Towering Aspirations or the Height of Madness?

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This year has seen a succession of high-rise living proposals emerge for central Reading.  Each seems to provoke a similar outburst of polarised opinions.  Here I take a canter through each of the plans, and examine the debate on whether we should be wary or welcoming of this new trend.

The Toys ‘R Us and Homebase sites are earmarked for replacement with a large residential scheme of around 700 homes, of which a 19-storey tower is just one small part.  The developers have consulted widely as the plans have been drawn up, with an application expected soon.  The development will include a convenience store, a cafe/restaurant in a new square beside the Kennet, whilst the tower will be a short walk along Forbury Road from the station and town centre.

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Kenavon Drive

Meanwhile, right beside the station, plans have recently been submitted for 107 apartments in a 23-floor tower on the site of a derelict office building.  This site has been mooted for high-rise development for many years, with multiple previous plans for offices, apartments and a hotel, none of which were ever built.  Whether these latest designs make it off the drawing board remains to be seen.  If they do, the ground and mezzanine floors will provide new retail space fronting Station Road.

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Station Road Tower

First off the blocks is likely to be the new Kings Point.  Demolition of the 1960’s eyesore recently completed, and although the developers have now submitted a revision to the approved plan to tweak the layout of the basement car park, I would still expect to see construction start early next year.  And at a mere 16 floors it’ll be up in no time.

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Kings Point, Kings Road

On the corner of Napier Road, BMW recently relocated their showroom to Kennet Island in Whitley.  The building has been knocked down and is in temporary use as a car park.  Developers Lochaillort provoked outcry with some initial colossal plans, but have since returned with a more modest proposal at a seemingly now standard 19 storeys.

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Thames Quarter, Napier Road (formerly known as Swan Heights)

Most recently, early-stage plans have emerged for a 20-floor tower within a wider redevelopment of the Wickes/Muliyork/Iceland site on the western side of the town centre.  Ignore the building heights on the plans below – they measure from sea-level usefully enough.  But one interesting feature is the idea of a top-floor restaurant, although I’m slightly unclear on the purpose of 12 metres of “uninhabitable floors” at the top.

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Former Wickes site, Weldale St

Finally, one such tower has already been built.  The 19-level Chatham Place tower was the pioneer for high-rise residential in central Reading.  It is now known as the Hewitt Building and the top floor is marketed as a serviced apartment.

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Chatham Place

I welcome this new trend.  But without doubt, a significant number of local people oppose these developments.  Criticisms tend to align with one of the following arguments:

  1. We don’t need more flats, we need houses.
  2. There’ll just be taken by outsiders commuting to London, turning us into a dormitory town.
  3. It’s Reading just trying to be a city again.
  4. They’re too tall and out of keeping.

Let me take on each of these claims in turn.

“We don’t need more flats, we need houses”

Now let’s be up front here.  I live in a house, and with a young family I’d much rather be here than perched up in an 18th floor flat.  Undoubtedly, we need more housing (houses) to satisfy the demand in the area.  However, the plots that these proposed towers occupy are by definition tiny – room for at most a handful of suburban-style semi’s.  And what a ludicrous waste of town centre land that would be.

A local twitter account named politivoxbox (whose close scrutiny of a long-running majority council I welcome by the way) is a vocal critic of these plans.  He/she goes further on this argument to say that flats are “socially isolating”.  There is some evidence out there to substantiate that claim on the basis of fewer “chance encounters”, although I found a plethora of commentators dismissing the case.  One article captured my sentiments perfectly:

Lack of opportunity for chance encounters is hardly a problem for the young singles and couples without dependents who’re over-represented in city centre towers. They want to get out and enjoy life on the street. Indeed, the very reason they’re prepared to live in small apartments is so they can be in the centre of the action!

“There’ll just be taken by outsiders commuting to London, turning us into a dormitory town.”

