This is my first post since the tragic events at Forbury Gardens. It’s a desperately sad time, and others have contributed far more eloquently than I could. There have been tremendously moving tributes and reflections. Is it too soon to be talking about anything else in Reading? My reason for doing so is prompted by one social media post I saw suggesting that many ‘safer’ open spaces exist locally and that people should use those instead. I think we must disagree. People should not be fearful of going out or visiting our town. And as we emerge from Covid-19 lockdown, I hope people will show the defiance to carry on, to maintain and even enhance the energy, diversity and spirit that makes Reading a great place to be.
On that basis, I was pleased that the Broad St Mall went ahead with their clearly pre-planned press release yesterday on the launch of Union – their new food market collaboration with PopCity. This will be a permanent venue in the old Poundland (very old Tesco) site on Hosier Street. Fit-out will take place over the summer, but as a prelude, there will be an interim offer in the space outside, under the banner of ‘Union Square’. It will, according to the mall, “…initially operate on a temporary basis six days a week from Thursday, June 25 before opening permanently in mid-November. Initial trading hours will be from 12pm to 10pm Tuesday to Saturday and 12pm to 8pm on Sundays.”
The indoor venue will eventually have a capacity of 350 seated, and details of the food offer have already been confirmed. “Union’s permanent site will feature… seven award-winning street food vendors, and a bar showcasing Vocation Brewery’s vast range of craft beers. Treats will include meatballs from The Bowler, Slap & Pickle’s renowned smash burgers and loaded fries, Lobbo’s innovative seafood cuisine, and pizza from Let’s Go Pizza.”
It’s interesting that the images show the permanent venue in the context of the fully completed surrounding developments, including the hotel and apartment blocks. There will be years of construction work between then and now, so Moorgarth – the centre’s owner – has done well to snare a tenant in advance. That said, this is clearly a deeper partnership than the typical landlord-tenant relationship. Leeds-based Moorgarth have entered into a longer term agreement with PopCity, the operator whose only previous venture in also in the Yorkshire city. Moorgarth’s Gary Lewis explains further:
“The food market marks the start of an exciting partnership between Moorgarth and Union’s owner PopCity. This flexible approach between owner and operator will bring a proven market concept from Leeds and allow the people of Reading to enjoy the latest trends in food experience. Traders and customers can build trust and rapport in the offer as we build out the permanent space, a 15,000 sq ft transformation that will launch in November 2020. Union… forms an integral part of our plans to improve Broad Street Mall as part of a wider masterplan which includes the addition of 400 new high-quality, centrally located homes recently granted planning permission alongside a new Premier Inn hotel.”
PopCity’s owners Nick Gregory and Richard Sweet are new to Reading, but they comment: “We’ve really done our homework on Reading and are confident that there is a pent-up demand for a more exciting re-interpretation of fast-food. We’re set to introduce some amazing independent operators and we will ensure that there’s a great variety of flavours on offer, with high-quality food and drink at a reasonable price. Union will offer a platform to local food independents that may not ordinarily be able to trade from such a high-profile location.”
The final point is the challenge. This has the potential to be a high-profile location. But it’s a long term bet that requires further pieces of the jigsaw to fall into place. The council must secure a strong operator to re-invigorate Hosier Street Market, and the wider civic area regeneration dubbed the Minster Quarter needs to come to fruition. Re-surfaced routes around the perimeter of mall could ultimately provide the quality of environment worthy of spending a leisurely lunchtime. And Moorgarth themselves could get cracking with their hotel scheme. But ultimately, this could become a real social hub for the town, under a unique brand, with an evolving mix of local traders operating the distinct kitchens within.
Those that say this corner of town plays second fiddle to the Oracle might be reminded by the images below that the perimeters of the mall constitute a traditional hub of the town’s shopping district. The boldest statement within the press release concludes that this is just the first part “…of Moorgarth’s wider plan to regenerate Broad Street Mall and re-imagine the market town’s original shopping quarter.”
Eagle eyed readers might notice the staircase down into the former Target Pub retained within the plans. I suspect longer term aspirations may include bringing that into use too. I wish them luck on this exciting plan, as Reading starts to look forward once more. But perhaps a union of some of the best of the past together with these innovative new leisure concepts will provide the best recipe for success. In the meantime, please do support this new venture, and the local traders operating within it, from Thursday 25th June.
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