The Arc – yet another new plan emerges

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Reading generates planning applications at a prolific rate.  The problem seems to be getting them all built.  In fact, it would be impossible for them all to be built, because most of them tend to be repeat applications for alternative schemes on the same sites.  Station Hill is the most celebrated example, with at least three or four schemes having been separately drawn-up and subsequently shelved.  Now the site of the former BMW garage on Kings Meadow Road is catching up.  Following the high-profile and unpopular “Swan Heights” three-tower idea, developer Lochaillort finally won planning approval last year for the revised “Thames Quarter” project, featuring a 23-storey apartment block comprising 315 homes.  Before the ink on the rubber stamp has even dried, they’re back again with a completely new plan, dubbed “The Arc”.

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The Arc is a triumphantly bold office building proposing 20,000 square metres of offices.  (That’s slightly more than the recently extended Thames Tower).  It also features a “sky garden” with limited public access – I’ll come back to that.  But why would they be proposing offices having done so much work to secure planning permission for apartments?  Some of the documents on the application offer some insight:

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So, the developer would have to pay the council over £13 million in order to realise the Thames Quarter plan.  You may remember,  the developer was sent away to do better on affordable housing first time around, so the council drove a hard bargain.  That is to be welcomed – housing is a major issue and they need to squeeze as much out of developers as they possibly can.  However…

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In this instance, the scale of the financial contribution expected from the developer to support the much-needed new housing might mean the much-needed new housing doesn’t get built at all.  That said, I actually prefer this new idea, for a couple of reasons:

Firstly, I wrote only recently that I was concerned that the new local plan for the town centre currently being finalised was overly focussed on housing.  Giving up too many sites to residential, and using the station and Crossrail to help vast numbers leave town every morning is Project Dormitory and not a good ambition for Reading.  Better to use at least some of that central land to provide employment, leisure and cultural destinations to encourage people to travel into the town, and of course Reading’s residents would benefit from those facilities too.   I agree with building a fair number of new homes centrally, but I’d prefer to see the housing crisis addressed more through suburban extensions.

The second reason I like this office concept is that the designs look really good.  The arc shape is really striking.  Although mathematically, I think it’s actually a parabola not an arc.  But maybe that wouldn’t have made it past the marketing department.  Perhaps we should look to keep the Hexagon and rebuild Metal Box and we could create a Reading version of a baby’s shape-sorter?  It’s certainly very distinctive, and whilst advertised at 12-storeys, it’s actually taller than Thames Tower and a similar size to the 23-floor Thames Quarter plan so should prove quite a landmark.

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The Sky Garden proposed for the upper floors is the main attraction of the proposals.  It would include a cafe and a mezzanine level to be able to walk among trees high with views across the town and the Thames Valley.  It’s compared to Sheffield’s Winter Garden, which is a really nice feature of their city centre.  However, that comparison is a little disingenuous based on the finer detail of these plans.  The application talks of public access to the Sky Garden, but look at the proposed split between public (red) and private (blue – i.e. just for the office workers) areas…

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The public doesn’t get use of the cafe, nor access to the mezzanine.  Surely this can be improved?  I do understand them wanting tenants to be able to use this space – walking meetings, entertaining their clients etc.  But the general public having such limited access would be a mistake – nobody would visit it more than once.  If the public had better use of it then this would become the iconic Instagram image of Reading – people would pay well over the odds for their Americano if they could capture their selfie from their weekend visit to a friend in Reading.  The publicity would surely help establish the Arc as the most high-profile and sought-after business premises in town.  I think the design could be improved to have the cafe serve both public and private areas, and the obvious further solution is to make the whole area available to the public at weekends and some evenings.

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Time will tell if this latest glasshouse concept sees the light of day.  I sometimes wonder whether it’s even worth looking at all these plans until shovels are actually in the ground.  For what it’s worth, this looks to have the potential to be a great addition to Reading’s skyline, and with improved public access the Sky Garden could be a fantastic new attraction.  As a final thought, if these huge offices do go ahead, will there be enough demand for the proposed office towers at Station Hill?  Not to worry, they could always apply to build something completely different… they’re good at planning applications.

Update: 17th Jan.  New images… see below

Your thoughts, as always, are very welcome and can be left without registering…  Thanks for reading.

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The Arc – yet another new plan emerges

26 thoughts on “The Arc – yet another new plan emerges

  1. Anonymous says:

    I think it looks beautiful. Would blend in well with the No.1 Forbury Place building just behind and would look great on the skyline. I 100% agree about the public needing more access to the Sky Garden.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Dinsdale says:

    I rather like it, too, the shape being rather striking and it could become Reading’s “Gherkhin”. I also agree with your comments on access to the gardens, a keypad entrance to the offices below should suffice.

    However, if this goes ahead the council will need to ensure it can’t be immediately converted to flats under permitted changes, which could be a way of circumventing the £13m contributions.

    Liked by 1 person

  3. Interesting. We met with Lochailort when they proposed Swan Heights and rather liked it as it was very different, but we had not really taken on board what a small site it was. The last scheme was aimed at the rental market, in discussion Lochailort said they were not aiming in particular at the London commuting market but I guess the rent levels would have driven the source of the customers. The design of this proposal is, as you say, innovative and to be welcomed. We have far too little imaginitave architecture. But will this fall foul of the council’s view on some of the recent developments that “it isn’t Reading” Well this certainly is not Reading. Good luck to them, it is going to be an interesting journey.