It’s probably true that many occupants will find themselves commuting to London.  Crossrail is a catalyst here, with Paddington’s improved connections to the City and Canary Wharf reducing journey times from Reading.  But with a thriving commercial centre of our own, we’re a far cry from a dormitory town.

The long-term pattern I see is for young people coming out of university to spend a few years enjoying London, clustering in areas such as Clapham, before hitting their mid-thirties and buying a house in home county-suburbia to have a family.  So if these people are going to rock up anyway (and push up the price of housing) why not get them in earlier when they can spend their disposable income here helping to support a wider variety of leisure and commercial activity in Reading?  They might even use some of their spare time to get involved with sports or cultural groups locally.

“It’s Reading just trying to be a city again.”

This argument drives me nuts.  I’ve not written about city status on these pages because I don’t think it’s a major issue.  It perpetually comes up on the local media, again recently.  Somehow opposition to any initiative, be it bus lanes, cycle hire schemes, bridges, or tall buildings, it’s always part of some evil vanity quest – “look at them – they’re just trying to make Reading a city”.  I think the council should pass the following motion:

“We, the borough council of Reading, henceforth commit that we shall never again apply for city status, instead focussing on extending our indisputable lead as Britain’s greatest town.”

Bang.  All your problems gone – “look at them – they’re just trying to make Reading… better??”  How awful of them.

No doubt we’re getting more of the profit-making “city-like features” – apartments and office blocks,  whereas we’d rather have more people-focussed “city-like features” – mass transport and leisure/cultural destinations.  But I cling to the hope that the former makes the latter more likely.

“They’re too tall and out of keeping.”

Obviously there are places where tall buildings would be completely inappropriate.  But whereas cities like Oxford have a major historical asset in their skylines, we don’t. (Although surely even the dreaming spires were vanity projects of their day?).  So let’s play the hand we’ve been dealt – tall building can work for Reading.  Besides, these aren’t huge towers; none comes close to qualifying as a “skyscraper” by the modern 100m definition of the term.

Summary

It looks like the coming years will see a wave of new apartment buildings coming to Reading.  All of the sites are either partially or wholly out of active use, so I welcome the fact that each scheme represents an opportunity to add vitality to its locality.  I’m hoping for something of an arms race where developers compete to provide the best quality accommodation and great facilities like rooftop restaurants or ground floor shopping.  Most of all, I hope new residents feel welcome here and enjoy living in and contributing towards a thriving modern city town.


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Towering Aspirations or the Height of Madness?

11 thoughts on “Towering Aspirations or the Height of Madness?

  1. SAF says:

    I live in a beautiful part of rural Berkshire just off J11 but I love the town of my birth, it’s vibrant and exciting and I can understand why so many want to live here. People need to accept that to live in a busy, popular place like Reading it’s all about apartment living. If you want a house & garden you need to look outside the town

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Reading General says:

    All for building upwards, i always have been. Our town centre is relatively small compared to other places with a similar sized urban area and population, going up is the best answer. My only concern about people living in town centres is opposition to further development.

    Liked by 1 person

  3. DingLover says:

    Reading should have had these developments many years ago, the skyline will be welcomed, but I hope there are no bad taste awards to be handed out as Reading Borough council so regularly approve awful buildings… 😔 And little cultural development for the Town to entertain us or the newbies… theatres, ice skating, bowling, even just somewhere to sit in the day that catches the sun is hard work in our town planning .. !

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thanks. Yes, I think the right approach is to scrutinise and influence these developments to ensure they improve the town at street level too. Hopefully new developments around the station can provide us with some sun traps and not wind tunnels.

      Like

  4. Anonymous says:

    Informative with well expressed arguments. Agree with most of the views although disappointed with the uninspired nature of the architecture required to achieve planning approval in Reading. Thank you for this article.

    Liked by 1 person

  5. They’re a bit ugly though, aren’t they? I too want to see lots of 19+ floor developments, ideally higher. But all of these designs are strangely ugly as sin; they’re equivalents in London look far better.

    Liked by 1 person

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