Oracle East – Sizing it up

New concept proposals have been revealed for the eastern part of The Oracle, comprising the former Debenhams and current cinema sites. The idea has been put forward for consultation, but here I explore whether we can really afford to be too demanding in our response.

What to do with your Debenhams is a shared national conundrum, with the various regional answers revealing much about the health of their respective high streets. Whilst we may huff and puff about “yet more flats”, this proposal results in only a small reduction in retail and leisure space. Compare this to Swindon’s plan, where the upper floors of their Debenhams are set to be converted into 900 personal storage lock-ups. Investors think central Reading is a place people want to live and to spend their time, but they think Swindon is somewhere for – and I quote – “individuals on the lookout for a place to store their clutter”. What a depressing fate for a town centre.

It’s critical we avoid a similar outcome – I did notice that this kind of so-called “urban logistics” was mooted as a possible use when the Broad Street Mall was recently advertised for sale. Hammerson, the owner of the Oracle hasn’t exactly had an easy time. According to their accounts, the value of the Oracle reduced by £173.5 million during 2020, and a further £37 million during 2021. Similar, or even larger losses were accrued on their other centres. They’ve sold many assets to offset their losses and you wouldn’t rule out a sale here should they encounter excess strife with their plans. And who would buy it? Unlikely a premium shopping centre operator. Maybe someone with no interest in retail and leisure at all…

In short, we need to give the developer a pretty free rein. I can hear the protestations as I type, but we’d do well to remember we’ve overplayed our hand before when it comes to curtailing developers. The council wanted the former SSE electric works on Vastern Road by the river to become a grand civic boulevard providing a prominent avenue from the station to the new footbridge over the Thames. A scheme was submitted for only part of the site, for a jumble of buildings – which in fairness most people think is quite well designed. But there was no beautiful wide walkway to Christchurch Bridge with line-of-sight to the station. So the council refused planning permission and then promptly lost at appeal, with the planning inspector reporting as follows:

“In past discussions about the development of the site, owner SSE have indicated their intention that the entire site would be comprehensively redeveloped. Past feasibility studies illustrate various approaches… including retaining and encapsulating electricity transmission equipment below new buildings. Representations were made to the Council in 2017 and 2018 seeking to secure alterations to the emerging Local Plan. This related to a suggested extension of the tall building cluster to include the site and a request that the 10m riverside setback be relaxed to 5m. These representations indicated that such alterations would allow maximisation of potential riverside development, presumably by allowing taller buildings closer to the river. Further, the riverside frontage development would generate the high values required to support the relocation of the central electricity transformers, thereby opening up this part of the site for the desired central pedestrian/cycle link.
It appears that the failure of these representations to result in amendments to the local plan led to the conclusion that moving the substations and transformers within the site or to another location was financially unviable. As a result, the part of the site no longer required for operations was sold on. Evidence to the Inquiry indicates that SSE have no plans to relocate their equipment.”

Planning Appeal outcome report, which granted permission overruling the council’s refusal

Amateur journo mode fully engaged here… So the council’s refusal to budge on their strict tall building policy led to the scheme they wanted being unviable. And that just caused the owner to chop up the site, and sell the available parcel to Berkeley. The plot thickens – when Berkeley first heard refusal by the council was likely, they wrote to them:

“We submitted a viability appraisal with our planning submission which demonstrated that this
development does not viably support the provision of any affordable housing…
…we [Berkeley]… would like to enhance our offer as follows;
– Berkeley will be willing to provide 20% affordable housing on the basis of a scheme for 209 homes.
– Of the 42 affordable homes, 45% (19) of these will be affordable rent…
– On the basis Berkeley are able to start on site as envisaged in Summer 21’ these homes would be delivered in 2023…
– As stated above this offer is on the basis of our current 209 home submission under consideration by officers and that officers are able to find a way to support this favourably at a local level…

We trust that the above revised offer is acceptable to the Council, and we would welcome further talks to discuss this in more detail. Notwithstanding the offer as described above, should officers still be minded to refuse the application, in an appeal scenario, our affordable provision will be as per our submitted viability position of 0%”

Letter from Berkeley (developer) upon hearing refusal of planning permission was likely

You might choose your own words for this “offer”, and they stretch the definition of “viable” somewhat by procedurally proving affording housing is “unviable” and then offering it anyway. Don’t hate the player, hate the game, as they say. The council’s top priority through planning is affordable homes but they refused permission anyway, lost the appeal and have now presumably lost the affordable homes too. All this just to appease heritage arguments against tall buildings, on a site whose own heritage was giant power station chimneys, next to the Thames Water site that used to be Nugent Tower – the tallest building in town!

