At least two Riverhead Town Board members are advocating changing the town zoning code to once again allow movie theaters as a permitted use on Route 58.

Councilman John Dunleavy brought the topic up at Thursday’s work session.

“Can we change the code so we can put a movie theater on Route 58?” Dunleavy asked his colleagues.

It’s been a decade since movie theaters were removed from the list of permitted uses in zoning districts along the town’s commercial artery and added as permitted uses in the town’s downtown zoning district.

The change was made by the board in 2004, at the request of the Riverhead Business Improvement District Management Association, in the hope of getting a movie theater built on Main Street.

Despite the initial interest of two developers — including downtown “master developer” Apollo Real Estate — and recent efforts by Supervisor Sean Walter to lure Regal Cinemas downtown, no Main Street movie theater was every proposed.

“They only want to go to 58,” Dunleavy said.

Supervisor Sean Walter said he’s convinced movie theater companies won’t be lured downtown and he’s willing to change the code. But don’t expect that to result in a theater being built on Route 58, he said in an interview yesterday.

Before the 2004 zoning changes, the town board — beginning in 1996 — approved five different movie theater permits for locations on Route 58. The last one, a multiplex theater planned by Marquee Cinemas for the site where Costco Wholesale was eventually built, was approved in 2003. Marquee Cinemas’ plans were scuttled when one of the principals in project ran into financial and legal troubles unrelated to the Riverhead project.

“The movie theater is a dying business,” Walter said. The industry has been in decline for quite some time and theater companies are very cautious about new locations.

When Dunleavy brought it up last week’s work session, Councilwoman Jodi Giglio said, “I know somebody that’s looking at the old Wal-Mart for a movie theater.”

Yesterday, Giglio said she was referring to a man she knows “who has a lot of money” and would like to build a movie theater in Riverhead.

“He came to me looking for demographics,” Giglio said. And though she said at the meeting he’s “looking at” the old Wal-Mart for a theater, in yesterday’s interview she said neither she nor the prospective developer, whom she did not identify, had spoken with the owner of the shopping plaza just east of Ostrander Avenue.

“They’re not even calling me back,” Giglio said.

The prospective developer does not have a movie theater company lined up yet either.

“It’s all very preliminary,” Giglio said.

The supervisor said he’d already discussed the old Wal-Mart site with Regal Cinemas, the company he’d been courting for a downtown theater. Regal wouldn’t bite, but Walter said Regal executives were interested in Riverhead and he thought they’d build on Route 58 “in a heartbeat.”

Regal said the old Wal-Mart site was too old and needed to many renovations, according to Walter.

The supervisor he’s had discussions with the owners and manager of the shopping center. “The owner was going to renovate it and build to suit,” he said. But Regal wasn’t interested.

“What I hear is they want a location at the terminus of the expressway,” Walter said.

Giglio agrees with Dunleavy that the town board should change the zoning to allow theaters on Route 58.

“It was wishful thinking for downtown,” she said. “But downtown can thrive without it.”

On Thursday, Walter said he thinks the town board should wait on any zone change until it has a movie theater suitor actually interested in Route 58. Yesterday, he said he’d reconsider that stance — to send a clear message about a movie theater being welcomed by the town on Route 58.

“I can’t imagine any board member ever voting against it,” Walter said. “When I knock on doors, almost every single person I talk to mentions a movie theater.”

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Denise Civiletti
Denise is a veteran local reporter, editor, attorney and former Riverhead Town councilwoman. Her work has been recognized with numerous awards, including investigative reporting and writer of the year awards from the N.Y. Press Association. She is a founder, owner and co-publisher of this website.Email Denise.