Rio cinema chief exec bids for North London Poly site
Will Kentish Town ever get its promised picture house?
17 June, 2021 — By Dan Carrier
How the site looks in June 2021
A BID by a not-for-profit cinema charity has been lodged with developers of a site in Kentish Town – but the owners of what was once the North London Polytechnic in Prince of Wales Road say they already have a cinema company set to open the screen.
The former poly, which until it closed in 2013 was home to a Pizza Express restaurant, has seen three different planning applications and three owners since the last pizza was baked.
A firm called Uplift won permission to build 12 flats on a new first floor and on the roof, preserve the 1920s brick facade and install a cinema on the ground floor in 2015.
The company failed to complete the work – so Highgate Road-based developer Vabel stepped in.
This week, they received a “letter of intent” from the Rio Cinema, based in Kingsland High Street, Hackney, stating they want to explore setting up a not-for-profit community cinema project on the site.
Its chief executive Oliver Meek told the New Journal: “People are really hungry for this. The fact is this type of local cinema is in a stronger place post-pandemic than other business models, and Kentish Town is an area crying out for one. We have the intent and have contacted the owners.”
The promise of a cinema was part of the plans after the old Pizza Express restaurant that had operated in the building at the junction with Prince of Wales Road closed in 2013.
Six years ago, a firm called Uplift had secured permission to build 12 homes on a new first floor and on the roof, preserve the 1920s brick facade and install the cinema on the ground floor.
But the company failed to complete the work – and developer Vabel later took on the building. Mr Meek has said he wanted the idea of a not-for-profit community cinema to now be explored.
He warned that a stumbling block could be the rent being set too high, but added: “If the owners are realistic, and the cinema is required under the planning permission granted for the flats above, then a not-for-profit venture is the most sensible way of ensuring the cinema becomes a reality.”
Mr Meek said: “What has to happen is the lease must be sensible. Sometimes owners think they will secure West End rents, but this is a not-for-profit venture with a long-term vision.”
The charity has worked on similar projects, including a community-led cinema in Acton.
Mr Meek said: “It has happened elsewhere. We know this can be done.”
Vabel told the New Journal this week that a deal with an independent cinema currently in London had progressed well – and it was a viable scheme they were pursuing. Director Jeremy Spencer said: “We are already in advanced discussions with an operator with a solid and profitable background who are keen to take on the space.”
Mr Spencer said that the pandemic had delayed the finishing date for the building, but the cinema’s infrastructure – a basement pit and services for the cafe and bar – were already installed.
He added: “The people we are negotiating with are prepared to put funding in to make it what it needs to be – a lovely boutique cinema with accessible prices, and that is 100 per cent. The reality is we are doing what we set out to do and we are trying to get the most viable operator so the cinema has longevity and is a stable and exciting asset to Kentish Town.”