Another vast new residential regeneration project has been unveiled this week. This time it’s Forbury Retail Park in the spotlight. As always, I went along to the public consultation to see what’s going on. I’ll try to cover the facts, but I can’t help but express more than one central reservation about these new plans.
The Forbury Retail Park is owned by investment fund “Abrdn” (based in Edinburgh, ironically enough). The site does not include the Decathlon end of the single-storey retail shed wilderness. The Scottish developer proposes up to 900 apartments across numerous mid-rise buildings, with a small supermarket and a couple of corner retail units fronting Forbury Road. Parking would be very limited – 200 bays in a basement car park, pre-supposing that residents will make use of town centre facilities and the railway station, and/or one of the 800 secure cycle storage spaces. Resident-only gardens separate the buildings, although a reasonably wide area of publicly accessible landscaped greenery runs along the Forbury Road. Homes would be a mixture of built-to-rent, and privately sold apartments, which could be owner-occupied or rented out.
Feedback at the consultation seemed reasonably mellow. There were the usual comments about schools and doctors, and clarifications sought that energy will come from heat pumps rather than gas boilers (it will). Social media feedback, as always, seemed more polarised. There was concern for the loss of the retail park, and simultaneously traffic concerns as well as opinions that parking provision would be insufficient. And some just labelled Abrdn as the latest greedy developer, or grdy dvlper as someone helpfully translated for our vowel-challenged Caledonian friends.
I managed to speak to the architect at the consultation. Whilst clearly a lot of thought has gone into the layout and design, what’s clear is that this a scheme aiming to win planning approval, not to win any kind of role in Reading’s evolving identity. The buildings are designed to minimise offence – to blend in and to reflect existing local colouring, and to comply painstakingly with council policies. The biggest constraint limiting the ambition in these plans is the council’s legacy tall buildings policy.
Reading’s “Tall Building Policy” is from back in 2007. It identified limited sites where taller buildings would be acceptable. The council could choose exceptionally to permit a scheme in breach of a policy but developers are reluctant to risk an expensive planning refusal so tend to play safe. Apparently the policy constrains this site to 11 storeys or 36m, so the developer proposes buildings up to, you’ve guessed it, 11 storeys or 36m. The current trend seems to be to carpet the town centre in 11-storey apartment blocks, depriving us of an even more interesting and evolving skyline. In 2007, people were worried tall buildings would become the high-rise slums of the future, ensnaring the poorest in society. The opposite has happened, with the upper storeys becoming the most expensive premium properties. Buildings like the Blade and Verto – which is hugely popular with Reading’s Instagram photographers – have changed perceptions.
Permitting a tall building along Forbury Road could give the architects far more scope to vary building heights adding more interest, different styles, a focal point, and potentially facilitate larger public green spaces and/or further leisure facilities made viable by the increased density elsewhere in the scheme.
The flaws in the current policy were illustrated this week in the refusal of a tall office building on the site of The Range on Vastern Road. Such a tower would apparently: “detract from Reading’s skyline by crowding views of the Station Clock Tower with detrimental impacts”.
My issue here is that the clock tower, which is deemed as a “sensitive receptor” in planning jargon, is not only protected from an immediately adjacent unsympathetic building, it’s also being used to prevent a proposed building a full 160m away, because clear blue (or grey) sky must be visible behind it. My Year 9 trigonometry might be a little rusty, but I’d say a couple of side steps to the left should shift the angles in your favour, although a step too far and it would be obliterated by a giant advertising display. “Sensitive receptor”, I remind you!
It might be argued that the prison is also a sensitive receptor. But surely a Verto-like building is more befitting to the location than the current Drive Thru KFC? I’d hope a taller building set back from the main road could help the development find some identity, and being adjacent to the railway line and far from existing homes I think it would offend almost nobody. Breaking up the monolithic 11-storey-ness would help create space for a wider mix of uses, or if the planners so chose, more homes to meet their targets, or a greater proportion of affordable homes.
A further improvement is also thwarted by procedural constraints. A pedestrian link across Forbury Road to the prison would seem an obvious way to link the development into the hoped-for new cultural quarter at the Gaol. However, the developer believes this would not be permitted because of the protected status of a submerged wall in the middle of the IDR. I’ve heard some whacky excuses from developers in my time but a Grade II listed central reservation seemed a bit far fetched. Incredibly it checks out, the former outer boundary of the Abbey complex, known as the Plummery Wall, is indeed located in the middle of the dual carriageway, and likely scuppers any new crossing (despite the official listing online carrying a photograph of completely the wrong wall in Forbury Gardens).
Even if we can’t link more seamlessly into the town centre, and even if we can’t exceed 36m, I still think the architecture could take more risks. The adjacent Huntley Wharf development does provide some interest with its angled factory-like roof line and theming around its former industrial use. A commenter on a local discussion board recently wrote:
“I have had a bit of a change of mind about this development. When I first saw the buildings going up, I thought they looked grey and out of place. But then I drove that way a few days ago, and something about the massing of the buildings obviously tickled a long disused synapse, and memories of what the old biscuit factory looked like came flooding back. I realised that the development is to an extent returning the feel of that part of town back to what I remember when I first came to live in Reading, with significantly sized buildings giving a much more urban feel. Whilst I still have reservations about the rather dour colour, I now think it is a distinct improvement over the retail sheds and parking lots that we have lived with for the past forty(?) years.”
I cannot currently foresee any similar writing about Kings Meadow view. This development site is one of the largest in the town centre. It deserves some kind of signature. It should be renamed once it has found a much stronger USP than merely that its (limited) upper floor occupants might catch a glimpse of a playing field the other side of the train tracks. I hope that the developers, and the council, can take another long look at Kings Meadow View.
Share your views in the comments section below, or even better, respond to the developer’s own consultation on their website, linked above.