Swan Heights, the Thames and a Tunnel

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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”
– “really?”
– “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.

_20160912_203702The 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:

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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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Swan Heights, the Thames and a Tunnel

15 thoughts on “Swan Heights, the Thames and a Tunnel

  1. Anonymous says:

    Fully agree that the river is not used to it’s full potential in Reading. Take a stroll along the river in Richmond for example and it’s a beautiful place to be, plenty of cafe’s, bars and restaurants to enjoy as well as boat hire etc that you suggest. I appreciate that Richmond is a much more affluent area than Reading but given the spiraling house prices inside the M25 and the improved transport into London from Reading there will plenty of young professionals (exactly the type of people the ‘Thames Quarter’ development is aiming at) who would make use of the leisure facilities you suggest. Interesting post which I’m sure many people will agree with.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Anonymous says:

    As a local resident I am interested in the development though the meeting showing the plans was impossible to attend. It was not the best publicised event and had a blink-and-you-miss-it time frame. I asked via their Lochailhort website to receive a copy which I am still waiting for.
    Your comment “What did they have to hide?” resonates.

    Liked by 1 person

  3. Anonymous says:

    So another useful car park for office workers on this side of Reading would be lost. Not only has the BMW spot become a very handy popular car park,especially after Hill Meadow has gone up in price, but Reading are also proposing to lose Hills Meadow too? Putting up offices, flats and theatres is all very nice if you live in Reading or catch the train, but not if you have to commute in from Oxfordshire side. Reading hates the car owner but sometimes there’s no other option for workers. . Richmond does make good use of it’s riverside, but they have lovely old buildings lining it, not mass office blocks.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. thanks for the comment. I think only a proportion of Hills Meadow would be needed for a riverside theatre.
      I think we need park and ride’s north of the river, which would ideally use a 3rd bridge (and the new MRT route) to access the town centre quickly and cheaply. If you live in Oxfordshire perhaps you could lobby your councillors to support the 3rd bridge.
      Ultimately, you wouldn’t expect to be able to drive into the centre of Oxford (or Richmond) and park on the banks of a river.
      Hopefully the difference between Richmond and Reading’s Thames-side is simply that we haven’t built our lovely old buildings yet!

      Liked by 1 person

    2. Chris Wood says:

      Actually most of Richmond’s riverside buildings only date back to the 1980s, and were built as part of the Richmond Riverside development by Quinlan Terry in a pastiche style. Not saying Reading should follow that precedent, but the lack of ‘lovely old buildings’ should not be seen as an obstacle. After all, all buildings are new once.

      Liked by 2 people

  4. Mark Drukker says:

    Reading’s river bank is part of a flood plain, so attractive buildings cannot be built there. I think Thames Quarter will have a basement for deliveries, which may cause problems. Will the new landlord eventually sell the building to some Sheikhs, Oligarchs or Chinese, who may not care?
    Nearly every company has moved their offices away from Reading Town Centre to business parks in other areas because of the rents and poor parking.
    Reading’s park and ride sites are closed in the evenings and on Sundays (apart from Mereoak), so they are less attractive. Oxford’s are more like 24/7.
    Reading’s main fiver is the Kennet.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Legitimate concerns on the Thames Quarter ownership.
      I don’t see why attractive buildings can’t be built on the electric works site. Whether the flood risk impact of developing on the corner of Hills Meadow car park can be mitigated I don’t know – I hope it could, but fair point.
      I’d like to see the trend for out-of-town offices dominating over town centre locations reversed. Hopefully new park and ride’s could operate the longer hours you suggest to help achieve this.
      I agree that Reading’s history has been centred around the Kennet. Maybe its future could embrace the Thames, whilst striking the right balance between green meadows, flood plain, attractive buildings and leisure amenities.
      thank you for your comments.

      Like

  5. Reading General says:

    I think this country needs to break the cycle of being held to ransom by available parking spaces in our large towns and cities. No town or destination is ever going to work well if every person who wishes to visit expects a parking space when they get there. Thames valley park no longer has enough parking, which was inevitable when it was built. And now i feel that business parks are a very out of date feature. Park and ride is a temporary solution but not a desirable one. Workers in the town centre, however they get there, is the best solution and easiest to way to solve travel problems with public transport, as everybody is moving toward the same point. Consider the majority rather than the individual.
    Plus i don’t think Reading council is anti-car, far from it. If they were anti-car the buses would be given far better priority and garrard street car park would be demolished in the new plan for station hill. But the council are dealing with above average traffic from the affluent surrounding areas of which they have no governance.

    Liked by 2 people

    1. Anonymous says:

      I’m quite happy for Reading to be somewhat anti-car. If you’re travelling into any busy town or city it makes sense to avoid using the car unless it’s really necessary.

      I’m of the opinion that people should be discouraged from driving into the town centre. I appreciate that there are some circumstances where people need to be able to drive in and park close to the centre of town but for the majority of people this is not necessary and even if you don’t live close to public transport I’m certain that parking at a nearby train station or making use of park and rides is probably quicker that sitting in traffic anyway, certainly during the day.

      I do agree that a lot of public transport in or out of Reading stops far too early in the evening.

      Liked by 2 people

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