It is difficult to imagine St James's Street in Kemp Town was once Brighton's premier shopping district.

Built 170 years ago by Thomas Read Kemp, the original stores pandered exclusively to the whims of the monied classes.

It was built as the Bond Street of Brighton - an upmarket shopping mecca.

But in the past 25 years its reputation has been tainted by a street culture of drink and drug abuse, aggressive beggars and random violence.

More than £800,000 has been spent regenerating the street, but still 16 of the 130 shops are empty, three are up for sale and four house charity shops.

While the occasional pop star sighting is not uncommon, you are more likely to see vagrants and street drinkers mingling with the Christmas crowds.

But the regeneration cash has led to a renewed sense of optimism over the past few months, with new shops, bars and restaurants opening along the street.

About £820,000 has been spent on re-routing traffic to stop left turns onto the highway and on a facelift of the once prosperous area.

The traders' reactions to the changes fluctuate wildly. Some say St James's Street is buzzing again for the first time in 20 years, others believe the council has introduced an unpopular traffic scheme that will lead to dwindling trade and further shop closures.

Many also object to the area's new cafe-bar culture. They say it is eroding the character and will turn St James's Street into another Preston Street - dead before 6pm.

Traders and residents mourn the loss of their post office, their banks and building societies and many of the small local shops.

Clive Gordon, owner of Gordon's Jewellers, which has been trading in St James's Street for more than 40 years, said the street had to change to compete with the rest of Brighton.

He said: "The shops are totally different now, compared to 30 years ago. Some of the older residents are unhappy with the changes but this is our area's commercial centre which is its lifeblood.

"The concept of people shopping locally has changed so much, it almost doesn't exist anymore. St James's Street had to change with the times and local people's needs are still being catered for.

"We need to attract more visitors and draw in people off the seafront. Our restaurants and bars are brilliant for that.

"The street also has a lot of successful specialist shops that bring in people from outside the area.

"There have been a few teething troubles with the new traffic scheme but it has not really affected us. I think it will settle down even more in the next six to 12 months."

But other local businessmen, particularly in Upper St James's Street, believe the number of visitors has dropped by 25 per cent since the traffic was re-routed this year.

Bev Robbins, landlord of the Hand In Hand in Upper St James's Street, said: "The new traffic system is flawed and the street is much quieter. If you take cars away from a street it stops people going there.

"As it is, none of the traders stay here very long. It is such a transit community. But we are getting less shoppers in the street, traders are finding their takings are down and so more shops will close. It is having a real effect on local business.

"St James's Street should be a great location, it is more central than Churchill Square, but it is becoming impossible for people to access."

Mike O'Connell, of Blakers in St James's Street, agreed: "They keep blocking it off and blocking it off. In the end nobody will come here anymore.

"Very few traders can understand why so much money has been spent on traffic management. We never wanted this scheme in the first place and it is causing chaos.

"When they asked us what we wanted from the regeneration scheme we said safer pavements - meaning get rid of the crime, the drugs and the vagrants. Instead, all this money has been spent on re-routing traffic and widening the pavements."

But whatever happens to local traders, with thirteen cafes, restaurants and bistros alongside six pubs and more on the way, it seems the street's future lies in offering an alternative to Preston Street.