    Liked by 2 people

    1. “It isn’t Reading”…but perhaps this is a golden opportunity to make Reading into something different. An excellent opportunity for the council to recognise that more Soviet-style tower blocks aren’t the kind of ambition our town should have.

      Liked by 1 person

  4. A potentially decent building in my view – and certainly a lot more attractive than more square blocks of flats. There’s an interesting article on the Vail Williams website about the possible Section 106 gains from building offices and converting to residential, although there are time restrictions so this couldn’t be done quickly. The article dates from 2013 but as far as I know the permitted development rules still apply: https://www.vailwilliams.com/news/for-the-right-sites-new-office-to-residential-planning-rules-offer-a-window-of-opportunity.

    There is another perhaps less cynical view to be considered: with the introduction of Crossrail could Reading eventually become an attractive place for businesses in London to relocate to with the right infrastructure and high-quality iconic office buildings? It would certainly be a more attractive journey for commuters against the normal flow.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I can’t believe it would be worth designing and building something like this optimised for the needs of commercial businesses, with the express intent of instantly converting to residential, even to save some of these payments. But an interesting theory!
      Reading station is incredibly well connected, and if the out-of-town business park falls out of fashion with younger workers, and if transport links are improved, then I hope your second point comes to fruition and we see more occupiers choose to locate in the town centre – yes, maybe including some imports from London.

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    2. David, I think Reading is already a very attractive location — look at Huawei, Microsoft and Oracle. You’re not wrong through, Reading’s attraction of being hooked into London but much cheaper is being under-sold. That’s why it’s so crazy that Station Hill was never developed. Green Park took years to let but those developers made the wrong bet — people want to use trains for long-distance commuting, not cars. Station Hill would have been snapped up.

      Now though there’s an elephant in the room: some 85,000 jobs are moving out of the City and Canary Wharf with Brexit. That’s going to cap or even cut office rents in London and will ripple outwards.

      With no land tax in the UK, if I were a developer I’d just sit on sites like Cooper and Station Hill until 2020.

      Liked by 1 person

  5. An interesting and attractive looking building. A thumbs up from me. The obvious compromise regarding the roof garden would be to limit (but not exclude) public access to the entire garden on weekdays when the offices will be heavily in use and then significantly expand public access from Friday evening to Sunday evening. Perhaps the cafe could serve cocktails too!

    Liked by 1 person

  6. Don’t like. We are told we need houses in Reading and I’d rather these were built as architecturally-interesting towers (not the awful super-bland cheap blocks going on the Iceland site or just car-based sprawl). I really can’t see a problem with siting housing next to excellent public transport links (i.e. Crossrail) and people using it.

    I’m also surprised by the glimpse at the business case we have here. Office rents have recently risen a little because of a few office-to-housing conversions? And they want to change a plan costing tens of millions with a payback period of tens of years on the back of that? That’s not very astute. Explains why certain developers well, don’t develop…

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    1. Lochailort’s website is an interesting read. Their portfolio is a just a handful of small schemes — one entry is just a single house — but their ‘current projects’ encompass 1,400+ units, with very little work underway on any of them. I won’t hold my breath waiting for anything to be built in Reading.

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  7. Absolutely stunning! But I can’t help but think that the council has tried to “squeeze” too much from the residential developers that it is simply not worth building residential in the town center any more. Its a real shame that their own greed when it comes to affordable housing has resulted in less housing actually being built.

    The cynic in me thinks this Scheme may be just to make that exact point, and they will go back to residential in the end for another concrete tower block 😦

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  8. Reading General says:

    Commercial and interesting looking. Definitely in for this. As always I think add a couple of stories so all buildings in town aren’t of a similar height. Cheers

    Liked by 2 people

  9. Taxman14 says:

    This is only about money. Build an office block (as though Reading needs anymore office blocks given the numbers unoccupied) then convert it into flats and so no need to make a large contribution. Bingo!

    Liked by 1 person

  10. Reading General says:

    If you go on the Scott Brownrigg website section about the Arc and look on the VR tour, click on outside and you’ll get a bizarre 360 fantasy view of the town.

    Liked by 1 person

  11. Reader says:

    Looks good, I think I’d support this. Except I see no reason for “THE ARC” sign to be so large. I’m not a fan of buildings having their name emblazoned in huge letters. Reduce the size of the letters by at least 60% (or remove altogether) and it’ll look a lot more dignified.

    Liked by 1 person

  12. Peter Bowyer says:

    Lochailart has since told Get Reading that the separate development of 350 affordable homes is still going ahead – which dispels soge fears that this move is a protest against RBCs robust insistence on this. All very interesting.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. If they want to progress the residential development (high-end rental-only 315 homes proposed) then the agreement with the council was to provide 57 affordable homes on another site first. Getreading reports they are still working on that, which as you say, is very interesting. I suspect they want all the permissions in place for both schemes, then they’ll sell to highest bidding developer. So the market at that point will determine whether it’ll go to offices or residential.

      Like

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