New plans have been lodged for a hotel to replace the former Bristol & West arcade opposite Reading town hall. This is something of a saga site, with a troubled recent history of abandoned construction and a multitude of stalled proposals that I’ve covered on these pages before. The latest plans constitute only minor amendments to the physical appearance of the most recently approved scheme. However, developers now propose a hotel rather than an office/retail hybrid.
I attended an online public consultation on the new plans back in December. There were two such events, but I was one of just two members of the public at the first. The planning document states only seven attended across the two sessions. As a football fan, I believe the correct retort here is “Leeds would’ve taken more”. The developer even states that engagement was surprisingly low for such a prominent site. In truth, with an inoffensive CGI accompanying their advert, and the minimal visual changes I’m not surprised they didn’t attract concerned locals. And anyone hoping for something new and exciting may have been put off by the track record at this location.
The hotel would contain 182 bedrooms, with ground floor restaurant, bar and gym. Those hotel facilities are to face out to Friar Street and onto a widened courtyard/passageway to link through to Market Way and Sainsbury’s. The originally promised retail units are dropped on the basis that the developer had received minimal interest in taking them, and the conclusion is that there would be insufficient critical mass and footfall to underpin a retail-led courtyard. Now that we have the excellent Thackeray proposals I covered last time behind Queen Victoria Street, which would garner far more natural passing trade than here, perhaps we have a better prospect for a new independent retail zone. Nevertheless, the combination of an outdoor terrace for the hotel restaurant, and a beer garden for a restored Cooper Arms pub should enliven this newly re-opened space.
The biggest risk with this site is that the new build element (now hotel) would come forward without also including the restoration of the period properties fronting market place. I was assured at the consultation that this was not the intention, albeit by a consultant rather than from anyone revealing themselves to be the mysterious “Sonic Star” site owners themselves. Although he did admit that the hotel scheme needed to happen to fund that restoration. I’m sure the council will try to tie them up in some red tape to ensure they don’t conveniently forget about the Market Place part of the site – the grey colour code on the above plan is hardly comforting on that front.
A second risk would be that, true to form, even if approved, the hotel also fails to materialise. However, another document reveals, possibly accidentally, that a pre-let is in place with Jury’s Inn/Leonardo to operate the 4-star hotel. This is the strongest positive sign yet that – at last – this abandoned site in the heart of town might finally be redeveloped.
I believe it’s highly likely the plans will be approved, and rightly so. There is an urgency now to re-invent the town centre. The world is changing faster than the bricks and mortar folk can keep up. Office requirements will evolve to reflect the reality of hybrid home and office work. The previous proposals here were already outdated in that regard, and I hope Station Hill will be better placed to create the enhanced office destination that workers are going to demand for the privilege of leaving their front door. A top priority now must surely be a town centre conference venue. Whilst the town hall offers something in that regard, I can see large organisations that opt for home working running quarterly large meetings to maintain communication and team morale. Reading’s transport links make it an ideal candidate at a discount to central London, and new hotels, such as the one proposed here, should provide the bedrooms needed for those regional gatherings. But do we have the business venues? With the Madejski convention centre plans stalled, let’s hope one of the plots just north of the station might pivot from commuter flats to a scheme such as that. After all, London commuter flats might join retail as declining trends.
The plans can be viewed on the council’s website. Leave your comments there if you wish them to be formally considered in their judgment of the plans. Or just give your verdict by joining the conversation here – comments welcome, no registration needed.Follow @readingonthames