“This is really exciting,” says Ealing resident Alafair Celestine as she surveys a shopfront just off the local high street where the black-painted boarded-up windows of the former Karma Club don’t immediately appear to justify her comments.
Celestine is an impromptu late addition to a tour of a project that is revamping the redundant space under Ealing Broadway shopping centre that once marketed itself as “west London’s hottest nightclub”.
The red velvet decor and dancing poles are being replaced by a light airy space that will open next month as a cafe by day and then a bar with live music or comedy in the evening alongside three cinema screens showing the latest blockbusters, locally made films and indie movies.
Celestine is excited about the plans. “The community really wants a cinema,” she says. “If we want to go and see a film we have to go to Westfield [three and a half miles to the east]. It’s not that far, but it’s nice to have something really for the local community. So many places closed but now new things are coming in.”
The £2m Ealing scheme is the latest from developer the Really Local Group (RLG) to transform former retail sites in shopping malls into community assets with cinemas, bars and space to host live music, after opening Catford Mews in south London in 2019 and Reading’s Biscuit Factory last year.
The group has already announced five more projects along the same lines, including a refit of a building that used to house the nightclub Chicago’s in Sutton and of the Thorowgoods furniture shop in Bermondsey, both in south London, plus the redevelopment of a vinyl pressing plant in Hayes, west London.
The schemes are all based in south-east England, but this week RLG plans to raise £4m in fresh funds, up to £1m of which is expected to come via local customers and the general public through crowdfunding site Seedrs, to back the opening of up to 50 venues around the UK. Most will be based around a cinema with a cafe or bar and have room for live music, comedy or DJs, with the focus likely to fall on large villages or small towns where places to watch films have disappeared.
The group, which hopes one day to expand into Europe, has already raised £3m, mainly from high-net-worth individuals such as its founder, Preston Benson, an American who moved to London in 2005 to work for advisory firm Deloitte. He was inspired to remortgage his house to set up RLG in 2017 after seeing an opportunity in the UK’s changing town centres for developments that are more locally led.
The group has recently bought Peckham Levels in south-east London, a former multi-storey car park that now houses food and retail outlets, artist studios and flexible office space, and a similar development in Hackney Bridge, east London, giving it access to expertise that it hopes will broaden the options for new developments.
RLG is one of a number of enterprises that have sprung up to lead the reinvention of struggling town centres, where the decline of high street retail accelerated by the pandemic has left multiple derelict sites. Many are finding new uses for old department stores, such as Pop Recs, a music and arts venue founded in Sunderland’s Grade-II listed Binns building, or Bobby’s of Bournemouth, the independent outlet reopened in the town’s former branch of the now-defunct Debenhams chain.
Benson says RLG consults residents about what they want and gives them input into the set-up and cultural programme, with about half of the projects he is working on developed in partnership with local councils. He says the group is not raising money from private equity as it wants to offer bespoke developments rather than be under pressure to roll out cookie-cutter projects as quickly as possible. “We don’t want to be seen as a chain churning out venues in every area,” he says.
“I spent a lot of time walking around, and not being from [the UK] maybe I don’t have the same blinders. Most high streets seemed to be identikit and similar in what they were offering and clearly many of those [businesses] were private-equity backed,” he says.
Benson says RLG is happy to take on “complicated space”, using clever design to work around awkward columns or other structural problems.
Opportunities have been opened up since the start of the pandemic, which Benson says has been a “huge disruptor” to previous ways of doing things, enabling the group to “do things now we would have hoped to do in 2025”.
However, he admits redeveloping sites during Covid has brought challenges, with Reading opening a year later than hoped because of delays to building work and restrictions on hospitality. It was not easy opening a cinema with film schedules held up and low public desire to sit cheek by jowl with others.
“It was really difficult,” he says. “I’m proud we didn’t let anybody go during the pandemic and kept the building going.”
Progress may continue to be rocky as the cost of living crisis leaves many with less spare cash to spend. But Benson is optimistic that the group’s £6.50 cinema ticket price – about half that at major chains in the capital – will still prove attractive. “People still need escapism and to do things. We hope our business is recession-proof. We’re making sure we are affordable and accessible.”