On these pages, I’ve frequently emphasised the need to drive Reading’s offer forward, to keep the visitors from neighbouring towns coming, and therefore to underpin the overall vitality of the town centre. Yet I reflect now that perhaps the biggest competition to those aims is not Oxford, Basingstoke and Newbury, but rather Amazon, Deliveroo and Netflix. Will the Covid lifestyle stick, or will there be a collective clamour to return to the physical, or the “in real life”? Thankfully, whilst lockdowns have shut us all indoors, that hasn’t stopped the investors and architects forming new plans to haul us off our sofas and back into town.
An exciting new heritage-led regeneration of Queen Victoria Street has just been unveiled online. The courtyard retail scheme behind the early 1900’s thoroughfare, will see the upper floors of those period buildings converted to an apart hotel, with linkage through to the new square. Around the corner, further restored buildings will also provide access.
The area being used is what I understand to be part of the former Burger King, that has since been partly superseded by Caffe Nero. The courtyard will also offer a terrace, with further outdoor seating and retail units. The Friar Street visual shows a potential working title of “Victoria Market Square”.
Shops on Queen Victoria Street will be remodelled to provide access at both sides, helping visibility and awareness of the square behind. The developer, Thackeray – a specialist in heritage projects, expands:
“The vision is to create a destination development befitting Reading’s emerging cultural and economic status. The proposals include a retail offer comprising a market square together with new retail frontages to Queen Victoria Street and Friar Street. This new retail hub will provide small units for independent retailers, start-ups and pop-up eateries. The frontages of Queen Victoria Street and Friar Street will link directly through to the new market square behind.”The Thackeray Estate
The developer is seeking feedback on the plans in advance of submitting them to the council. Needless to say, I’m wholly supportive of what seems to be both a sensitive revitalisation of some our finest buildings yet also bringing something new and interesting to the heart of town.
Elsewhere, a new four-screen cinema above the former Argos at Broad Street Mall will be competing with your settee. It has revealed it is to be named “The Biscuit Factory”. It’s an intriguing venture from a small start-up business known as The Really Local Group, with the mission of “…creating vibrant high street community spaces that promote local culture, arts and area regeneration”. They have successfully completed a crowd funding round of £250k which was advertised on the following basis.
“The company has a pipeline of 6 sites across London and South East England. Each of the company’s bespoke venues provides a mixture of a 3-4 screen cinema with community spaces, a vibrant live music and comedy programme, coffee shop, bar with a wide range of locally sourced offerings, and ‘Pop Up’ stalls for local traders. RLG has raised £1.25 million from third-party investors. The company will use 80% of the investment to develop its second site, the ‘Biscuit Factory’ in Reading, and 20% to progress design work on its pipeline sites in Bermondsey, Sidcup and Canning Town.”The Really Local Group, https://nextfin.uk/equity/pitches/really-local-group
With the finance arranged, signs of activity at the site, and a new twitter page, I think we can conclude that this venture is to proceed. Also progressing is the basement – a former storage area for the same ex-Argos unit. This is to become a venue named “Spinners”, with mini-golf, bowling and an electric darts concept – all three new additions to Reading’s leisure offer. There are active social media profiles here too, showing progress of the fit-out. I have a rumour of a Greek restaurant opening in the same run of units, alongside a Thai restaurant that has already applied for signage permission. The proposed food market in the vacated former supermarket area on Hosier would appear to still be on the cards with a recent minor amendment planning application tweaking the exterior. The cumulative impact should be positive on this end of town.
Meanwhile, at the other end of town, the perennial problem site of the Bristol & West arcade is now earmarked for a hotel. A virtual public consultation was held at the end of the year, which I attended. We came no closer to finding anyone from the British Virgin Isles-listed “Sonic Star” properties, but it was led by an independent consultant specialising in hotels, at least some of which have actually been built. Maybe this might finally happen. The proposals look reasonable, and we desperately need something done in this corner of town, which really should be a civic centrepiece around the town hall.
At Station Hill things are moving forward. Approval has been granted for a 15-floor office building next door to Thames Tower, along with the public square and new linking bridge to the Friars Walk redevelopment. The office is being marketed as ready for early 2024, with its own website here. It would be a huge boost to see this scheme start to take shape, transforming the impression of the town to those arriving by train. As part of the same approval, outline parameters for the remainder of the site were agreed, including limits on height which were restored roughly to those approved in the John Madjeski era. One taller building of around 30 storeys will be allowed, with smaller ones tapering down to Greyfriars Road.
Further plans are lodged to alter the approved scheme at the Friar’s Walk site. An extra storey is added, except right at the Friar Street end. And sadly some ground floor retail units that they’d previously heralded as being targeted for independents are removed in favour of “maisonettes”, partly shielded by some hedges. If this to the be a major new thoroughfare from the station into town, then surely we don’t need to be walking past four living room windows. I presume they’re not inundated with interest for these retail units, but I’d encourage them to have more faith in the quality of the environment they’re creating. It’s not like these garden-less almost-houses are going to provide a huge contribution to family living space anyway. Yet money talks, and you sense this whole scheme is clinging onto financial viability, so the council needs to tread carefully to avoid thwarting it. Apparently they’ve driven a hard bargain on affordable homes, so let’s hope they’ve judged the brinkmanship just right. I think demolition of the income-generating Garrard St car park would be the sign that this is actually all going to happen… at last.
In summary, plenty of action on the drawing boards, and optimism for the post-Covid future of our town as a retail and leisure destination. The office is not dead either, with new ideas on how buildings can support companies with a hybrid of office and home working. Only this week, mobile operator Three has signed up for a brand new HQ in Green Park, and another possible arrival is rumoured to be, ironically enough, Amazon! I must leave it there, my take-away is due…
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