Last month, Thames Valley Property reported that Next is to relocate from Broad Street to The Oracle next year. It could turn out that 2017 is a difficult year for Reading’s retailers, but could this be the time to look to the future for our central shopping area.
In 1999 the opening of the Oracle propelled Reading to the top of the shops, bringing in crowds from far and wide. But since then, Reading’s neighbours have, one by one, invested heavily in their own shopping centres. Basingstoke and High Wycombe both built larger complexes, whilst Didcot and Newbury also created rival destinations. The pattern will continue next year with the opening of Oxford’s long-awaited Westgate scheme, and, closest to home, Bracknell’s Lexicon debuts in September.
This latest barrage of attack from outside, coupled with continual 20% yearly growth of online shopping, have left Reading’s High Street looking a little exposed. Shops are retrenching to the sanctuary of the Oracle’s hinterland in a bid to weather the storm. Primark moved to the abandoned BHS pitch on the Oracle’s doorstep, whilst Next appears to be taking the vacated Waterstone’s unit. Argos have called it a day in the Broad St Mall preferring to offer their catalogue service from the edge-of-town Forbury retail park.
Given that backdrop, it’s perhaps surprising that aside from national chain failures, Reading’s losses have been limited to duplicate branches of Waterstones and HMV, and now Argos. The Broad St Mall has also been almost miraculously resilient. The impact of this fierce competition is probably better demonstrated by the lack of new retail developments since the Oracle, which I think has been pretty much limited to the Barclay’s / Sports Direct building on Broad Street. Just one new shop in 16 years is strikingly low for one of the economic hotspots in the country.
Fortunately, as always, Reading has been adaptable. Whilst shopping has hit a plateau, other sectors have been flourishing. Residential development has mushroomed, largely taking over former commercial buildings whose occupiers have relocated into new office developments. Meanwhile, many new cafes and restaurants have opened up to serve those office workers, new residents, and our seemingly more leisurely shoppers.
The footfall data published on livingreading is interesting. The week day lunch time surge almost eclipses the Saturday afternoon shopping peak. I couldn’t find historical data, but I cannot believe that would have been the case back in 2000. If next year’s rival schemes take a further edge of the Saturday trade, you could foresee that line dipping below the Monday to Friday midday spike. From top 10 retail destination in the early 2000’s, by 2017 it looks like Reading’s High Street will be literally out to lunch.
By way of comparison, Manchester uses the same service provider:
Undoubtedly, Oxford and Bracknell will each get some big publicity next year. But I think Reading should be making its plans to retake the initiative. These things come in cycles, and Reading’s growing local population and improving transport connections should bode well for a resurgence. A recent study identified Reading as ripe for retail growth. I’d like to see some planning taking place on how to re-invigorate areas of our retail centre, and how to get a better mix of local independent shops in parallel with the destination stores.
The soon-to-be-vacated Next building looks like the perfect place to start. The whole block between West Street and Union St (Smelly Alley), Broad St and Friar St is in dire need of investment. I might be accused of being too quick to call for the wrecking ball, but really, the majority of this huge rectangular block has minimal architectural merit. Aside from the frontage of Halifax, and perhaps surprisingly, McDonalds, both of which could be kept, a redevelopment of the majority of the block could see new routes opened up from Broad St to Friar St, and perhaps a narrower lane through an existing archway on West Street through to Union Street targeted at small independent retailers.
I know much of the area is active use, but Clas Ohlsson could take a multi-storey unit. A concourse or open street running north/south could be an attractive thoroughfare, and apartments above the shops could make better use of this central piece of land. Opening up the Next site (formerly Littlewoods) would also link to the Friar’s Walk redevelopment continuing the route through to the station, subway and new offices. I think it’s a big opportunity, and I wish one of these local economic development agencies, business improvement groups, or the council would just figure out who owns the individual properties and get them all together to discuss options – I’m sure they could make a lot of money with a bit of imagination and co-operation.
I’d like to see the route continued through to the Minster and the Oracle. The area at the back of the Broad St Waterstone’s by the Minster church must be one of the most ludicrous sights in Reading. An open piece of land, directly next to the 1000 year-old Minster and what do we use it for? A service yard for deliveries to Sports Direct. It’s one of those “that’s so Reading” moments. If that huge tree was in the middle of Bracknell it would have its own visitor’s centre. And I’m not trying to be disparaging of Bracknell – I wish them luck with their new town centre – but quite seriously, if this area was in Bracknell the whole Lexicon redevelopment would have been designed around it to show it off. In Reading… well, it’s somewhere to put the bins and park your van.
Knock through the current EE building on Broad St to build a concourse through to a new public square in front of the Minster. It’s big enough that a new three-sided 3 or 4 storey building could flank the square, screening the back of the Broad St properties, providing shops, cafes and accommodation above, with openings at ground floor level to allow access to the existing loading bays for the Broad St stores. A new entrance to Waterstone’s could be incorporated in the plans. Delivery vans could be allowed to park in the square morning and evening, with outdoor seating for the cafes during the day. It would be a popular destination in its own right, as well as attracting footfall from the Oracle through my new route through to Broad St, Friar St, and the station area.
Let’s hope there are some plans afoot to counter the investment taking place in other towns. I think the opportunity presented by Next’s relocation could be the catalyst for revitalising the whole central shopping core. Or just let some sort of Pound World move in… either way.
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