Royal Elm Park: Mixed Use – Mixed Bag

Yesterday I attended the first public exhibition on the proposals from Reading Football Club to develop the Madejski Stadium car park.  The club was taken over by a Thai consortium in September 2014.  The new owners have always been open about their intentions to bring forward some kind of property development around the stadium.  Details have slowly emerged, but yesterday’s exhibition, (also online), is the first time we’ve had any clarity on the proposals.

When I dropped in towards the end of the event it was quiet.  A group of property types tasked with showing people around were instead talking amongst themselves, somewhat carelessly discussing what they might get away with in terms of planning permission conditions from Reading Borough Council on a completely separate development.  But the displays were vivid and comprehensive.

The proposal centres around a Convention Centre, connected to the existing Conference Centre (seemingly ‘Convention’ beats ‘Conference’ in this corporate game of top trumps) via a pedestrian bridge – it’s all about bridges in Reading.  A large public square, with cafes and restaurants is bounded by the stadium entrances, the existing hotel, the convention centre, and a sensitively clad multi-story car park.  The square is the big highlight of this development – it would be a vibrant, buzzy and pleasant space to spend time on match days.  Further back, numerous large apartment buildings comprise a staggering 630 homes.  Bus stops are also included, as well as a pedestrian link to the proposed Green Park railway station.img-9

The Convention Centre boasts two main halls: the larger capable of accommodating 4000 delegates in “theatre-style” retractable tiered seating, or 2000 around tables for a banquet; and the smaller hall accommodating the much-heralded ice rink.  The ice rink hall has a capacity of 2500, but only without the ice in situ.

I discussed the ice rink with one of the representatives at the exhibition.  A subtlety omitted from the materials is that the rink would operate for just 3 months per year.  This means that skating or hockey clubs are unlikely to base themselves at the venue. With no routine weekly lessons for children, and family day out habits unable to form, it’s hard to see the facility being a success. If you want to skate once a year in winter, surely a festive outdoor location with the smell of mulled wine wafting by is a more attractive proposition. There is also no plan to have a league ice hockey team based there, partly because the ice is temporary and partly because the spectator capacity would be substantially lower than the John Nike.  If built, expect the ice rink to fail to be reinstated after the first couple of ‘seasons’.

The centre aims to help Reading to compete on an international stage, but in truth, as a leisure facility, which it partly claims to be, it can’t even compete with Bracknell.

Leaving aside for a moment the disingenuous billing, the convention centre is nevertheless an impressive facility.  For two or three decades, blue chip HQ’s have sprung up along the M4 corridor, with the Thames Valley and Reading providing an attractive proposition for businesses drifting out of London.  The gap in the market that’s emerged is for a large corporate venue to meet that new demand, and it’s great for Reading’s status in the region that it can step up to provide it.  The centre will also feature a further hotel, spa and numerous serviced apartments.

I asked about the potential hosting of concerts.  Tellingly, he had no idea on standing vs seating capacity for gigs, whilst banquet-hosting credentials tripped off the tongue.  There’s been frequent debate about whether Reading is too close to London to sustain a larger arena for big name touring acts.  And this facility is certainly not banking on that being a viable proposition, although with a potential 4000 configuration it might test the water with tour operators.

Local media coverage has concentrated almost entirely on car parking.  I’m inclined to agree with Nigel Howe (Reading FC chief executive) that the loss of match day parking can be mitigated with arrangements with other local businesses’ car parks, and better use of public transport.  I’m less convinced that his convention centre’s corporate guests will be enamored with a park and ride from the old Shire Hall. Either way, with the slew of developer contributions the council should receive from a development on this sheer scale, we should be able to fund the ‘MRT’ – a dedicated additional bus lane along the A33 into town – and then your transport problems start to ease further.

I mentioned scale. And even as a pro-development blog, I can’t help but say of those apartment blocks, it looks a bit much.  A few more houses instead would make a lot more sense. And couldn’t one of those many apartment blocks be given over for a genuine leisure development: a ‘permanent’ ice rink, a swimming pool, a sports hall? Maybe then this bold vision could do as much for local people as it will undoubtedly do for our town’s growing business reputation.

Royal Elm Park: Mixed Use – Mixed Bag

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