The front-runners for 2023

New apartment towers at the eastern end of The Oracle

The end of the year is the obvious opportunity to review the past 12 months, and to look at what’s to come during the next lap of sun. After a tumultuous year internationally, and nationally for that matter, let’s keep things local for a few minutes. 2022 saw a number of projects galloping forwards, whilst others seem perpetually stuck in the traps. One project that’s come up on the rails from nowhere is the Oracle’s major scheme, which was submitted for planning permission this week – more on that shortly. But let’s take a more leisurely canter through the runners and riders for 2023.

Reading Gaol

We start here as it’s the one that I’m most often asked about. Yet there’s precious little I can tell you. Still owned by the MoJ, it was vacated in 2014, and despite protests, petitions, a brief Banksy-based ballyhoo there’s still no sign of progress. Matt Rodda, local MP, alluded to possible discussions taking place with a buyer – implicitly not the council – but after at least one previous sale fell through it would be brave to take an even-money bet on it finding so much as a new owner in 2023, let alone a firm plan for its reinvention.

Minster Quarter / Civic Centre

Reading’s politicians are quick to criticise the government for its glacial progress with Gaol, but they might do well to remember they vacated the Civic Centre offices also in 2014, and eight years later we still seem to be in the starting gates. I’m told that the tender for a development partner to progress the scheme will complete by July, but an industry insider told me that planning won’t take place until after that, so seeing any detailed designs in 2023 looks like an outside bet. Is it just public sector sites destined for decade-long development delays? Well, no actually, because…

Reading Sorting Office

The sorting office was vacated in 2009 and yet it still stands empty. Private sector projects are clearly capable of equally painstaking progress. A pedant might point out Royal Mail wasn’t privatised until 2013, but that’s still nearly ten years ago. And Station Hill did nothing for decades under private ownership, but we’ll return to that shortly given its recent spectacular resurgence.

The sorting office site now has planning permission after a lengthly process, but there are doubts as to whether the construction is anywhere near imminent, as reported in detail in Thames Tap’s end-of-term Reading Report. The neighbouring Aldi retail park is currently at a planning appeal, for a similar scheme of apartment towers, offices, with the odd ground floor coffee shop here and there. I remain of the view that these north-of-station sites together would make the perfect location for a medium-sized arena and conference centre – especially with the “Royal Elm Park” plans at Madejski also stalled. Perhaps further delays might allow someone to combine ownership of the two sites and really maximise the potential of this opportunity on the doorstep of the southern England’s best-connected railway station outside of London.

Station Hill

With those three above major sites clearly finding the going tough, it’s great to have a real winner in the stable. Since acquiring the site in mid-2018, owners Lincoln Property Company and MGT have raced ahead and now have more than half the overall site well into the construction phase. The plans will see a major new pedestrian route from the station through the site to Friar Street. Ground floor retail and leisure – including rumoured interest from a local brewery – will line the route, to include a new public square and bridge over Garrard Street. Some 600 apartments and a 15-storey office tower complete this first two phases of the scheme. I’m told that development finance is harder to come by in the current economic situation than when Station Hill tied up its deals for these early phases, so whether they can conjure up viable plans to proceed with a final phase in the short term is currently unclear. I wouldn’t bet against them. The finishing post for the present construction is Spring 2024, but the buildings should look pretty complete from the exterior by this time next year.

Construction progress on Station Hill December 22

Oracle East

A surprise major scheme to emerge this year is the proposal to demolish half of the ex-Debenhams building, and the Vue Cinema for a major mixed use development. Submitted for planning just this week after a consultation in August, the plans comprise the following, according to the press release:

  • 449 homes 
  • 28,000 sq ft of film space 
  • 28,000 sq ft of entertainment / leisure/ flexible workspace 
  • 38,000 sq ft of retained retail space 
  • Public realm improvements including 37 new trees and a 1, 900 sq ft pocket park