I do have sympathy for the council. Planning seems to be a pretty tricky card game, where it’s hard to know how good your hand is. It’s even harder when the developer plays their cards and it’s still subjective who’s won. It’s like one of those foreign packs of cards, only here we need a planning inspector to spend six months figuring out whether it was actually a jack or king.

We need to avoid that same story playing out at the Oracle. We’re going to hear lots of protestations about tall buildings here. I dare say they’ll be visible from the London Street conservation area, from a stepladder, with a periscope. And undoubtedly a shadow cast across the river will threaten the ecology of the entire 87-mile Kennet & Avon canal. Who knows what else people will dream up. But the heritage of Reading that I’m most proud of is its history of reinvention. And this scheme continues that tradition.

Those of us who remember the early days of the Oracle can recall the Warner Village Cinema entrance lobby with its ticket kiosks being a hive of activity on a Friday night – the hubbub of groups perusing dot matrix displays to chose their film for the evening. Online ticketing crept in and that whole area is now redundant, looking almost derelict. The proposal is to retain Vue in a reconfigured format, tickets desks swept away and a bright new entrance, with retained riverside eateries.

The current cinema site on the left. The paddleboards are apparently artistic licence!

The Debenham’s side provides a new entrance to the mall with escalators up to the current HMV area. This should revitalise that section, which became a bit of a backwater since Waterstones left and the entrance to Minster Street closed. Next Beauty/Home will apparently remain on the upper mall, with the middle level becoming the mythical bowling alley and ground floor given over to a co-working office operator. Above both sides will be the contentious apartment towers with ambiguous heights at this stage. The mooted apartment total is 475.

Layout and access

The details of the scheme are literally sketchy at present, with the developer at pains to state designs are indicative. Feedback is invited to help shape the evolution of the plans. With some 80,000 sq ft of former Debenhams currently sitting doing nothing, I think this plan to divide that space between leisure and co-working should keep the centre busy through the day and into the evenings and weekends. Could the co-working riverside frontage be relocated to a set-back first floor terrace to free up space to retain the popular Franco Manca and Real Greek spots? And maybe the Oracle could do a favour to Kings Walk by opening an entrance down into Yield Hall place with perhaps leisure units on the ground floor?

Indicative layout

My conclusion, though, is straightforward. If we need 15-20 storey town centre living on this site to support the ongoing presence and development of a major regional shopping and leisure facility in Reading, then we should support without hesitation. The world has changed so much since the opening of the Oracle, now is the time to be bold with its reinvention. My fear is various representations to the council leading to the watering down and/or cancelling of these plans. Scrutiny and a bit of negotiating on things like affordable housing is their job, but I’ll be watching through my fingers thinking “please don’t mess this up”. If they do, we may as well pack our bags and head to Swindon…

…to put the bags in a locker and get the train home, of course.

Oracle East – Sizing it up

4 thoughts on “Oracle East – Sizing it up

  1. FL says:

    What would be nice as an addition would be some rooftop space around there, with cafes or restaurants. Would be a nice view, not seen many rooftop venues in town which is, to my mind, a missed opportunity.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Ben says:

    Yes, wholly agree.

    Particularly if the scheme can be realised this side of the reforms to S106/CIL. A healthy wad of cash to support improvements to the Kennet either side of the Oracle would do wonders. It’s such an embarrassment to compare the waterside public realm within the Oracle to that just on the other side of Bridge Street – which has been a rat-infested litter-ground for years now.

    Enlivening Yield Place with an entrance would be great – especially if it can provide an alternative public realm to the amphitheatre outside Cafe Nefo, which has been rammed this summer.

    Liked by 1 person

  3. Fahad S says:

    It would be nice to see the Holy Brook made into a feature in this section again. It flows underground near Mallard Row and magically reappears beyond the library. You can still see it babbling happily behind Bluegrass BBQ, but there is no plaque or mention of it anywhere; in fact, throughout that entire length the only explicit mention of it is the opaque floor ‘window’ in Kings Walk, now languishing under a Japanese tea establishment. This is the brook that took two intrepid canoers through subterranean Reading in the 90s… Whether block of flats or bowling alley ends up winning out, I’d like to see this unassuming waterway get some respect.

    Liked by 1 person

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