It’s been a while since I posted, and a number of you have been asking for updates on what’s going on around town. Whilst pretty much all of this has been reported in various places, hopefully it’s useful or interesting to pull it all together. And I promise, it’s not all about flats! …Okay, some of it is about flats.
Let’s start in Market Place. The food hall concept for the former Lloyds bank received its planning approval. However, the alcohol licence has yet to be granted, so the development could still be scuppered. More on that later.
Across the road, the redevelopment of the former Bristol & West Arcade was also permitted, with an internal courtyard to make a feature of the back of the listed buildings on Market Place, which would be restored. Whilst there will be flats (sorry), the majority of the new build sections are dedicated to office space… Again, more thoughts on that to come. We’ve no news yet on when work might start.
There are new ideas at the Broad Street Mall. According to Estates Gazette, The Really Local Group have plans for “the world’s first micro-brewery, tap room and cinema under the same roof.” No further details have been released, but their Twitter profile picture clearly shows the former Argos end of the Broad Street Mall with a corner entrance to a first floor venue. This matches with recent planning permissions from the mall’s owners to subdivide Argos into separate units for the basement, ground floor (now known to be Iceland) and this first floor unit with street-level lobby.
Still at the mall, Thames Tap has reported plans for a Premier Inn hotel on the site of the former Eva’s night club. Again, no sign of formal plans, but a potentially welcome investment in a slightly downbeat area of town I covered last time with the Hosier St aspirations. This isn’t the only RG1 hotel scheme on the cards. A new concept for the much debated Station Road site opposite Malmaison has emerged. A 22-storey tower would be a hotel-led mixed use scheme, also incorporating a ground floor retail unit and five floors of offices at the top. No hotel operator has been revealed but presumably there’s one already on board to influence the plans. Wild speculation on my part would probably point to a Marriott or Jury’s Inn as the likely suspects, purely on the basis of their minimal presence in town.
Staying with hotels, the former Lloyds Market Place development also includes 24 hotel rooms, with further proposals at Caversham Bridge for a hotel on the Crowne Plaza car park. That application has been withdrawn amid concerns over loss of parking for riverside leisure users, but I’d expect it to come back in some form.
Retail is still struggling slightly in the wake of new centres in Oxford and Bracknell. The Oracle has done well to bring in River Island, and imminently Next to revitalise the end that used to be Waterstones. (A passing well done to Wokingham for signing up the book seller for its redeveloped centre). But we still await news of what will replace those stores on Broad Street.
As the Oracle approaches twenty years of age, I think back to its opening where the arrival of House of Fraser was the major boast. Reading became one of only a handful of locations to bring together the big four department stores: John Lewis, Debenhams, M&S and House of Fraser. Subsequent expansion of all of those chains slowly made this status far less unique, and now, if anything, there’s a risk of losing names from that list.
In contrast, one of the most significant announcements this year has been the decision of KPMG to relocate is Thames Valley office into the town centre. Its arrival sees RG1 become home to the big four accountancy firms, joining EY, PwC and Deloitte. Only a handful of major regional cities will match Reading in boasting the full quartet. Now, I’m not expecting residents necessarily to hang out the bunting to welcome some accountants, but it highlights a key point: that as retail trips might have subsided slightly, Reading is fortunate to have other sectors to pick up the slack. As a business base, the town is thriving, and it’s probably that driving the hotel proposals too.
The surge of apartment developments has gathered a lot of headlines. We are just seeing the Verto (aka Kings Point) tower emerge from behind its screening. The development on Queen Road has been approved, as has the scheme at Weldale Street, albeit without the taller building originally mooted. The high-rise element survived at the former BMW plot, and is now under construction. The build-to-rent nature of that scheme deserves more analysis, with an interesting debate as to whether this emerging model constitutes a positive trend – perhaps one for another time. A footnote here is that the BMW-site developers are still mandated to provide affordable housing, for which they’ve submitted a separate application for an apartment block in North Street.
There is finally movement on Station Hill. The new owners have made very few public comments. My google search found a member of the development team’s LinkedIn page where he’d added the project to his profile including an overall description. They now plan 1000 flats (up from around 500 in the previous owners’ approved plans), and 750,000 sq ft of office space (down 25%, but still a hefty total). That’s obviously unconfirmed, but what we do know is that they are jumping on the built-to-rent bandwagon. The developer has recently submitted a planning document to the council which, as featured on Thames Tap, proposes beginning the development with Friar’s Walk, along with an increase in the number of apartments, albeit with no change to building heights.
We will inevitably see further apartment schemes proposed. I believe the trend is driven by a combination of factors: economic growth in Reading itself, improved (or perceived improved) connectivity to London via Crossrail, and a reluctance to meet housing targets through unpopular (or should I say even more unpopular) suburban housing as an alternative.
Despite acknowledging the need for homes, my reaction to central apartment schemes is instinctively less favourable than some of the other proposals. Whilst having a resident population in the centre has great benefits, I think you can go too far. We know town centre footfall is slightly down, due to the retail background previously mentioned. But whose feet are they anyway? If town centre dwellers dominate, then it’s the same feet walking around each day. On a “per footfall” basis, those people are going to spend less money in shops, on entertainment, than a similar amount of footfall from a greater number of less frequent suburban/regional visitors making dedicated trips. If you’re in town every single day then what are you buying? Food and drink. And we wonder why we are getting so many coffee shops and why Sainbury’s is staying after all?
Recently the council unanimously agreed to continue its “cumulative impact” policy, creating a presumption of refusal for further licensed premises in the heart of town. Given the alcohol-related crime statistics, it’s clear why it’s needed. I’m inclined to assume that readers of my blog catching up on the latest planning applications probably aren’t then heading straight out on the booze to cause trouble on Friar Street. But in case you are, kindly desist because you’re literally spoiling it for everyone.
There is a risk that some of the more interesting developments I’ve referred to: the food hall, the cinema/micro brewery, the box park… fall foul of licensing. To me, they don’t sound like the kind of destinations that are likely to attract the wrong crowd, although the council might counter “how do you know?”. But if you don’t want a town full of flats and coffee shops then we need these more creative “destination” proposals to come good, to tempt suburbia off its sofas to use the town centre. Hopefully there’s a way to approve these new concepts and to keep us safe at the same time, and that might require some equivalent creativity from the authorities.
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