Reading’s Regeneration – a game of two halves

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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.

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Inside the proposed convention centre

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.

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Proposed free train travel zone for matchdays

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.

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New trees, but could Garrard St car parking be re-provisioned out-of-town?

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.

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long-vacant plot on Thames Valley Park

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.

What do you think?  It’s great to hear your thoughts.  Comments are welcome and can be left below (without registration!)

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Reading’s Regeneration – a game of two halves

23 thoughts on “Reading’s Regeneration – a game of two halves

  1. T-bird says:

    Station Hill would be a great place for an arts centre, to replace the ageing Hexagon. I’m thinking large theatre, small theatre, indie cinema, dance studios, rehearsal spaces, recording studios. If we can’t do it at Reading Gaol this would be a good alternative – and very accessible with all those trains!

    Liked by 2 people

    1. Thanks T-bird. I must admit that I really do love the Hill’s Meadow car park possibility for a riverside theatre. And I haven’t given up on some arts space at the Gaol. But you make a good argument!
      Maybe an arena near the station one day…

      Liked by 1 person

      1. Andrew Taylor says:

        Agreed, but as always I’m going to plea for everyone to think about music in any new arts centre. We need a viable concert hall in the town centre with suitable acoustics and configurable staging for large orchestral and choral concerts (the Victorian Town Hall just doesn’t cut it for an orchestra concert of more than chamber size), as well as theatres.

        Liked by 2 people

      2. Thanks for explaining. I’ve seen comedy at the Town Hall but it’s hard to hear that clearly either. But it is a lovely building. Can acoustics not be improved somehow?

        Like

  2. Reading General says:

    Great stuff once again. Not locating office based workplaces in the town centre has created additional transport problems to solve on top of getting people into the town centre. Of course we can run buses, open stations and even build tram lines to these parks but this is transport that will only be in use at certain times of the day on certain days, much like the confusing array of routes and combinations that go to Green park currently. Having large workplaces on the edge of town also requires a change of buses etc. in the centre of town for those who would come from other suburbs, hardly encouraging for people to use public transport. For example, someone who lives in the western part of Lower Earley near asda could get a bus toward town, taking about 20-25 minutes, then a bus to Green park, taking another 20 minutes plus a few minutes wait in town, or they could drive for 15 minutes and have a parking space available when they get there. Which would most people choose? A bus route could run between both points, but outside of peak hours wouldn’t be necessary to run. It could run only at peak times, but routes that only run a certain times of day are not enticing enough to rely on if you were to leave work early or wish to do something at lunch etc.
    Now if the business park areas were housing (consider the serious amount of housing that could fit on Green park or Thames Valley park even with low density) and the workplaces in the town centre stacked in towers, the transport problems become far easier to solve. Not all employment has to be in town, just the largest office based companies whose employees are probably the most likely to use decent public transport if there is no opportunity to drive and park.
    The stadium car park development is providing housing (although not the type for normal people) as well as Green park village which may justify some transport all day and all week but will anybody who lives in these places work next door? Probably not. Maybe a few will work in town to make use of the buses but most people will either leave by train toward a different town, or leave by car. And each morning those who live there attempting to leave by car will have to cross the path of those arriving to work.
    If it was up to me, the football ground would be in the centre of town too, on the Huntley and Palmers site near the Hauptbahnhof and not far from where every bus route goes. Making the best use of the limited public transport we have. Cheers

    Liked by 2 people

    1. Thanks RG. I think I’d stop short of proposing a central football stadium – it does sit relatively idle most days so couldn’t justify use of such a site. And this is where the convention centre debate is – if it’s infrequent big events then out-of-town makes sense, but if it’s in heavy daily use then I’d have rather seen it in town so that retailers could pick up some additional trade, and enhanced regular public transport be viable with those extra numbers.
      Absolutely agree on the benefits of town centre locations for bigger businesses, and the drawbacks of suburb-to-business park commuting- so hard for public transport to compete with the car, but we are reaching a point, I think, with congestion that perhaps the balance would shift. And maybe governments could find a way to help that to happen, e.g. preventing out-of-town offices being built if vacant offices exist in nearby town centres??
      Thanks again for your thoughts.

      Like

    2. I learnt all this stuff in Geography when I was at school in the 90s. Why don’t planners get it? Are they still wedded to the American/Tory idea of everyone using cars for point to point journeys? Los Angeles demonstrates every single day that it simply doesn’t work, even with 20-lane highways.

      London and pretty much any European city or town demonstrates that putting employment in the centre and homes around it, then linking the two with fast public transport, just works.

      I think part of it comes from the fact that public transport needs central planning and some level of subsidy, and that’s ‘socialist’, i.e. people working together for common good. Cars work in a libertarian: if you can afford one, great. Good for you. Bugger anyone else. A shallow strip of broken, sinking tarmac is cheap. The fact that you simply can’t get anywhere in a car at peak times doesn’t come into it.

      Liked by 1 person

  3. SG says:

    This piece brings into play two of Reading’s development conundrums – one longstanding and the other relatively recent.

    First, there is the longstanding issue that developers are interested in Reading as a geographically convenient point to benefit from the prosperous West London/Heathrow/Thames Valley region. Any car-dependent office on business parks from Uxbridge through the M3/M4/M40 corridor could make use of Royal Elm Park and pending what happens to Heathrow/Brexit that is potentially a good market for developers. However, the same developers have very little interest in Reading as an urban centre in its own right. Royal Elm Park could have been built at any of junctions 3-12 of the M4 without the developers being much bothered which one. Possibly the only recent major development which was interested in both the region and Reading as a town was The Oracle.

