Riverhead businesses cautiously optimistic about multiplex plan

movie theater

“Builder: Cinema Deal is Sealed.”

“Hazeltine to the Movies?”

“Mulling Tanger Multiplex?”

Those are just some of the headlines published by the News-Review over the years regarding proposals to build multiplex movie theaters in Riverhead.

And, of course, none of them was ever built.

Now, Riverhead finds itself in a similar position, as a 10- to 12-screen multiplex movie theater has been proposed for the former Walmart building in the Riverhead Plaza shopping center on Route 58.

The proposal appears to have support from town officials, the public and neighboring store owners.

Alan Patel, owner of Hallmark Cards and Gifts, which has been at Riverhead Plaza for more than 20 years, said a movie theater would provide a major boost.

“It will help everybody,” he said. “It will bring more people to the area and we need that kind of movie theater in Riverhead, because there’s no movie theater like that within an hour of here.”

But proponents of the project may want to proceed with cautious optimism since the applicant in this case is the property owner — not a theater company — and the landowner will need to come to terms with a theater operator before any firm plans are likely to materialize.

Charles Cuddy, the attorney for property owner Riverhead PGC, a subsidiary of Manhattan-based Phillips International, said his client is in negotiations with Regal Entertainment Group, the largest movie theater chain in the U.S., to take over the site.

Regal owns Regal Cinemas, Edwards Cinemas and United Artists, among other companies. United Artists has smaller theaters in Hampton Bays, Southampton and East Hampton. 

Riverhead Town Supervisor Sean Walter has said a movie theater is one of the top things people tell him they want to see in Riverhead. He has been trying to bring a theater to the town for several years, initially trying to persuade Regal to build a multiplex in the former Woolworth building downtown, the only area where zoning enacted in 2004 allows a theater. When Regal ultimately rejected that idea, the Woolworth building was redeveloped as a gym with upper-floor apartments, leaving downtown and Riverhead as a whole with no properties large enough to hold a multiplex under current zoning.

That could soon change.

The Town Board held three public hearings Tuesday on proposals aiming to allow movie theaters in a Shopping Center zoning district along Route 58. The hearings were held days after the Suffolk County Planning Commission approved the proposed 50,340-square-foot multiplex at Riverhead Plaza.

The application calls for demolition of the existing 71,343-square-foot former Walmart building, which would be replaced by a free-standing multiplex building.

The applicant is also proposing 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 plans.

The plan to redevelop the shopping center is welcome news to the owners and staff of existing businesses there.

Business has declined steadily since Walmart left Riverhead Plaza for a location farther west on Route 58, said Nancy Alamia, owner of Sergio’s Pizza.

“We’re very excited,” she said of the prospect. “Even if they just put in the two restaurants, we’re very excited about that, too. We need things at this end of Old Country Road. This is where the community is.”

Luis Correa, manager of the Gala Fresh Farms supermarket, and James Chen of Crystal Garden restaurant, both said a multiplex could draw people from all over the East End. Mr. Correa said he often hears from people who live as far away as Southampton and travel to Island 16 in Holtsville to see a movie.

“I think it will be a great asset to the shopping center,” he said of the multiplex proposal.

National statistics show that attracting a movie theater is more difficult than it seems, as the industry continues to shrink and customers turn to on-demand streaming services for expediency. Even New York City lost 22 percent of its cinemas between 2001 and 2010, according to U.S. Bureau of Labor statistics quoted in the New York Times.

Mr. Correa said he believes many people still enjoy the theater experience.

“It’s the whole adventure,” he said. “Traveling, getting out of the house and going to the movie theater. I think they will do well here.”

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Photo: For decades, Riverhead residents have hoped for a local multiplex movie theater like the one currently proposed for the former Walmart on Route 58. Past plans have fallen through, forcing locals to leave town for an experience people in other communities take for granted. (Credit: News-Review)