We had Sir John Madejski’s original Station Hill plans, then Station Hill 2, and SH3. The latest developers are trying to leave the past failures behind by ditching the numeric suffix. Thankfully they’ve also avoided named alternatives, like Vista or XP. No, we’re keeping it simple – not Station Hill Goes Forth, or Station Hill – The Goblet of Fire, just plain old Station Hill. And in fact the main evolution from Station Hill – The Prisoner of Azkaban is that they’re saying Expelliarmus to Garrard St car park and installing a podium to remove the ‘Hill’ altogether. Unique, of course, to the novels of the Station Hill series is that nothing actually ever happens: so many plots yet no storeys. But without going over the top, I feel we might have captured the golden egg at last. Welcome to Station Hill – Millennial Edition.
Courtesy of the internet archive, I can pinpoint June 2006 as the first public exhibition for Station Hill proposals. I remember attending! So you’ll forgive me for thinking, quite literally, “we’ve been here before” as I attended a new event last Friday. A full thirteen years later, the £750-million question is “Will the outcome be any different this time?”. I very much hope it is.
Before getting stuck into the new plans, let’s take a very quick look through the troubled history of this site. Station Hill 1 was John Madejski’s intial plan for a series of tall towers. It was approved by the council but rejected by the government on the basis of over-development. Undeterred, Madejski bought Friar’s Walk and came back with a bigger scheme: two striking towers of similar height to those proposed previously, but more slender. Larger public squares were incorporated, significant retail, leisure and cultural space, and a podium solution provided level access from the station through to Friar Street. The scheme was approved but with the onset of the credit crunch and subsequent recession, it quickly became labelled as unviable and impossible to deliver in phases.
Station Hill 3, with new developers, was a downbeat, pragmatic redesign, retaining the existing multi-storey car park and reducing the new builds to generic glass boxes that could be built independently in whatever sequence the market demanded. After two high profile failures, it was like appointing Sam Allardyce to grind out a result or two at the expense of any flair or creativity. The result, although approved, was clearly just too dull to inspire anyone to get round to actually implement it.
In that light, Station Hill 4 is positively Guadiolan. Under the new slogan “Time for more” Garrard St car park will go, allowing the podium idea to return linking the station up to Friar’s Walk on the level, with parking buried beneath. The central piazza is sizeable – fountains, trees and table tennis tables, all surrounded by cafes and restaurants. The focus on the convenient pedestrian route into town is a major positive and should mean a steady footfall throughout the day.
One of the most striking changes from that exhibition thirteen years ago, aside from the big screen fly-through CGIs replacing posters and blu tak, is the focus on the environment. The relatively recent station area landscaping is swept away to be replaced with trees and planting. Greenery dominates the opens spaces and roof gardens. Quite apart from aligning with the challenges of our time, it all makes for a far more pleasant-looking development.
As expected, the allocated area for shops is reduced. In fact it’s rebranded “lifestyle space” as an attempted millennial reincarnation of the struggling retail and casual dining sectors. It’ll be marketed by agents “Distrkt“, which is clearly not riddikulus – more kewl… or sic? I do feel they are serious about creating a vibrant area that caters for town centre workers and residents – two cohorts this development will swell significantly with over 1000 homes now planned and two large office blocks.
The buildings are tall by Reading, Berkshire or Thames Valley standards, and the heights are increased very slightly from SH3, but are still well below the previously approved Madejski plans. I would favour adding a few more floors, particularly to the office building nearest the station, which I always thought was supposed to be the central landmark for the town. A little extra height at the station end would be even more beneficial if it meant it would be viable to reduce the building footprints slightly, allowing even larger public areas. The impressive, glistening CGIs all focus on the lower levels and landscaping. The message is pretty much “nothing to see here” higher up, where I am hoping for something more striking.
Perhaps, though, I’m being too picky. This site has stood under-used or derelict for a generation. In hindsight, an imperfect but instant reincarnation would already be half way towards its next regeneration. It’s time to get cracking, and this looks pretty well thought through. Hopefully the council will make sure they get what they can in terms of affordable housing and contribution to infrastructure etc from the developers. But let’s not delay. Nobody wants a fifth Station Hill – The Order of the Phoenix so I’ll ease off the bowling alley and ice rink talk for today. There’s no magic spell to deliver everything the town needs on one site, and this scheme will provide a dynamic, modern commercial heart to the town. After more than a decade of delays, we really have no time for more.Follow @readingonthames
What do you think of the plans? Your comments, as always very welcome – registration not required…
More images below, and full exhibition materials available here.