April was a month of contrasting fortunes for Reading’s two major regeneration projects. Royal Elm Park, a convention centre and hotel complex adjoining Madejski stadium, was enthusiastically approved by the council, to wide acclaim from the business community. By contrast, Station Hill is being put up for sale, which will likely see the proposals back on the drawing board. Since 2005, variations of plans have come and gone. The five hectare site adjacent to Reading Station was supposed to transform the town, but years on it hasn’t lived up to its incredible potential. Station Hill really is the Jack Wilshere of regeneration schemes.
I’m not the biggest fan of out-of-town business parks. A park is somewhere you play, not work. I’d rather see office towers in the centre of town, with workers arriving by public transport and enjoying the benefits of all the facilities on offer in RG1. By contrast, out-of-town oxymoronic “business parks” plunder lower land values, and thrive off the sad reality that even today’s chronic traffic congestion is insufficient to tempt people to ditch their cars.
To me there’s a clear connection between the stalling of Station Hill and the rise of Royal Elm Park. The proposed convention centre targets the legion of corporates that, over recent years, have chosen to line the M4 rather than take the opportunities offered centrally at Station Hill.
The convention centre proposals go to great lengths to demonstrate that access to “The International” will not be dependent on driving. There will be an on-site bus station with special buses put on to serve large events. And they celebrate the planned new Green Park railway station with its two trains per hour to Basingstoke. But the public transport case is surely infinitely stronger in town, with scores of regular buses and a winning three trains per hour to Basingstoke … (plus the small matter of two trains an hour to Bristol, one to Wales, another to Exeter, two to Guildford and Gatwick, one to Bournemouth, two to Birmingham and the north, two stoppers to Waterloo – shortly to be four, loads to Oxford, oh, and I almost forgot, a tube-like frequency of fast trains to Paddington, with four Crossrail stoppers to start soon, plus four more to Heathrow by the early 2020’s… and I’m sure I’ve missed others too)… But for all that, I think they expect, in truth, that most mid-sized events, for up to 1000 delegates, can be served largely by the on-site multi-storey car park and the odd coach from the host business’ own offices.
The Mothercare/TGI area is ripe for regeneration. In my view, sheds like The Range and Majestic Wines would be best located out-of-town. Could these retailers have moved to RG2 to free up land for a central convention centre? I mean, Majestic / Madejski – surely it was meant to be? The developers have frequently cited the success of a similar recent complex in Liverpool. But that’s located beside the historic docks, with an Atrium overlooking the Mersey and a “stunning riverside terrace”. The soon-to-be-vacated SSE site on Vastern Road could have provided a striking riverside convention centre for Reading, right on the station’s doorstep. Or even Station Hill itself might have done the job. Assuming some level of use on a daily basis, a centrally located convention centre could have poured thousands of people out into the town centre providing a huge boost to retailers.
I know the town centre is doing well, yet I fear this may have been a missed opportunity to catapult it forwards. I favour the “critical mass” argument of higher density and clustering of retail, leisure, offices, and culture all together around a main transport hub. I think the business parks are competing with that vision and limiting Reading’s progress. There’s now another new hotel planned at Winnersh Triangle, in addition to the two it has already. For many of our business visitors, this is all they see – an identikit hotel with a continental breakfast in an adjoining chain restaurant, followed by a short walk across a car park and a few lanes of traffic into a steel box for the day, then straight onto the motorway home. Wouldn’t life be better if the office was in town, offering all the leisure and culture of the town centre, generating the demand for hotel developments centrally – maybe even one within a renovation of the Gaol?
Maybe I’m missing something? Perhaps Winnersh Triangle is where it’s at. I mean, the automated train announcer seems to get a frisson of excitement when proclaiming the calling point to passengers. Should I start a petition to relocate George Palmer’s statue to Loddon Bridge roundabout? The annual giant Santa thing could be our new Forbury Lion? Maybe I’ll reserve the Reading-on-M4 domain name.
I don’t think I am missing something. It’s large businesses that are short-sightedly neglecting to see the benefits of Reading town centre. In the coming weeks Pret will open in Thames Tower, joined by a Scandinavian bar called Kupp. Nero will open at Apex Plaza with another occupier likely to join it, whilst an Italian wine cafe called Veeno will appear opposite Forbury Gardens. Within the space of just a few months, the ground floors alone of central Reading’s office buildings will open more amenities than the business parks have mustered collectively in several decades. And that neglects to mention the entire remaining town centre’s offer on their doorstep. Demanding “millenials” are not going to tolerate a picnic table and a man-made lake, and the business park boom will surely ultimately wane.
Whilst I would have clearly preferred a central location for Royal Elm Park, it’s still a very welcome development. Some have questioned the name. Is it a park? Will there be Elms? Is it really royal? I’m ok with it – there’ll be some greenery; it nicely reflects Reading FC’s history; and they can plant some Elms. More importantly, hoards of fans who pine after somewhere for a pre-match drink should ensure that the bars and cafes surrounding the square prove very poplar. And the gardens could even make a nice spot fir a picnic, assuming they’re not restricted for the privet use of residents. It’s a great opportunity to spruce up a fairly soulless part of town, and a vibrant new residential community here could really see it larch from one extreme to the other. Sadly, the developers have wriggled out of meeting affordable housing targets on viability grounds – that old chestnut. I think I need to stop – I don’t want to annoy yew.
Reading fans will in the most part benefit from this. The free transport plan will more than make up for the lost parking. And the extra interest around the ground should be enough to make people arrive earlier and stay longer. With a touch more alcohol on board, the atmosphere might even improve a little, and these things together will, in my view, ultimately help increase attendances.
Back at Station Hill, Garrard Street car park, sitting right in the middle of the site, seems to be an obstacle to progress. Originally, demolition was planned with a huge multi-level underground car park to replace it. But excessive costs and an inability to phase the construction scuppered that idea. The more modest “Station Hill 3” design kept the multi-storey, but chops off the western third and proposes further storeys on top whilst re-cladding the exterior.
Any new owners may take a fresh look. In my view, the new bus links to the south, and particularly the east, are game-changers. The Napier Rd / Thames Valley Park link will be a virtual tele-porter, with unimpaired fast access right to the railway station. Could the Station Hill buyer not also acquire vacant plots in Thames Valley Park and provide the 900 parking spaces there and a park & ride service to compensate for a demolition of Garrard St? The vacated land at Station Hill would allow lucrative further development, easier phasing, and contribute to a reduction in traffic, with only a small amount of replacement underground parking for the disabled and top executives of the office tenants.
We don’t yet know whether the Station Hill sale will mean alterations to the scheme. But informed opinion suggest that it will. If some of the office buildings are re-designated for residential then expect to see the building heights edging back up, having only been reduced in the most recent plans. Offices will undoubtedly remain, quite rightly, a core component, and perhaps the lure of the plush convention centre, albeit out-of-town, might help fill them up. But development timelines for Station Hill must have dropped back well into the next decade. Meanwhile, Royal Elm Park, assuming a following wind (or should I say, plane sailing), could be open by 2020.
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