I covered this project last summer when the developer “Sonic Star” conducted a public consultation. I’m pleased to see a planning application now submitted for the scheme. The site is currently a bit of a mess, although we’re lucky it doesn’t look a lot worse. The previous regeneration plan actually began construction around 2007 but was quickly aborted – the tower crane came down and the partly-built concrete frame was left unfinished. Thankfully, that scheme involved retaining the Friar Street frontage, so the abandoned building site has been hidden from view for ten years, rather than being a very public relic of the credit crunch. Finally, new plans have been lodged.
As per the consultation last year, the existing Friar Street frontage will go. But the period buildings along Market Place will be fully restored. An open courtyard behind Market Place will provide access between Market Way, the back of Sainsbury’s and Friar Street. Since the consultation, a number of changes have been incorporated. The residential element, previously proposed as 64 apartments, is now only 43. Three floors previously allocated for homes are now proposed as offices. This isn’t a huge surprise. After a flurry of recent town centre lettings, Reading’s office market is currently ranked as the most buoyant in the country.
I much prefer this configuration – bringing jobs right into the centre of town, and hiding the apartments away, set back from the street higher in the building enjoying more light, privacy and roof gardens. Another amendment means we’ll see 7 rather than 6 retail units, and one storey has been lopped off the top. The proposed pub in the old Cooper’s Arms remains part of the plans. Subject to licensing, we could be looking at two new pubs in Market Place following separate news that City Pub Company purchased the old Market Place branch of Lloyds.
One of the major benefits of the Friar Street project will be bringing back into use the row of much older buildings facing onto Market Place. There will be entrances to the pub and one of the shops at both sides, which is intended to make a busy, interesting space in the internal courtyard. The plans below show how it would work, as well as new sympathetic extensions, replacing low quality previous additions.
Many readers will hope that independent retailers will emerge to rent these units, and I can see that happening – perhaps as cafes. Chain occupiers might be slightly wary of a new and untested location slightly out of the core shopping area. But I think the quirkiness of this hidden space will make it a success. The council will also be very pleased that 30% of the homes will be affordable.
This scheme isn’t the biggest project on the cards for Reading, but it could be one of the most interesting, livening up Friar Street, Town Hall Square, Market Place, and creating a brand new space with a courtyard inside the development. I very much hope to see it progress a lot further than the aborted project from a decade ago.
One thing missing at this point is a name for the development. Hopefully not something awful like ‘Verto’ or ‘Q2’ we’ve seen recently. But when the developers call themselves ‘Sonic Star’ it doesn’t bode well. Perhaps the actual address, 173-175 Friar Street will suffice. They will need a name for the alley through the courtyard, I think Pantry Lane would reflect the history of site, which I covered last time.
You can view and comment on the plans on the council’s website here. And, of course, you might like to share your thoughts below – no registration required.Follow @readingonthames