Riverhead Town pols take sides over movie theater proposals

MICHAEL WHITE PHOTO | The former Woolworth building (right) on East Main Street, where big-name developers are reportedly looking to build a 16-screen cineplex. Supervisor Sean Walter favors such a theater downtown, while Councilman Jim Wooten is hopeful the group behind the Vintage Square proposal will build a cineplex north of downtown, near the courts.

The development proposal known as Vintage Square at Riverhead appears to be stuck in planning purgatory as Town Board members bang heads over separate movie theater proposals.

In the works for more than two years, the Vintage Square project calls for not only a multiplex movie theater but also a parking garage, workforce housing units and stores on Railroad Avenue near the court district north of downtown.

But this Wednesday marked the expiration of the project’s fourth six-month extension of its “qualified and eligible sponsor” status, which the developer needs to move forward. The Town Board granted that extension June 15 and Riverhead Supervisor Sean Walter said then that it would be the group’s last.

“If this doesn’t happen, this project is over,” Mr. Walter said.

The supervisor stuck to his guns this week, in part because he favors a downtown cinema project he said is already in the works. He declined to provide details, but other Town Board members identified well-known Long Island developers Ron Parr and Wilbur Breslin as potential backers of a 16-screen cinema project at the site of the former Woolworth building property on East Main Street.

As for Vintage Square, Mr. Walter denied a request from Councilmen Jim Wooten and John Dunleavy for a special Town Board meeting on Wednesday, at which the two councilmen hoped to call for a vote on whether or not to grant the group another six-month extension.

“I truly believe that if we are to do anything with this project, Vintage Square should be required to go through a complete ‘qualified and eligible sponsorship’ hearing again,” Mr. Walter said. “If this is really a real proposal, let them go through a full hearing again because more than two years have passed and nothing has happened.”

Led by John Burke of Riverhead, the Vintage Square group has called the proposal a “transit-oriented development” because it calls for shuttle buses to take people to and from the Orient ferry and because it would be adjacent to the train station and bus stop. Vintage Square also proposes to provide parking for the adjacent court buildings. In addition to town-owned land, the group seeks to acquire private property along Railroad Avenue and its surrounding streets and would demolish structures on them.

Mr. Burke said he would not comment until after Wednesday’s deadline.

The “qualified and eligible sponsor” designation for Vintage Square is required under urban renewal laws because the developers are seeking to buy a portion of town-owned land that is currently in use as a parking lot. The designation means, in this case, that the buyers have been found to have the financial wherewithal to complete their proposal.

Mr. Wooten, who has spoken highly of the project, said he’s confident he would have support from a majority of the five-member Town Board if a vote came up to grant another extension to Vintage Square. He said Vintage already has financial commitments for the project.

“The reason I’m such a big proponent of Vintage is the location, and it calls for a parking garage, which is going to be sorely needed as the redevelopment of Main Street happens,” Mr. Wooten said.

“It’s near the courts,” he added. “It’s near transportation, including the terminus of routes 71 and 72. It’s near the railroad. And the fact that you can run trolleys out of there just lends itself to a beautiful bookend with Atlantis, the hotel and aquarium at one end of town and Vintage at the other.”

Although its “qualified and eligible” extension expired Wednesday, Mr. Walter said that doesn’t mean Vintage Square must start from scratch, even if he thinks they should be required to. “If three board members were so inclined, they could retroactively extend it from Dec. 15 at the next Town Board meeting” on Dec. 21, he said.

But the supervisor expressed concern about what Mr. Wooten liked best about the project: the parking garage. “The county has made a tremendous investment with the new and rebuilt courts. I don’t know how one would close off that parking lot and build a garage, should [the town] sell the land to them. My money’s on a movie theater downtown,” Mr. Walter said.

Mr. Wooten insisted parking restraints will be a problem for any cinema proposal for East Main Street, as did Mr. Dunleavy.

Mr. Dunleavy said the supervisor is being “pig headed” in holding up Mr. Burke.

“[Mr. Walter] doesn’t want this to happen and he’s going to do whatever it takes to stop it because he wants movies on Main Street,” he said. “I don’t think Main Street is a good place for a multiplex; railroad Avenue is.”

Mr. Burke in June said he expected the Vintage Square project to cost $61.3 million.

Riverhead Councilwoman Jodi Giglio said she spoke to Mr. Parr this week about his potential multiplex plans for downtown.

She said that while she likes the Vintage plans, she has her concerns.

“Ron Parr is a proven developer and he seems to have all his ducks in a row,” she said. “I’m concerned that if we extend Vintage Group, we might be subject to litigation if we approve another movie theater somewhere else. I want to check with the town attorney on that.”

She said she has no problem with the Vintage group proposal otherwise.

“They’re not tying up town property and they’re not costing us money. I want a theater,” she said.

Ms. Giglio said there also is a question as to whether the town could extend Vintage Square’s qualified and eligible status because they have new financial backing since their original hearing.

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