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New plans for former Hobson Street cinema site in Cambridge - and art deco facade could go





Proposals to demolish the historic facade of a 1930s former art deco cinema have been revealed in new images published as part of a consultation, writes Alex Spencer.

The former Hobson Street cinema is embellished with art deco era designs but developers are proposing to redevelop it as an office, retail and community space with a modern new look.

Proposal for Hobson Street cinema site in Cambridge. Picture: Rockhunter / Donald Insall Associates
Proposal for Hobson Street cinema site in Cambridge. Picture: Rockhunter / Donald Insall Associates

Developers say the community space is an important element and that it will be available on a “long-term lease at a peppercorn rent”.

But when stakeholders were given an early preview of the new designs for the site, community historian Antony Carpen walked out in disappointment after being shown the plans.

He said: “I think this is the worst option for the city but it’s the one that will make them the most money.”

The proposals, which are now out for public consultation, show a mixture of retail space downstairs accessed from Sidney Street and one area of 360 square metres of community space, plus five floors of offices totalling 4,235 square metres, which will be accessed from Hobson Street. Two new retail units will replace the existing units occupied by Itsu and Urban Outfitters, totalling 887 square metres.

Proposal for Hobson Street cinema site in Cambridge: Pictures Donald Insall Associates
Proposal for Hobson Street cinema site in Cambridge: Pictures Donald Insall Associates

There are also plans for a glass-fronted rooftop area with views across the city.

Antony described the community space as a “small sliver of the entire site”, adding: “I just thought, well, what’s the point of me staying if that’s all we’ve got? Because from my perspective, if that’s what you’re going to be putting forward, I’m going to be opposing it on the grounds that it lacks the community development space. And when the architects said to me that they are looking to demolish the entire art deco facade, I thought, I will oppose it and I will make sure lots of other people oppose it as well.”

He walked out, explaining: “I’m not going to be the grumpy person making the event worse and being disruptive.”

He added: “If you look at the illustrations from the developers, only about a fifth of the ground floor is for so-called community. Basically, they’re turning what was a large community venue into an office block. And the really sad thing is that despite attempts from a whole host of community groups, and individuals, not just myself, who’ve tried to get the building back into community use and to get it properly looked after over the past decade, we’ve been turned down time and time and time again.”

The Hobson Street building - a former Gala bingo hall and once a cinema. Picture: Keith Heppell
The Hobson Street building - a former Gala bingo hall and once a cinema. Picture: Keith Heppell

Antony is standing as an independent candidate in the upcoming Cambridge City Council elections in Queen Edith’s ward, along with Gordon Gregory (Conservative), Thomas Ron (Labour), Jacqueline Whitmore (Green) and Karen Young (Lib Dem).

Number 21 Hobson Street is the former Gala Bingo hall, originally built in the 1930s as the Central Cinema. The cinema closed in 1972 and operated as a bingo hall until 2009 but has been unoccupied since. The former Gala Bingo hall was let to a leisure company, which never took occupation following the refusal of a late-night licence for a live music venue.

It backs onto numbers 16-17 and 18-19 Sidney Street, which currently house Itsu and Urban Outfitters. The owners of the three sites are working together on the new proposals.

None of the sites has been the subject of any significant planning applications in recent years.

Proposal for Hobson Street cinema site in Cambridge. Picture: Rockhunter / Donald Insall Associates
Proposal for Hobson Street cinema site in Cambridge. Picture: Rockhunter / Donald Insall Associates

A website about the proposals explains: “The rise of online shopping and then Covid-19’s appearance left the world of high-street retail reeling by late 2020.

“The separate owners of 16-17 Sidney Street and 18-19 Sidney Street were left wondering about the future of these retail units and how to future-proof their buildings.

​“In October 2020 the two parties met and agreed to combine their buildings and aspirations on this project. It was felt to be the best and, for some of the buildings, the only chance of a positive future.”

A public consultation revealing the plans for the site is continuing. There is a chance to find out more in an online consultation meeting on Thursday (April 13) or in person on Wednesday, April 19, from 2pm to 7pm, at the Guildhall in Cambridge, where the project team will be on hand to answer questions.

Hobson's Passage currently. Picture: Keith Heppell
Hobson's Passage currently. Picture: Keith Heppell

Peter Richer, a spokesperson for the developers, said: “The community space is a really exciting element of the proposed building. Our offer is unique, in that the space will be available for long-term lease at a peppercorn rent for a community centric use.

“To the best of my knowledge, there is no other example of this in Cambridge city centre.

“That the redevelopment should provide community space is something the building owners feel strongly about and is a theme that emerged from our previous consultations on the site.

“Through the design process to date, we have engaged a range of stakeholders and potential occupiers for the space and have received positive feedback throughout.

The current itsu building. Picture: Keith Heppell
The current itsu building. Picture: Keith Heppell

“The space will be approximately 360 sq m over ground and lower ground levels with an entrance on the corner of Hobson Street and Hobson’s Passage. The size and location of the space is ideal for a variety of uses. The exact end use will evolve with the proposals and involve further community engagement.

“21 Hobson Street has been unoccupied for nearly 14 years. The design and state of the building have combined to make finding a realistic occupier unfeasible. The proposals to replace the building are being made to bring life back into this underused part of the city centre.”

To book online for the consultation events, visit camcitycentreopportunity.com/events.



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