A rooftop bar, a “continental-style” civic space, new shops, restaurants and a multiplex cinema.
Back in 2016, those were the headline features of a proposed revamp of Inverness’s Eastgate Shopping Centre.
New owners Scoop Asset Management arrived with big ideas when they bought the centre as part of a £116m deal with BMO Real Estate Partners – formerly known as F&C Reit – in 2015.
Those ideas were made public a year later but as we now know, it never turned out quite like expected.
But why not?
Let’s take a closer look.
What were the big plans for the Eastgate in 2016?
F&C Reit had only been in charge for two years, having acquired the centre as part of a £250m deal that also included two other sites.
But in its short time in charge, it had already been given planning permission from Highland Council for an extension.
Its plans were to extend the centre 30ft out into Falcon Square, while making the building 23ft higher.
That would pave the way for five new restaurants and an eight-screen cinema with 1,100 seats.
But things started to unravel when a planning application to extend the nearby Filling Station restaurant was rejected by Highland councillors in September 2016.
Members of the council’s south planning committee backed plans for four new restaurant units but the C-listed Filling Station was a problem.
They felt putting a glass front on the building would contravene local policy in a conservation area.
In the aftermath, the developer was “surprised and dismayed” by the refusal.
It threatened to axe the redevelopment altogether and branded the decision “perverse”.
Retail park threat
That was not the end of the road though.
A new revised application was drafted. And this time it did win the favour of the planning committee in February 2017.
Bubbling away in the background though, was a long-running battle to bring new restaurants to Inverness Shopping Park.
Multiple attempts to add food outlets to the city’s main retail park had been thwarted over the years.
Councillors repeatedly cited their duty to protect Inverness city centre as the reason.
But public pressure was growing and a petition signed by more than 1,200 people in 48 hours to allow Nando’s and Frankie and Benny’s in started to sway opinion.
Ultimately, a planning application to allow the restaurants to move was approved and they opened their doors in 2017.
Wildwood and Smashburger lined up for Eastgate revamp
Despite the threat of new restaurants sitting alongside the city’s largest cinema at the retail park, things still looked to be progressing at the Eastgate.
American chain Smashburger and pizza and pasta specialists Wildwood were confirmed as among the restaurants to be built in the extended shopping centre.
Talks with other operators were said to be ongoing.
The next we heard was in August 2018 when the revamp was being tied to a major redevelopment of Inverness train station – a project that has also been hit by delays.
But this time, the rooftop bar plan had been ditched and there was no mention of the cinema.
Wildwood and Smashburger never arrived either and instead Burger King and Subway filled prime spots in the centre.
What next for the Eastgate?
After that, the trail went pretty cold.
The original planning permission for the four restaurant units and the Filling Station extension lapsed in December 2019.
And an already delicate situation for the retail and hospitality sectors became a nightmare during the pandemic.
Even as things started to open up again, the Eastgate was stung by the collapse of Debenhams.
The anchor tenant for the shopping centre closed its doors in Inverness for the final time in December 2020.
A prolonged period of difficult news for the Eastgate was stopped in 2022 when a fresh £2m investment in its food court was announced.
Loch and Larder, with a focus on quality street food, opened in February.
The 2016 plans certainly got people excited. But perhaps the struggles we’ve seen for cinemas – major chains like Cineworld and Odeon have recently collapsed as streaming continues to dominate – meant that one in the Eastgate wouldn’t have worked anyway.
As shopping centres pivot away from traditional models to ones focused more on leisure, maybe a rooftop bar could still be possible one day.
The finances probably don’t make sense right now. But in a few years, who knows where we’ll be?
Place your bets on whether we’ll be looking back on the 2016 plans as an opportunity missed or a lucky escape.
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