Plans for a multiplex movie theater at the former Walmart property on Route 58 took a step forward Thursday night after the Riverhead Zoning Board of Appeals approved a number of variances, including one that will allow the building to be slightly taller than the zoning permits.
The proposal, which is planned for the Riverhead Plaza shopping still faces a number of other hurdles before it can begin construction, including site plan approval from the Planning Board. In addition, it needs approval from the Town Board to allow the movie theater’s construction in the shopping center zoning district.
Prior to the meeting, the applicants also said they’re seeking tax breaks and other incentives from the town’s Industrial Development Agency (IDA).
All of those approvals will require public hearings.
Andrew Aberham of Philips International, the company that owns the shopping center, described the IDA application as an “integral part” of the plan.
While his board doesn’t vote on IDA applications, Supervisor Sean Walter said at Thursday’s Town Board work session that he would support IDA benefits for the proposed movie theater even though he has opposed granting IDA benefits to companies on Route 58 in the past.
“People will be out there to criticize the IDA and what I will say to you is,” he said, “you will never get a movie theater ever, ever, ever, in this town. They are a draw, but they are a financial sinkhole, if you will. And so they’re not able to pay the rents you would normally get.”
Philips International, which has been negotiating with Regal Cinemas, has yet to finalize a deal with a movie company to operate the theater.
“We are very far along,” Mr. Aberham told the Town Board. “There’s a lease out. We are negotiating the lease. The ball’s in their court and we’re waiting for them to get back to us with their comments.”
“What happens if it’s not Regal?” Mr. Walter asked.
“It’s simple,” Mr. Aberham said. “We’re going to continue to go forward with the movie theater. We are committed to the project, whether it’s Regal or some other operator or ourselves. This is something we’re committed to doing.”
The project calls for demolishing 71,000-square-feet of the building and replacing it with a 51,000-square-foot stand-alone movie theater with 1,490 seats, 10 screens and two restaurants fronting Route 58. A drive-thru window is planned for one of the restaurants, which would need Town Board approval since it isn’t allowed under the zoning.
The project initially ran into some opposition from neighbors at an April 14 ZBA hearing. They expressed concerns about the proposed height of the building, as well as with potential traffic that might be generated.
Since then, Philips International has reduced the height from 60 feet to 44.6 feet. The height limit allowed under town code is 35 feet.
Philips International has also sought a variance to have only one loading berth instead of the required three and to have exterior lighting poles that are 25 feet high instead of the required 16 feet.
After holding three public hearings, the ZBA unanimously approved the variance requests.
“The variance sought will not create an undesirable change in the character of the neighborhood because the shopping center exists as it is,” ZBA chairman Fred McLaughlin said in reading the decision. “The proposed movie theater and restaurants are permitted in the zoning use district.”
The height problem wasn’t “self-created” because modern movie theaters require additional height to accommodate stadium seating, he added.
In addition, the proposal includes a smaller building, as well as improved grading and drainage.
Mr. Walter, who has been working to get a movie theater to open in town since 2010, said the Town Board can’t commit to supporting the project yet because several public hearings are still required.
“We have to get the public’s input,” he said at Thursday’s work session. “If that went well, I think the Town Board would look at it favorably.”
“I just can’t think of a better location,” Councilman Jim Wooten added. “This will be a draw for that whole section of town.”
Photo credit: Tim Gannon