    Second, there is the continued hollowing-out of Reading as an office centre, with residential flats replacing offices everywhere outside a very tight radius of the railway station. When I arrived in town, the big offices were in Kings Road. Now they are almost entirely flats, with the big offices in Green Park, Thames Valley Park, Winnersh Triangle etc. It’s not really clear what the long-term consequences of this are, but the concept that offices should be in spacious parkland while residences are in high-rise blocks seems to present sustainability and environmental issues, as well as the transport problems identified by other commenters.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. very good points SG. I suppose in the light that this could have been built anywhere along the M4, perhaps we should be glad to have it at J11, where at the very least it will help support fast and frequent local public transport – maybe a tram one day!
      Would be really interesting to know what the total town centre office space was in the 80s vs today. I suspect about the same, with the growth being out-of-town. As for the long term consequences, I think what goes around comes around, and out-of-town offices will drift out of fashion.
      Thanks for sharing your analysis.

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      1. There’s far, far more office space in the centre today than in the 1980s. The Blade, the Forbury, the new buildings on the Metalbox site, the Prudential building all spring to mind. The King’s Road offices were just converted town houses which have gone back to their original use.

        I’m not aware of any town centre office space which has been converted to residential use.

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      2. It’s happened quietly, but a lot has been converted – just still looks like offices! All along Kings Road southern side, both the town centre end and out towards cemetery junction. Market Place (including above the post office), Garrard House and now potentially 29 Station Road is next too. And some have been demolished for new-build residential, eg opposite the Lyndhurst.

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  4. Anonymous says:

    I think as has already been suggested there needs to be a shift in people’s attitude towards the car. I work in a town centre location and have found that people tend to be so stubborn about their need to drive to work rather than use public transport (What if the bus or train is late/What if i need to leave early to pick up my kid/What if I want to run errands on my lunch break..). This is true even of people who live in seemingly convenient public transport locations.

    In my opinion this boils down to the fact that people simply don’t want to use public transport and until that attitude changes these business parks will continue to have a place, and the town’s well known traffic problems will continue to grow.

    Liked by 2 people

    1. Do you think ordinary workers are as wedded to their cars as the top exec who probably has a strong say in where to put the office?!
      I think you’re probably right. Maybe as Uber becomes more well used for those adhoc journeys then our strong attachment to our cars might weaken.
      Thanks for commenting.

      Like

  5. Reading General says:

    Yes, unfortunately that attitude only seems to break when people work in london, or when the mode of transport changes from bus to tram/metro etc. Fixed, permanent infrastructure transport must appear more reliable than a bus that shares the same roadspace as the car someone could drive.
    Cheers

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Maybe it is that reassurance that a tram will be running all the time, not just peak hours. I think our bus company is pretty good for running frequent services even at times that might not justify it, because they know the overall convenience for users, and the perception of it, are important to customers.

      Like

  6. Anonymous says:

    I had the privilege of working right in the centre of Reading over a period of about 8 years, when I travelled in from the North of the river by bike or bus. It was fantastic to be able to “make use” of the facilities of the town during lunch or for recreation after work. Whilst by no means an expert view, I have been aware of a few fairly large employers (including my own former employer) which really struggled when considering relocation of offices within Reading. One factor was floor size constraint, where the offices available in Reading have been large enough in theory but require splitting teams of people over several floors vertically. It is very hard to find office space in the centre with large enough floors to keep bigger teams together. This was effectively a “deal breaker” in at least one situation. It seems to me that, rather than converting city centre offices for residential use, (driving an increase in Reading as a dormitory town) we should make space for larger and more prestigious offices which might attract some bigger employers in.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Interesting. I guess “The Blade” was quite tall and thin. But I would have thought the Station Hill developers could redesign to suit any potential large occupier…
      thanks for your thoughts.

      Like

  7. Alex Berry says:

    Use the trainlines in the area to create a Mass Rapid Transit zone using contactless cards. Connect the green park station to Wokingham with a small amount of track and you have a large travel zone to get people out of cars and into town.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Will be interesting to see if Oyster comes to Reading with Crossrail.
      I think it might be hard to find capacity into Reading station to serve any new branch off the existing lines, which is why I would favour a tram with a route similar to your suggestion.
      Thanks for commenting.

      Like

  8. Hello! Time for my quarterly or so visit

    I agree entirely with everything you say. Light industry and large-area retail belong on the outskirts; offices, high-value retail and food and drink in the centre

    It’s like someone in Reading council can’t admit that their choices in the 80s and 90s were wrong (Oracle greatly excepted). Isn’t much of Green Park still empty?

    You’d think they’d pick up on projects like the Crick and Google HQ in London. Companies and organisations which pay well want to be in the best locations, not windswept estates.

    Perhaps the sale of Station Hill will allow a developer with foresight to crack on — I don’t imagine high quality offices literally at the terminus of Crossrail would take long to fill up.

    Liked by 1 person

  9. Reading General says:

    As well as plot on Green Park near the station site now planned for more housing instead of offices,a planning application has been filed to convert a building on Thames Valley Park to residential, so perhaps my wishes may come true of seeing an end to the business parks

    Liked by 1 person

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