James Cracknell reports on the opening of a new entertainment complex in Walthamstow
What was for years a large empty space in the middle of Walthamstow is now occupied by a nine-screen cinema, five restaurants and 121 homes.
The Scene – formerly know as the Arcade site – was a development residents waited more than a decade for, but from the moment the diggers moved on site in June 2013 the construction work has been impressively swift.
The cinema opened on time in November 2014, in the same week as Nando’s and Pizza Express. By February three more restaurants are due to have opened and the first residents will be moving into their homes.
But what seems like the end of a long arduous process getting this development off the ground is, according to Waltham Forest Council leader Chris Robbins, just the start of Walthamstow’s – and the borough’s – rejuvenation.
Cllr Robbins told the Echo: “I think it will change Walthamstow town centre quite dramatically, not just the cinema but the five new restaurants, the homes and the pedestrianised road which has added to the sense of place.
“The shops opposite have started to perk up and the whole development will considerably increase the footfall in that area, which has got to be good for the economy.
“It has provided another place in the borough for entertainment and adds to the work the council has done to transform the William Morris Gallery and the parks.
“What we are doing has caught other people’s imaginations, The Mall is investing £3m in improvements and we have been awarded funding for the bottom end of Walthamstow Market to improve the old buildings around St James’ Street.
“People will now come here as a destination, it is the beginning of a new phase.”
The Empire Cinema has been well received locally in the short time it has been open. Its reasonable prices, its range of film showings and offers for senior citizens have been a refreshing change for film fanatics in the borough who are used to trudging across London and paying more than a tenner.
Cllr Robbins said he was delighted with what the company had done.
“We asked Empire to make sure they gave something back to the community and they are doing that,” he said.
“Films are being shown through the whole day and that is important. I think they are a really good company.”
Nando’s had a less spectacular start to life in Walthamstow, attracting a protest from the animal rights group Viva in its first week.
There were also teething problems for the new pedestrianised area in front of The Scene, as motorists unused to the new road layout were frequently seen driving up to Cleveland Park Avenue before being forced into a U-turn. It prompted temporary warning signs to be erected at the junction with Hoe Street.
In addition to the two well-known chain restaurants at The Scene, three lesser-known food outlets are opening. Among them, Turtle Bay specialises in Caribbean food and drink, and Yumyums is a family-run Thai food restaurant opening in a second location, following its success in Stoke Newington.
Cllr Robbins hopes the diverse range of food offerings at The Scene will enhance Walthamstow’s culinary reputation and act as a spur for others to arrive in future.
“That breadth of offer, from Italian, Caribbean and Thai, creates an atmosphere where you know you can go out for the evening.
“We have also got the EMD progressing and once that reopens Walthamstow will be a substantial cultural centre for the borough.”
Cllr Robbins is referring to Walthamstow’s previous cinema, once known as the Grenada, a stone’s throw from The Scene. Although the locals who campaigned for years to reopen the historic venue – where The Beatles once played – were initially concerned that Empire’s opening would compromise their efforts, the council leader denies this is the case.
“I knew people needed a cinema at the Arcade site that wasn’t in competition with the EMD. My hope is to have a relationship with Soho Theatre to create an entertainments venue there. Empire knows about that, they are a mainstream venue but EMD will be different.”
There has been much wrangling about what to build at the Arcade site, and this is the main reason why it has taken so long for development to come to fruition.
It was originally a 1960s shopping arcade, but which suffered after the opening of the Selborne Walk indoor shopping centre in the 1980s, now known simply as The Mall.
The council bought the Arcade site in 2003 and knocked it down, but it would be 10 years before anything was built in its place.
Cllr Robbins explained why. He said: “There wasn’t a vision for the town centre and we had a coalition operating in the borough, so there were no key decisions being taken.
“When I became leader in 2009 the first thing I did was flatten the site and open it as public space, then when Labour won the election in 2010 we had a vision for it and made it our
“To go from a standing point to having it built in four years is a fast turnaround. Vue Cinemas walked out in 2012 which put us back a bit, but then Empire joined us.
“It has all been very positive since then.”