By Jason Islas
November 1, 2013 -- When Santa Monica Place owner Macerich submitted plans to build the bayside city’s newest movie theater in more than 20 years last month, local business leaders breathed a sigh of relief.
But there is plenty of work yet to do before Macerich can begin the job of converting a vacant 50,000-square-foot space on the mall’s third floor into a state-of-the-art nine-screen cinema.
"They haven't found an operator yet," said Senior Planner Paul Foley. But "they are in discussions with an operator."
Foley didn’t know who that operator would be and Macerich couldn’t be reached immediately for comment.
Another obstacle facing the plans is a backlog of issues facing the Planning Commission.
Foley said that the project won’t likely be able to go before the Commission any earlier than mid-February because of a six-session hearing on the City’s new Zoning Ordinance Update scheduled to start in December.
Once the Commission has finished its deliberations on the update, it will start looking at several major -- and controversial -- projects, including a 22-story hotel Downtown designed by renowned architect and Santa Monica resident, Frank Gehry.
Still, unlike the bigger projects, the new theater project won’t likely get too bogged down in Commission meetings. The space for the theater has already been built and the building will only require some minor adjustments before Macerich can move forward with the plans.
"They are increasing the height to accommodate the screens,” Foley said. “They want to go up 29 to 30 feet."
Initial plans, which will likely be adjusted as the process continues, would divide about 1,240 seats between nine screens.
“That’s not much more than 100 seats” per theater, Foley said, allowing for a “lounge chair-type environment.
"They want to be able to compete with the cinemas that are coming online today," Foley said.
None of Santa Monica’s few remaining theaters have undergone upgrades in at least 20 years.
“Clearly, we've been needing state-of-the-art theaters," said Foley.
Downtown Santa Monica, Inc. CEO Kathleen Rawson agreed, calling the current theaters downtown “substandard.”
The theater situation in Santa Monica has brought pressure from the American Film Market, which has held its trade show in the bayside city for more than two decades, bringing with it business for hotels, restaurants and other local establishments.
Organizers of the annual event have complained to Santa Monica officials that the City isn’t doing enough to bring the theaters to town that the AFM needs access to during its annual trade show.
The AFM agreed to keep its trade show in Santa Monica through 2017 in large part because the City promised to develop modern theaters and to renovate the Civic Auditorium. ("American Film Market to Stay in Santa Monica," December 9, 2011)
Plans to renovate the Auditorium fell through after the State took away funding in February 2012 as part of its decision to ax California’s 400 redevelopment agencies, including Santa Monica’s.
And about a year ago, AMC nixed plans to develop a modern theater complex on the current site of Parking Structure Three on Fourth Street when the cinema giant decided it was too expensive.
The ownership of the parking structure is now in limbo as the State decides if Santa Monica’s former Redevelopment Agency -- which owned the structure when the State dissolved it in 2012 -- can pass ownership on to the City or be required to sell it. (“For Santa Monica to Keep Vital Properties, More Obstacles Ahead,” August 23)
No development can happen on the site until that conflict is resolved.
In the meantime, the Macerich project is Santa Monica’s best bet for a new movie theater any time soon.