CITY HALL — The concept for a state-of-the art movie theater on Fourth Street is headed to the City Council for initial approval, following a unanimous sign-off on AMC Entertainment’s plans for the project by the Planning Commission Wednesday night.

The commission made a couple of recommendations about the proposed design for the 12-screen theater but agreed the project is a needed step to boost lagging ticket sales in Santa Monica’s Downtown, where the four existing theaters have lost ground to newer, more deluxe theaters elsewhere in the region.

The proposed theater would replace Parking Structure No. 3, the City Hall-owned facility on Fourth Street near Arizona Avenue. The proposed complex would be 83,000 square feet with 2,197 total seats and 2,100 square feet of retail space. It would include a restaurant and feature a 3D IMAX screen.

Before recommending the project move forward, commissioners raised questions about a lack of detail in the preliminary plans over how to replace 324 parking spaces that would be eliminated by replacing the parking structure with a movie theater.

City Hall recently paid $41 million for 67,000 square feet at the corner of Fifth Street and Arizona Avenue — a possible future site for a mixed-use project that could include a subterranean parking structure. But several commissioners said they were troubled that the AMC theater proposal doesn’t spell out where — and when — replacement parking spaces will come online.

Commissioners also suggested changing the proposed design by adding a walkway that would connect the theater to the Third Street Promenade and raised questions about the site AMC and its partner, Metropolitan Pacific Capital, have selected for the theater.

City Hall officials have said the Fourth Street location will make greater Downtown Santa Monica more vibrant by drawing pedestrian traffic eastward into parts of the city’s core other than the Third Street Promenade.

Jim Ries, the commission’s vice chair, though, said it could be a mistake to locate what would be Santa Monica’s premiere movie house away from its premier retail district.

“To me, it still seems odd to move the movie theaters off of the promenade,” he said, noting movie goers could bypass the pedestrian shopping street altogether, which could hurt businesses.

Planning Commissioner Ted Winterer, who did not attend Wednesday’s meeting, argued in a letter to his colleagues that it might be a better move to encourage the theater to locate further away from the promenade on City Hall-owned land at Fifth Street and Arizona.

“It’s closer to the under-used library parking, would help to activate Fifth Street, would draw some congestion away from the Downtown core” and would leave Parking Structure No. 3 in place for the time being, he wrote. The site currently slated for the theater, he said, could then be used for a mixed-use project that could add residential space to Fourth Street.

Winterer also argued AMC should be asked to provide greater public benefits in exchange for City Hall’s proposed lease arrangement with the company.

“Since a 100 percent commercial project like this can’t yield housing, I think a public benefit ought to be cash: Specifically, payments to our cash-strapped school district or the Santa Monica-Malibu Education Foundation,” he wrote.

The Planning Commission’s vote on Wednesday paves the way for the City Council to consider moving ahead with a development agreement for the theater.

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