In an unpredictable world, one constant we can rely upon is that every few months there will be new images of the potential regeneration of Reading’s Station Hill. The long-running saga has had more twists and turns than the landscaped pathways featured in the latest plans, so I’ll suggest you switch back to my previous posts for more on the history. This weekend’s exhibition coincides with the submission of a planning application for the northern part of the site. Let me take you through the new proposals.
As the years go by, the CGIs get snazzier (a word last in fashion around the time of the original Station Hill plans). But if the finished product comes anywhere close to these images then the lavish area of car-free squares, planting and public art will be an impressive welcome to visitors arriving by train. The current “amphitheatre with no stage” outside Thames Tower’s Pret disappears, with a podium providing level access through the new scheme. The steep gradient to the subway entrance and drop-off area is dotted with trees and also features a covered children’s slide, although the architect who spoke to me admitted she didn’t know how that would go down with the council. It sounds like one of those fun ideas that will be found unacceptable to someone or other for boringly sensible reasons.
Technically, the latest submission is a hybrid application, including full details of the landscaping/podium and first office building next to Thames Tower (above), along with outline details for the further plots, which if approved form some limits to heights and layouts permissible in subsequent applications. The initial office building is some 17/18 storeys in height – shorter than previous proposals on this plot. But unlike previous developers, the new plan is to build this tower quickly, in the same timescales as the approved residential blocks on the Friars Walk site. And this will be the case regardless of whether prospective office tenants have been lined up. In a nutshell, this application distinguishes itself from its predecessors principally in the fact that it’s actually likely to be built.
The glorious high res. artworks show the new central square with fountains, grassed zone and outdoor café seating. The area expands to Friars Walk across a new bridge over Garrard Street. The creative licence, however, has allowed the station entrance to be replaced with the northern entrance (the escalators to the bridge should go up to the left not the right!)
And we see repeated appearances in the building reflections of other cities’ skylines. It looks like London in the example above. I know we’re on the Elizabeth Line now, and these are tall buildings, but you’d be hard pressed to find a line-of-sight to the capital.
Graphic design exuberance does not stop there. When the principal site image on the relaunched website has a file name something like image2_no_helipad_no_drone I couldn’t help but explore their images folder for something lacking that suffix, the result of which you see above. I can only speculate that when the big wigs saw that there was a “why the chuff have you plonked a heliport on the roof?” inquiry, followed by a hasty update! But the element of truth in this futuristic portrayal is that the landmark tallest tower and surrounding residential/hotel buildings are earmarked for a subsequent phase some years later. There could be a lengthy period where the western boundary of the new central square is made from temporary hoardings. However, plans are afoot for “meanwhile” uses of that large area, potentially to include a BoxPark container mall, temporary event space or surface parking. Although I’d hope they can bring forward the full scheme before heli-taxis are whizzing around Reading’s skies.
There’s no doubt in my mind that, subject to council officers’ thorough examination of the finer details, these plans should be approved at the earliest opportunity. This development catapults a dreary, windswept part of central Reading into the 21st century at last. Substantial office space will boost the economy whilst catering for a younger workforce who want employment in buzzier city centres rather than soulless out-of-town car-dominated office parks. New homes contribute to alleviating the shortage, whilst providing custom for shops and restaurants suffering somewhat from the decline of the routine regional pilgrimage to the nearest shopping town. Environmental mitigations and cycling provision are also prevalent throughout the exhibition materials to an unprecedented extent. And at last, the public mood seems supportive, or at least reconciled to taller buildings in the town centre, if nothing else as a comfortably superior alternative to urban sprawl.
The Friar’s Walk end of the site is already approved and ready to go. Plans include 538 build-to-rent apartments and ground floor retail. The sight of cranes going up later this summer might finally convince us all that the era of never-ending planning for Station Hill might be coming to an end. Now who’d have predicted that?
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