For those who don’t speak square feet, the “retained retail space” amounts to roughly one floor of the ex-Debenhams unit, although in practice this is likely to be split into two half-sized units on each of the levels fronting into the mall. It’s not clear whether Next Home will occupy any or all of that space. In essence we lose circa 80,000 sq ft of retail space, but that amount has been unoccupied anyway since Debenhams went. The film space just means cinema, and 28,000 sq ft will probably mean 7 or 8 screens, based on this similar-sounding new development in Preston, so a bit smaller than the current Vue. The same amount of space for entertainment could mean the mythical megabowl, or other family leisure – golf, eKarting… there are a lot of operators out there. And of course the major element of the scheme is 450 apartments, provided by Packaged Living – although their map of UK projects is yet to include Reading, and also shows Berkshire having been conquered by Wiltshire, so work to do on the details. A 2023 start could be on the racecard, subject to planning.

One interesting side note is the intent to provide energy for the apartments by extracting heat from water in the Kennet. According to Hammerson, this “innovative technology” is known as a “water-source heat pump”. If it works it should be applicable at many sites locally.

Friar Street

The Thackeray hotel schemes were approved last month. We would hope that would mean a start on work next year. My question to that effect on their social media post received a like rather than a reply – read into that what you will. The corner of Queen Victoria Street will be restored revealing a new courtyard behind with spill-out space for cafes and shops around the edges. WH Smith’s narrow Friar Street end with permanently closed entrance is taken over and extended for an apart hotel, which uses the new courtyard as a light well. A second hotel, in presumably a subsequent phase, replaces Revolucion de Cuba and incorporates the Bugle Pub, and will be occupied by Jurys Inn. Hopefully odds-on for a starting gun on one or both of these sites in 2023.

Levelling Up

The council has applied for funding for two excellent projects: a relocation of the library to a new extension of their Bridge Street base, and an extension to the Hexagon for community and performance space. The government has delayed announcing winning bids until the new year. Northern councils are hoping to snare much of the funding, but hopefully there are some cultural crumbs left for elsewhere. Maybe worth an each way punt that one of the two bids places.

The rest of the field

2022 gave us the brilliant Blue Collar Corner, which will hopefully go from strength to strength. Other restaurant comings and goings are covered best by Edible Reading’s end-of-year post. A flurry of new shops opened at the end of the year, with a number of other sites under offer. Hopefully the old Clas Ohlson/Woolworths unit can be repurposed, which is the biggest gap needing filling. Next year the Bowl Central venue is due to open in the old Dawson’s unit. The Market Place area could be a dark horse for 2023, with awaiting news for the former Natwest bank once its upper floors are converted to flats. Could work finally start on restoring the period buildings the other side? Round the corner, Jackson’s might finally get its restaurant occupants and Soane Point should receive its much-needed makeover too.

There are many other plans at various stages around town. An exciting one is sadly under wraps just at the moment. Keep an ongoing eye on my instagram page for any news! My list above hopefully gives you a sense of what’s to come in 2023, but a few non-starters and the emergence of something entirely unexpected is, as always in Reading, a racing certainty.

Merry Christmas and Happy New Year to everyone. Thanks for taking the time to read.

The front-runners for 2023

5 thoughts on “The front-runners for 2023

  1. I know it’s not quite the topic of your blog, RoT, but is anyone else a little upset at the tasteless renovation of Great Expectations on London Street into ‘Calico Bar’? The beautiful, quaint Dickensian shopfronts and references have been gutted, and all the nods to Victoriana have gone. I understand that the place probably needed a lift, and like most reasonable people I welcomed a little update. But to pander to the post-work 5.30pm crowd who rarely venture beyond the town centre anyway, when the place already drew dedicated regulars of all ages who appreciated its quirkiness and historic legacy, is utter barbarism. Sorry, rant over.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I’ve not been in for a number of years, but I admit I quite liked the old Great Ex. I don’t know when the Dickensian theme was first introduced but I guess it wasn’t all that long ago and therefore not deemed worthy of any formal protection.
      It will be interesting to see if the new incarnation proves a success.


      1. I went in last night, and admittedly, there are a few redeeming features. They’ve maintained some Dickens references (hard not to when the man opened the building in 1843), but the bar has become very generic and nightclubby, with characterless European lagers to match. Miss the local ales already. I suppose us punters are to blame, as well as Covid…

        Liked by 1 person

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