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”.
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:
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…
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.
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…
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.
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 belowFollow @readingonthames
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