itsu continue to open their doors.
On its website, Hammerson says the centre boasts an annual footfall of 15.3 million, “consistently outperforming both Scottish and UK benchmarks”.
But whether it is enough to sustain an expansion that would buck the shopping centre trend seen nationwide for several years remains to be seen.