Houses, hotels, a jail, a station, an electric works… as we pass Go for another lap round the board, here’s a roundup of where we are with the main projects in Reading, and who’s winning.
Station Hill. 2021 was finally the year when someone managed to combine the planning, the confidence and the money to push ahead with the long-heralded flagship regeneration scheme for central Reading. The 18-storey office building opposite the station, and the 600 apartments on Friar Street will all complete in 2024. Further phases could include more office space, if the initial gamble on a post-Covid reinvented workspace in phase one pays off, as well as a hotel and further apartments. Whatever the uses on the upper floors, a selection of bars and restaurants at ground level, and a landscaped pedestrian link through to Friar St will finally provide a welcome to Reading that the town deserves.
Status: Under construction.
Reading Gaol. Where to start? The Ministry of Justice (MoJ) deems the site superfluous to its needs, but has struggled to sell. There was misfortune (from the MoJ perspective) with a potential sale falling through in the wake of Covid. The main listed cruciform building will remain but beyond that ambitions for the site vary depending on your perspective. 1) The MoJ pre-supposes a high value scheme – likely residential and hotel in order to sell at a high price, 2) heritage groups amplify the huge historic sensitivity of the site, which has already seen the idea of a large theatre ruled out, and 3) cultural organisations dream of a major Arts centre. The first and third will likely involve a density and level of change that will not meet the needs of second group. Banksy’s potential offer of funds could come into play depending on who buys the site and what they plan – Banksy has not submitted a bid but could help fund option 3. The council has bid, but would possibly rather lose out to a philanthropic rival bid rather than take the political risk of subsequent delays being framed as incompetence and waste on its part. Who knows where all that leaves us? I just hope the new owner can be bold and imaginative, whilst maximising the historic significance of the Gaol and the Abbey, to rejuvenate the area and bring visitors into town. My fear is that the heritage arguments will be amplified to such an extent that we end up with a scheme so incredibly “sensitive” to its surroundings that it consists of almost nothing at all. A sleepy, exclusive residential enclave with an Oscar Wilde blue plaque will do no favours to Reading, but may be the path of least resistance. Plenty of campaigning left to do on this one.
Status: Sale pending.
Minster Quarter & Broad Street Mall. With some certainty finally at Station Hill, attention turns to the former civic centre area that is now termed Minster Quarter. The Broad St Mall is in the process of being sold, having achieved planning permission for its residential towers. The new buyer may well be also looking to work with the council on the plans for the wider area, for which concept images are shown below. A renovated Hexagon and large public square form the centrepiece of the ambition, along with the ever-present dream of decking over the IDR to link the whole area up to Oxford Road and provide an elevated park.
Status: Council looking for development partner. Broad St Mall plans approved but on-hold pending direction from new ownership.
Hosier St Market. The wider Minster Quarter scheme will take a few years to come forward, but an imaginative interim is imminent. Blue Collar’s venue is under construction behind the Broad Street Mall and will provide a variety of street food vendors and a bar. After a bizarrely protracted planning process for what is only a temporary venue (possibly 3 years, I believe), the scheme is approved with work well underway ahead of a springtime opening. This is an essential forerunner for Minster Quarter, and it’s crucial to show the council that independent and unique businesses should be a big part of those longer term plans.
Status: Under construction.
Dukesbridge. This one’s slightly unclear: conversion of the existing ex-office building seems to have gone ahead but without the upwards extension or demolition and rebuilding of the “subway corner” with the vastly improved frontage and towpath access it would have brought. The extension application is still live but frustratingly the heritage lobby has objected, and it appears they might get their way with the existing ugly building retained instead. It feels like an own-goal from the conservation area committee on the tenuous basis of the impact on London Street’s heritage buildings, which all sit the opposite side of the IDR. I’ve tried to get an update from the developer but nothing was forthcoming.
Status: Plans yet to be approved, and may not come forward.
Bristol & West Arcade. A saga with no immediate end in sight. Planning permission was granted for the hotel scheme shown below. The conservation area committee opposed it, which was again perverse for two reasons. Firstly, the historic market place buildings (the former Cooper Arms etc) are to be (quite rightly) conserved, and secondly the new-build hotel section isn’t actually in the Market Place conservation area. Nevertheless, frustratingly they’re trying to get that designation extended, which will only lead to further inertia with this troubled long-abandoned partial regeneration of the early 2000s. In fairness, the conservationists and the council were successful in forcing the owner to repair significant damage to the listed Market Place buildings. But now that owner, having secured planning, has sold the properties to an unknown buyer, so who knows what’s next?
Status: Plans approved but property changing hands.
