A proposed 50,340-square-foot, 10-to-12-screen multiplex movie theater at the site of the former Walmart on Route 58 was unanimously approved by the Suffolk County Planning Commission Wednesday.
The proposal, which was recently filed in Riverhead Town Hall, calls for demolishing the existing 71,343-square-foot former Walmart building and replacing it with a free-standing multiplex building.
The application also proposes two free-standing restaurants of 6,300-square feet and 2,600-square feet toward the northern part of the property, just east of Firestone. The smaller restaurant would have a drive-through window, according to the plan.
The applicant in this case is the property owner, Riverhead PGC, which is a subsidiary of Manhattan-based Phillips International, and not a movie theater company. It’s not clear if if a theater tenant has been secured yet.
Riverhead Supervisor Sean Walter has said he’s been in contact with Regal Entertainment Group, the largest movie theater company in the United States, about building a multiplex at the former Walmart site, which has been vacant since the retailer moved into a larger building on the western end of Route 58 two years ago.
Mr. Walter had previously tried to convince Regal to build a multiplex at the former Woolworth site downtown, but the company rejected the idea.
There were no town officials present at Wednesday’s commission meeting at the County Center in Riverside, other than Carl Gabrielsen, the town’s representative on that body, and no one from the public or the applicant spoke at all.
“I think its a very good project,” Mr. Gabrielsen said. “This location has always been a major destination for shopping in Riverhead, but since Walmart moved, it’s sort of become a visual blight. This appears to be great opportunity to revitalize this area once again.”
Matthew Chartrand, the Islip town representative on the commission, said he thinks the project can help relieve the traffic congestion at the western end of Route 58.
He and Mr. Gabrielsen both said the site has some traffic issues with cars coming in from the entrance off Oliver Street.
“You take your life in your hands,” Mr. Gabrielsen said. “Cars come flying in from the side streets or from Firestore. They seem to come from all over. That’s the only real concern I had.”
The commission vote was 10-0 in favor, with five members absent.
The planning commission, which has representatives from all 10 Suffolk towns, gives recommendations to local municipalities for projects along county or state roads and its recommendations can only be overruled with a majority-plus-one vote of the Town Board or Planning Board.
In this case, the site plan application would be reviewed by the Riverhead Town Planning Board.
Mr. Walter and prior town supervisors have been trying to attract a multiplex to Riverhead for many years.
The town in the past has actually approved several multiplex applications, including one at Tanger Outlet Center, one at Riverhead Centre and one where Costco is now located, only to see the applicants not follow through with actually building one.
During the administration of former Supervisor Phil Cardinale in 2004, the Town Board implemented zoning that would only allow a multiplex theater in downtown Riverhead and Railroad Avenue.
That meant multiplex theaters were no longer permitted on Route 58.
However, while presentations for movie theaters were made for both downtown and Railroad Avenue, neither plan ever came to fruition.
The Town Board currently is considering changing the zoning to once again allow a multiplex on Route 58, and has several public hearings dealing with that change scheduled for its meeting at 2 p.m on Tuesday, June 7.
The board is proposing to allow multiplex movie theaters in the “shopping center” zoning district on Route 58 as a “special permit” use, which requires Town Board approval.
That district includes the former Walmart shopping center — which is known as Riverhead Plaza — along with the shopping centers that currently include the following stores: BJ’s, TJ Maxx, Target, Dunkin’ Donuts, Big Lots and Lowe’s.
The other hearings scheduled for Tuesday propose to add a definition of “movie theater” to the Town Code and to reduce the amount of parking needed for theaters.
Caption: The building that would be torn down to make way for the multiplex. (Credit: Barbaraellen Koch)