On 10 June 1973 Irvine Bridge was closed to the public and demolished. This was the start of building the £5 million Rivergate Shopping Centre by Irvine Development Corporation (IDC). The developers chosen were Ravenseft and Murrayfield Scottish Development and the construction was carried out by Sir Robert McAlpine and Sons Ltd.
A footbridge was built for pedestrians wishing to cross the river at Puddleford Lane just south of the old bridge. This proved to be very unpopular with the people of Irvine. The bridge was reached by a steep 26-step stairway and was called "Heartbreak Hill". Workers had to down tools to help mothers with prams and older people were frightened to climb it.
Small businesses on the west side of the river suffered badly. Clifford Beckett Photographer lost all his passing trade, the Loon Fung Chinese Restaurant lost three quarters of its evening business and half of its lunchtime customers. Commuters and visitors using Irvine Railway Station also complained about the path to the new bridge and indeed the bridge itself.
Construction of Rivergate took over two years and provided space for five department stores and fifty smaller shops. A multi-storey car park for 536 cars was built and a ground level park to take 450 vehicles.
The centre opened on Thursday 9 October 1975 with no official ceremony. The only shop open was Arnotts (opened on that day by Sir Hugh Fraser). A handful of shoppers were at the Bridgegate entrance when it opened at 9.30am and the first in was 74 year old Mrs Sarah Gaw of 2 Sloan Avenue, Irvine. Generally the public felt it was an asset to the town but one person said, "It looked as though it was designed by a child playing with a Lego set".
Over the coming months the shops gradually filled up. The larger premises were taken by Cantors, Boots, Tescos and William Low. Other traders included Tandem Shoes, John Collier, Record and Card Centre, Hepworths Terleys, RS McColls, Fosters, Victoria Wine, Alex Munros, John Dickie, Hardys, Greggs and Radio Rentals. Goldbergs opened two years later on 24 October 1977.
Irvine's High Street shops feared they would lose their trade to the new centre once it opened but shoppers came to the town from all over Ayrshire during the Christmas period. Shops outside the centre, such as, Co-op and Coopers Fine Fare in the High Street all reported high sales figures. Templetons at Bridgegate told of brisk business with their manager Alex Allison saying, "We have sold about 800 turkeys for Christmas alone and expect to sell the same number again for New Year. And we have sold more alcohol than ever before”.
At first the centre was only open during shopping hours for security reasons as many of the units had shopfitters working in them and the Puddleford Lane bridge was used at night. However, once the bridge was removed and the centre opened 24 hours it was plagued with vandalism and antisocial behaviour. Originally the police were to have a shop inside the centre but they pulled out of that agreement. Eventually Ravenseft had to pay for private security between 6pm and 6am during the week and 24 hours at the weekend. The alternative was to spend £60,000 on a new footbridge.
The centre had been planned to be enlarged in 1980 to extend west and attach onto the railway station. This didn't happen. Other plans for the centre that failed to appear included an integrated bus station, cinema, hotel and riverside bar/restaurant.
Today the centre is as popular as it was in 1975 and still has a few of the original traders such as Greggs which opened on 13 October 1975 and Boots which opened on 10 June 1976.
Visit the Rivergate Shopping Centre website.
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