Sub89 and the former Next. This plot on Broad St and Friar St was, once upon a time, largely occupied by Littlewoods, with access available between the two streets by cutting through the large shop. They’ve since been divided, with Next operating on Broad St for many years before relocating to the Oracle. The Friar St side was Broadwalk, then Risa/Jongleurs and now Popworld / Sub89. The site has been recently acquired by AEW, and the image below was shared on linkedIn by an agent involved with the transaction. This hasn’t yet been through planning, to my knowledge, and the buyer may have no imminent intent to progress any new scheme, but clearly a residential rebuild could be on the cards. This could spell the end for the live music venue on Friar St, and you’d have to start to wonder where else in the town centre might be far enough from major noise-sensitive apartment schemes or even-more-sensitive heritage sites to accommodate such facilities. The first clue as to the intent of the new owner will be whether the previously announced new Deichmann shoe shop appears in the former Next.
Status: Yet to be submitted for planning.
The Oracle, House of Fraser. It would appear that this might be under review. House of Fraser staff are adamant they’re going nowhere, with one telling me that a lease extension was signed. Hollywood Bowl had confirmed a new venue here but it’s not been mentioned in their more recent financial updates. Leisure operators have been badly impacted by the pandemic so it would be no surprise if this has stalled. I speculate that Hammerson might be trying to convince Hollywood Bowl to operate within the lower floors of the former Debenham’s store, which would actually be a better location opposite the cinema, quite apart from the fact that House of Fraser is still trading and apparently fairly busy, unlike the unoccupied lower levels the other end of the mall.
Status: Unknown – delayed or cancelled.
Huntley Wharf. This scheme of some 760+ apartments on the former Homebase and Toys R Us sites has zoomed along. We wait to see whether good occupiers can be found for the retail and restaurant units on the new riverside square, which will be crucial to establishing this new corner of town. I’d hope Waterfest can also make use of the space. It will all be an intriguing test for CGIs vs reality.
Status: Under construction, nearing completion.
North of the Station. Two schemes are aiming to be approved in the coming months, both dominated by hundreds of apartments with an element of office use around the station’s northern entrance. My biggest issue with these two proposals (the sorting office site, and the retail park site) is that they give up the last remaining sizeable plot in the centre of town that could be used for something more interesting. For example, the convention centre/large venue proposal known as Royal Elm Park (REP) on the Madejski Stadium car park would be ideally located here, on the doorstep of the station. Rumours are that the stalled REP plans are being revisited and likely to go ahead in some form. I’d rather RG1 than RG2 be the centre of gravity of the town (and region) for business and leisure, and these current proposals are a missed opportunity. A thousand commuter flats and a Tesco express isn’t especially exciting, and they’ve even reduced the height of the buildings to appease various groups, which might have at least provided some architectural interest vs the latest plans that have evolved to take an ever blockier form.
Status: Awaiting planning permission. No construction likely for several years.
SSE Vastern Road. This apartment scheme with riverside cafe was rejected by the council. The developer has appealed with a result expected soon. The council has been winning most of its appeals lately, including notably against the ex-Drew’s scheme on Caversham Rd. The council is holding out for a more emphatic traffic-free route from Christchurch Bridge through the site to the station, but the developer contends this isn’t possible due to the need to retain much of the electric works on a part of the site blocking any potential line of sight. There is also concern about shadows cast over the riverbank. I accept this scheme could be improved, but we mustn’t end up with another nondescript 4-storey block of flats like the one next door.
Status: At appeal. Could go either way.
Reading Green Park station and Bankside Gardens. 461 apartments are being built adjacent to a new railway station, which looks set to eventually open during 2022. The station will be served by the half-hourly shuttles between Reading and Basingstoke. Although further development in this area maybe impacted by the newly enlarged emergency planning zone around AWE Burghfield.
Status: Under construction
Queen Victoria Street. I’m presenting the future of Reading as a contested topic, between developers wanting to make money; heritage interests in slowing down change and retaining/restoring what we have; and pragmatists who just want stuff to do in a sufficiently lively and interesting town centre to be worthy of (one day!) calling a city centre. We do, thankfully, have one scheme which appears to delight all three. Victoria Market Square behind the corner with Friar St, will provide a small hotel and courtyard retail scheme accessible through both Friar Street and Queen Victoria Street. Now approved, evidence that this scheme is progressing seems solid, with Black Sheep Coffee taking on a shrunk ex-Nero site to make space for one of the entrances, whilst the upper floor exteriors are being restored behind a swathe of scaffolding.
Status: Under construction
In summary, an incredible amount going on, and that’s not even an exhaustive list. There are the new swimming pools being built at Palmer Park and Rivermead. The homeless accommodation behind the Cattle Market has been a big achievement, and I haven’t even touched on the emerging likelihood of some or all of the Royal Berkshire Hospital relocating to the science park. Plenty more to look out for in the coming year. Thanks to everyone for reading my pages, and have a happy new year.