Last Friday I attended a public exhibition at the Town Hall for revised proposals for the development previously known as Swan Heights to be built on the former BMW site on Napier Road. Here’s what I picked up, and some follow up thoughts…
Signs were not promising for this one – there were literally no signs at all outside the Town Hall, or inside the foyer for direction. The event was tucked away in a room on the first floor, and unless you knew about it, there’s no way anyone was going to stumble upon it. What did they have to hide?
The previous Swan Heights proposals had provoked something of a backlash. In truth, it was almost a parody of an initial planning application. I reckon they probably pinched one of those little gizmos from Clinton Cards so that when the council’s planners opened the file it sounded a synthesised clap of thunder and evil laughter. I can visualise the developer stood over the architect’s shoulder at the computer:
– “just make those windows slightly smaller could you?
– “like that?”
– “..and a bit smaller”
– “yeah, just keep going. And can we make it look slightly more evil?”
I think we need to roll our eyes at this whole charade and just look at the new plans on their merits, with no sentences allowed beginning with “By comparison…” And actually, I don’t think we’d need to, because I’m broadly comfortable with the new plans. There’s a new architect, and she was on-hand to answer questions last Friday.
The new proposal is for a development of around 310 apartments including a circa 23-storey tower on the corner with Vastern Road, dropping down to eight to ten storeys along Napier Road.
The new shorter building has been given celebrity backing by Caversham-based TV presenter Simon Thomas, who had been a vocal critic of the previous scheme, as his view seems to sum up the views I heard at the exhibition.
The development would be owned by a single institution with apartments rented out. I think this is quite note-worthy, and potentially a very positive step. It should be in the interests of that business to maintain the development to a high standard. My fear was that we’d quickly see the view from the railway line reduced to a fairly blank brick facade with bathroom windows and smears of white stains from longtime-dripping overflow pipes, left for years due to either ambivalence or conflict amongst tenants, leaseholders and freeholder. This “asset managed” model should professionalise the whole thing. New tenants won’t come forward if the building and surroundings are poorly maintained, so the owning business will probably ensure that risk is managed. Equally, if they gain a reputation for harsh dealings with tenants then the same fate awaits. All in all, it should be a recipe for success.
Something of an existential issue for this blog is campaigning for better use of the Thames in Reading. [Bold unsubstantiated claim coming] Reading is not a world famous place, yet running through it is arguably one of the top five most famous rivers in the world. I think Reading’s use of its stretch of the Thames is profoundly wasteful (although the new footbridge is a notable exception). One of the most annoying arguments against improvements is the word “unspoilt”. Dividing the world into “spoilt” and “unspoilt” essentially classifies any human intervention as “spoiling”. There’s clearly a third state between unspoilt and spoilt – let’s call it “in good use”. I think crazy golf, cafes, a theatre on Hill Meadow, boat hire, moorings, toilets, a restaurant on lock island, the new spa, a leisure-based redevelopment of the electric works – these would be “in good use”, and allow Reading’s residents to enjoy and show off their world famous asset.
But we have a problem. Between the Thames and the town there are some rather unimpressive scenes (Thames Water HQ aside). It’s a fairly barren and soulless area – no coffee houses, cafes or shops; no reason to do anything other than scuttle along as quickly as you can. Busy roads, a wide elevated railway line, and drab offices bedecked in “To Let” signs. Why do they do that? As if Joe Public wandering past is thinking, “oh, now you mention it I could use a little office space”. In this age of personalised, digital advertising, it’s rather primitive. And if I was one of the 0.001% with a business looking for corporate premises, surely I wouldn’t be aimlessly pounding the streets looking for ‘To Let’ signs? “Oh, it’s the third floor available is it? In that case I’ll pop in right now and sign up.” I think these signs just scream “this building is a failure – this is a rubbish place – nobody wants to be here – why are you here? You must be a loser too”. Ban the ‘To Let’ sign.
I’d like to see the approach of marginal gains stolen from those British cycling chaps and applied meticulously here. How can we take each stride-length from Forbury Gardens to our new Hills Meadow Theatre and make it as enjoyable, stress-free, fun and safe as possible? How can we stitch the Thames seamlessly into the town centre?
Now, this new development on the corner of Napier Road possesses around 40 or 50 of those stride-lengths. What do they plan to do with them? Well, firstly, they’re naming their building “Thames Quarter”, implying they might share my vision. The entrance to the development will be on Vastern Road. This will tip out upwards of 500 people onto the pavement every morning heading for work (and coffee). I think this is good news, adding people and vibrancy to a part of town that needs it. Then secondly there’ll be a small retail unit – probably a coffee shop. At last – something that says you’re in a place where somebody might actually deliberately spend time. They also plan to improve the landscaping of the paths along their stride-lengths.
So I’m happy, right? Almost. I’d like to see them do more. The Vastern Road rail bridge. It’s horrible. It was recently widened on both sides as part of the station redevelopment. Network Rail did incredibly to merge in the extensions with the existing bridge with the skill of a master forger. Sadly, they weren’t forging a masterpiece. It’s noisy, fume-ridden, cramped, goes on forever… it’s festooned with pigeon faeces. We’ve got a good 60 stride-lengths of pain here, enough to dissuade most people from even taking on my Forbury Gardens to River Thames pilgrimage.
Could we not seize the initiative here? Developers make financial contributions to infrastructure and public art. Let’s do something special. Why not glaze across the gaps between the yellow supports, enclosing the footways from the noise and fumes below? Add some arty lighting, maybe widen the footway by stealing some of the ramp of pigeon poo. Finally, a moving walkway airport-style, that could halve our necessary stride count, and speed up the journey to work for our new residents. Here’s my before and after:
Come on Lochailort Investments and Reading Borough Council! Get your heads together and have some ideas. This could be the development that fuses together a new “Thames Quarter” with the existing town centre. Don’t let the opportunity pass.
Plans for the Thames Quarter may eventually be published on the developer’s website. In the meantime, they have my provisional support, as long as they can spruce up the Vastern Road railway bridge… (oh… and ban from their apartments any “To Let” signs).
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