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» Cinematour Forum   » Cinemas in the News   » Pittsburgh, PA: What to do with empty multiplexes

Author Topic: Pittsburgh, PA: What to do with empty multiplexes
Mark Richey

Posts: 90
From: Fort Worth, TX
Registered: Feb 2003

 - posted April 25, 2006 10:02 AM      Profile for Mark Richey   Author's Homepage   Email Mark Richey         Edit/Delete Post 
I stumbled on this article, first published last summer, from the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette while surfing through Cinema Treasures. It doesn't look like it's been posted here yet.

Thursday, August 04, 2005

By Elwin Green, Pittsburgh Post-Gazette

Jim Aiello used to love movies. He loved them so much that as a principal of JRA Development Co., he built a multiplex. Not just a multiplex, a megaplex -- a Loews with 20 screens, stadium seating and a large snack bar. Built on the remains of the Greater Pittsburgh Drive-In, an entertainment dinosaur, the state-of-the-art complex opened its doors in November 1999.

The North Versailles Loews closed its doors in June 2001. Since then, three other multiscreen theaters in the Pittsburgh area have closed, darkening 50 screens. The Harmar Cinemas, a six-screen theater at the Harmarville exit of Route 28, closed in 2003; the 10-screen Showcase East in Wilkins Township closed last year; and this year Star City Cinemas closed its 14 auditoriums.

The closures are part of a national trend. The number of movie theaters in the United States dropped from 7,031 in 1999 to 5,629 in 2004, according to the National Association of Theatre Owners, victims of a building boom that produced too much capacity.

What do you do with a vacant movie theater? Or better yet, a vacant multiplex?

It's a question that haunts Aiello, the developer, every day.

"The property has been very difficult to recycle, due to the single-purpose construction," he said. The complex has 20 individual auditoriums, all with stadium seating atop a steel structure that would make it prohibitively expensive to renovate.

Noting that the property has 13 acres of paved land, Aiello said, "The building is probably worth more dead than alive."

The theater building boom was ushered in with the opening of the Grand 24 theater in Dallas in May, 1995.

As the name suggests, it had two dozen auditoriums, all with stadium seating. It was the largest movie theater in the world, and a new word was coined to describe it: "megaplex."

As other theater chains rushed to meet or exceed the new standard set by AMC Entertainment's showpiece, megaplexes sprouted across the country. Between 1995 and 1999, the number of theaters shrank slightly, from 7,151 to 7,031.

But the number of screens soared, from 26,995 to 36,448 -- a 35 percent increase. That turned out to be too many.

"From 1995 to 1999, there was a building boom like we've never seen," said Jim Kozak, spokesman for the National Association of Theatre Owners. "There was a sense, certainly, that some markets were too overbuilt. Some cinemas simply had to close."

The North Versailles Loews unexpectedly found itself in an overbuilt market. When the plan for the megaplex was devised, there were no other theaters in the area. But by the time it was built, a competitor, Destinta, had opened the Plaza 22 theater less than three miles away. Destinta was Pittsburgh's first megaplex, and its five-month head start left Loews playing catch-up.

A similar fate befell the Star City Cinemas in North Fayette. Originally conceived as part of a ring of theaters that would circle the city, the multiplex opened in 2000, after the 1999 opening of another Destinta Theatre.

Destinta won.

In April of 2000, Loews opened a new megaplex at the Waterfront that immediately became the prime destination for moviegoers in the Pittsburgh area, and in so doing helped to seal the fates the Harmar Cinemas and Showcase East, both of which were older complexes.

On a national scale, the building boom was followed almost immediately by a wave of bankruptcies by the country's largest theater chains. In 2000, Carmike Cinemas, Edwards Cinemas, General Cinema and United Artists Theater Co. all filed for bankruptcy protection, and in 2001, Regal Entertainment, the largest movie theater company, joined them -- as did Loews.

The bankruptcies allowed the movie operators to severely reduce or eliminate their financial obligations, including leases, leaving landlords like Aiello out in the cold.

"We had a building sitting on land, which we had improved, and had no way to pay back the loan," he said.

Lately, Aiello has found an alternative use for the property, or at least for part of it. Taking advantage of the closing of the Eastland Mall flea market earlier this year, he has begun offering parking lot space to flea market merchants on weekends.

Going a step further, Aiello has created Rossi's Pop-Up Market. The idea is to let retailers rent 10-by-12 foot indoor spaces on weekends where they can sell new merchandise, "closeouts or overruns or whatever," Aiello said.

"We have probably right now as much as a 50-50 blend between flea marketeers and new pop-ups," he said. "And on any given day, there's between 12 and 15 vendors of ethnic foods."

Showcase East, in Wilkins, was state of the art when it opened in the mid-1970s. But by the time the 10-screen theater closed last year, it was outdated.

National Amusements spokesman Bryan Callahan said no plans have been announced for the complex. Local commercial broker Gregg Broujos, of NAI Commercial Pittsburgh, ventured a guess.

"I'm sure that's going to come up as a mixed-use property," after the theater itself is demolished, he said.

Representatives of both Star City and of Kratsa Properties, which owns Harmar Cinemas, were not available for comment.

The challenge of what to do with a former movie theater is not a new one. Demolition was the ultimate fate of Cinema World's four-screen theater at the edge of Monroeville Mall, which made way for a Best Buy. The Plaza in Bloomfield became a Starbuck's, and the Bellevue Theater, in Bellevue, became a Family Dollar store.

Some single-screen theaters found new lives since the 1970s, when suburban multiplexes began luring moviegoers away from Downtown and neighborhood theaters. In Squirrel Hill, the Guild became Gullifty's restaurant. Walnut Street's Shadyside theater became the Balcony, which was a leading jazz spot for years before being transformed into a Williams-Sonoma store. The Strand, in Oakland, was redone as an office/retail complex.

But those theaters were all much smaller than the multiplexes and megaplexes that have become vacant in recent years, and they were surrounded by retail establishments in vibrant business districts, virtually guaranteeing a critical mass of pedestrian traffic for whatever re-use they might have. A Star City or a North Versailles Loews presents a much greater challenge.

In other cities, movie theaters, even multiplexes, have been reworked into churches, offices, car dealerships or office space. Broujos said that other possible adaptations include performance space, medical facilities or university or school classrooms.

But no one seems to be proposing that any of the closed multiplexes become movie theaters again -- even the ones that don't seem suited for anything else. The North Versailles Loews may be the most difficult space to adapt for alternative long-term use. But don't ask Jim Aiello about opening another movie theater.

"I don't even go to the movies very often any more," he said.

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