MORE than one in five shops in one of Hull’s best-known streets is standing empty, prompting calls for radical action to revitalise the area by the leader of the city council.
Whitefriargate, the main pedestrian thoroughfare linking the Old Town with the new, was once one of the busiest and sought after retail destinations in the city, but has fallen on hard times since the loss of the outdoor market, the opening of the £200m St Stephen’s shopping centre in Ferensway five years ago, the boom in online shopping, and impact of the economic downturn.
Council leader Steve Brady said he was “passionate” about restoring its fortunes, and still believes proposals to cover Whitefriargate with a roof could be part of the solution.
He also announced plans for a series of live music and entertainment events in the area in a bid to boost trade, including a live Nativity play featuring donkeys and camels on December 22.
Coun Brady said: “It used to be packed when people used to go down there for the outdoor market but I don’t think an outdoor market will ever come back.
“The problem is one of high rental and businesses aren’t going to invest unless they actually see the figures for footfall increasing.
“One of the big things that attracts people is music and we are going to be putting lots of events on, with steel bands, jugglers, classical pop singers and a live Nativity play with camels and donkeys.
“We are working with Holy Trinity Church to open up the whole of that area, like when you go abroad and there are these marvellous open squares. It’s the biggest parish church in the country and they want to get involved.”
The council will also offer two hours free parking on the east bank of the River Hull when a landmark new footbridge opens, which is expected this month although a date has still to be set.
On the subject of the roof, Coun Brady said: “I’ve never had so many letters before or since – they are all passionate about the Old Town and I think some of the things we are working towards will bear fruit.
“I would certainly like to see restaurants where people can open there with confidence knowing they can sit outside where it’s warm.
“If you walk down there and look upwards you see some of the real quality of the buildings and we want something that fits in culturally if we are going to put a cover on.”
He added: “I think if you fill it with music and get some good quality restaurants in it will start booming like Leeds. It’s a difficult job in the current climate but you can’t give up.”
The council is in talks with the Trinity House Brethren, the main landowners in the area, in a bid to resolve the rent issue.
Tom Penrose, retail partner of PPH Commercial, which manages the properties for the Brethren, said: “Rents are falling and Trinity House are very aware of that and taking it into account.
“We are responsive to the market and will go with the market; we can’t do anything else. Sometimes you get throwaway comments that rents are too high – rents are what tenants will pay.
“Rents are not high in relation to other parts of the town.”