SM PLACE — Proposals for Santa Monica’s first new movie theater in decades is a step closer to approval.

The Planning Commission earlier this week voted unanimously in favor of theater plans that could add up to 13 screens and 1,500 seats to the third level of the Santa Monica Place mall.

Some commissioners were leery of the added height and of the location but ultimately acknowledged Santa Monica’s dire need for state-of-the-art theaters and recommended the project, with some additional suggestions, for City Council’s review in the next few months.

ArcLight Cinemas announced earlier this year that they’d signed an agreement with Macerich, the Santa Monica-based commercial real estate giant that owns the mall, to operate the theaters.

This area on the third floor of Santa Monica Place may be the home of a new movie theater. (Daniel Archuleta

There is agreement among city consultants that newer theaters are greatly needed in Santa Monica. In 2012, AMC pulled its proposal to build large theater complex on Fourth Street.

Last year the director of the American Film Market, the world’s largest, told the Daily Press that the lack of screens and state-of-the art theaters in Santa Monica topped his list of challenges. Santa Monica fought to keep AFM in town after it flirted with moving to downtown Los Angeles.

ArcLight would set aside three theaters for the market. Commissioner Sue Himmelrich asked, given AFM’s importance, why they wouldn’t be providing more. A spokesperson for the company said that the theaters are meagerly compensated by the market and called the promise of three theaters one of the greatest economic hardships in the agreement.

ArcLight’s proposal could add 36 feet to the mall, which is currently 48-feet-tall — a 75 percent height increase.

The plan’s details are still in flux as ArcLight signed on only a few months ago. Commissioner Richard McKinnon called the plans — which stated that the heights could reach up to 84 feet — “so loose.”

Commissioners also expressed concern that movie-goers would drive into the mall parking lot, go to see a movie, and then drive out, never setting foot on the Third Street Promenade or other parts of Downtown.

During the public comment portion of the meeting Kathleen Rawson, president and CEO of Downtown Santa Monica Inc., acknowledge that this would likely happen for some but that Downtown is nicely positioned to encourage movie-goers to wander around.

“It’s the nature of Downtown to walk,” she said. “It’s the nature that if you’re going to, frankly, bear the traffic and the sort of hassle for parking, you’re going to spend a little more time there than you would if you we’re just going to the Landmark at the Westside Pavilion where you park, see the movie and go home.”

Other commissioners were afraid that the large number of seats proposed by ArcLight could create a vacuum, drawing all theater-goers to the ArcLight and making it hard for operators to open successful theaters elsewhere Downtown.

Rawson agreed that theaters need to be dispersed and said that proposals for remodel are in the works.

“There are options that will come before you I hope soon that will provide a better theater going experience outside Santa Monica Place but those aren’t something, at this point, that can be publicly discussed,” she said.

Back in 1987, council placed a loose seat cap on Downtown at 6,200 seats, Rawson said. Downtown peaked at 5,519 seats several years ago before losing theaters. City Hall could still approve more theaters and stay under that cap.

The Santa Monica Chamber of Commerce also spoke in favor of the project.

Ultimately, all the commissioners agreed that the proposal was worth supporting.

“It pains me to support this because, although I desperately want theaters, this is not where I would have wanted them to go first,” said Commissioner Gerta Newbold. “But it is what we have and so I will support it.”

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