Home from Homebase

River view - web_1000x438Yesterday I called in at the exhibition showing the proposals for the redevelopment of the Homebase and Toys R Us sites.  The event was held in the permanently moored barge at Blakes Lock and, as these things go, it was one of the better ones, even providing drinks and cake!  One encouraging touch was using a replica Huntley & Palmer biscuit tin for storing the pens for the feedback forms.  A subtle thing, but the fact that the developer can be bothered to give a little thought to tailoring the consultation event to the audience, in my view bodes well that the proposals might also be designed for the actual site, rather than a copy/paste job from the last block of flats they built.

I spoke to one of the architects for the scheme.  He referred to the merits of Chestnut Walk (between the prison and canal), with its double line of trees.  Again, it’s reassuring that not only had the architect visited the site but he has actually walked a few yards either side of it.  Perhaps I had low expectations.

The developer is London & Quadrant, a housing association and private developer.  I asked whether that might imply a “budget” development, but that received a fairly compelling rebuke from our architect who said he’d worked on high-quality schemes for the developer in the recent past.

The vision for the site, formerly part of the Huntley & Palmer biscuit factory prior to its current retail life, is to re-capture the spirit of that industrial use, celebrate the biscuit town heritage, all within a new residential scheme of 700-odd homes.  It’s great that the plans seek to draw upon the history of Reading and of this particular location, but to me there’s a risk they’re being slightly too subtle – a slanty roof here and some factory-esque windows there.  After the pre-amble, I was expecting to hear of a giant biscuit tin art installation, or something more “in your face”.

The highlight of the plan, by far, is the proposed Riverside Square.  Part grass, part water feature, this would be a new public space flanked on three side by restaurants spilling out on the piazza overlooking the water.  I’ve harped on about Reading needing to make better use of its riversides, so this is very welcome and an exciting prospect.  The visuals also include a fourth restaurant/cafe situated on the island sometimes referred to as Chocolate Island, linked by a new bridge from the Riverside Square.  However, conversation with the architect confirmed that this is just an idea, and that the island isn’t in the ownership of the developer.  He thought it might be owned by Prudential (I don’t think Prudential actually owns those offices?).  In my view, it’s a bit naughty to include the island in the visuals and on the website without the appropriate caveat: *not actually part of our plans.  Black mark.

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My other concern with this plan is a slightly broader one.  There seems to be quite a dramatic shift to residential uses in the town centre just at the moment.  The council has recently issued a strategic planning document, and responses from land owners and other groups have just been published on its website.  It’s full of developers pitching for potential housing allocations to be increased.  The Bristol and West Arcade, previously planned for a mixed use scheme is now being suggested as residential with only ground floor retail.  Kier had been planning flats above a supermarket on the Civic Centre site – now it’s just flats.  Even Apex Plaza and the station’s Brunel Arcade are mooted for apartments.  Meanwhile Oxford has written in to remind Reading about its new Westgate shopping centre and suggests we hold off retail development here as a result.

I do have plenty of time for new housing in the town centre.  But we must be looking at possibly upwards of 3000 homes within the next ten years.  I know there’s a desperate need, but if we instead extended the town by building out half a mile in most directions, you’d probably be looking at nearer 30,000 homes.  And that population could support a growth in commercial and leisure uses in the town centre – but that’s if we haven’t built apartments on every available plot in the meantime.  I know that current demand for retail is weak, but things might change.  To me, this current “Crossrail effect” runs a risk of becoming Project Dormitory.

In fairness, the Homebase scheme (and Kier’s for that matter) should deliver some great new public spaces.  But it also hides away three large courtyard areas for exclusive use for residents.  I also think that it’s a mistake putting a row of houses alongside the canal beside the IDR (shown in red box above).  Visitors from central Reading and the revamped prison site using the tow path to reach the new riverside square will have to walk past these townhouse front doors and kitchen windows.  This will probably be the most central new row of terraced houses built in Reading for a century.  For the sake of five houses among 700 homes, why bother?  Just extend the square.  Or at least put a gym or something on the ground floor with the homes above.  Commercial units can evolve with demand over the years, whereas houses will stay as they are for much longer.

In summary, the historical references are appreciated, and the riverside square should be a great addition.  On the flip side, I know we’re not going to get the full-on town centre extension I proposed some weeks back, but shouldn’t we be acknowledging this is still really quite a central location and try to accommodate a broader mix of uses?

The plans are being shown again as part of the Waterfest event on Saturday (11th June), on the riverside in front of Homebase itself.  Why not drop by and make up your own mind?

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