A sign at the Riverhead Plaza site in June 2018 advertising Regal Cinemas. File photo: Peter Blasl

Plans for a movie theater at the former Walmart shopping center are stalled.

The owner of the property was not able to negotiate a deal with Regal Cinemas, according to an attorney for the owner.

“They negotiated for a long time,” said Riverhead attorney Charles Cuddy, who represents Riverhead PGC, a subsidiary of Philips International, before town agencies. “It was very close but they were not able to make a deal with Regal.”

Cuddy said he was unaware of negotiations with any other movie chain, but he couldn’t rule it out, noting that he was not the attorney handling such matters for the company.

Last June, Andrew Aberham, director of sales and leasing for Philips and Bill Kugelman, the company’s director of development and construction, told town officials they are committed to building a theater at the site, with or without Regal.

“We will go forward with another operator,” Aberham told the town board during a June 8, 2017 work session.

Representatives of Riverhead PGC met with the Riverhead Architectural Review Board. File photo: Denise Civiletti

Last spring, the property owner showed town officials a preliminary site plan as well as building elevations. It went to the Zoning Board of Appeals for several variances — Regal Cinemas actually sent representatives to testify at the ZBA hearing — and it met with the town’s architectural review board to get input on the building design.

Philips planned to demolish 71,000 square feet of existing structure and construct a freestanding 51,000-square-foot building for a 10-screen, 1,490-seat movie theater.

It also planned to build two freestanding restaurants on the north portion of the site, in what is now excess parking area. One would be a 2,600-square-foot, 126-seat restaurant with a drive-thru window. The other would be a 7,560-square-foot, 220-seat restaurant.

It is not clear where those plans stand now.

Riverhead Planning and Building Administrator Jefferson Murphree told RiverheadLOCAL on June 12 the site plan application is still pending “but nothing new from them in months.”

Aberham has not returned phone calls seeking comment.

Regal Cinemas inked a lease with the developer of Riverhead Centre almost 20 years ago. Protracted litigation brought against the town in an effort to block the development delayed the construction of the shopping center. In the interim, Regal, which had grown rapidly during the 1990s, filed for bankruptcy in 2001 and the Riverhead Centre lease never came to fruition. (Regal emerged from its Chapter 11 bankruptcy as Regal Entertainment Group and since 2002 has operated Regal Cinemas, United Artists Theatres and Edwards Theatres.)

After the adoption of the 2004 master plan the Riverhead Town Board changed the zoning code to remove movie theaters as a permitted use anywhere but in the Downtown Center zone — limiting movie theaters to Main Street. In 2005, the town expanded that slightly to include the zoning use district that covers Railroad Avenue, where a prospective developer had floated plans for a multiplex theater.

Then-councilman Ed Densieski objected to eliminating the use on Route 58. He said by banning movie theaters on Route 58 the town might effectively be banning them altogether. He said his research indicated a movie theater chain would not locate downtown. “I just thought we should have kept our options open,” Densieski told RiverheadLOCAL in a 2011 interview.

Between 1996 and 2004, when it banned movie theaters on Route 58, the Riverhead Town Board approved special permits for proposed movie theaters five times for locations along the commercial corridor — including Regal Cinemas at Riverhead Centre. 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.

In 2004, developer Ron Parr told town officials he wanted to build an 11-screen multiplex on the site of the old Rimland building, which had been purchased by Swezey’s Department Stores before the Main Street stalwart decided to cease operations. As it turned out, that site was selected by Suffolk County for the community college’s culinary arts school and the Parr Organization chosen to build the new facility.

But Parr’s hope of building a downtown movie theater lived on. He submitted a proposal for the downtown “master developer” deal which was won by Apollo Real Estate Advisors. Apollo bought the old Woolworth building from downtown landlord Shelly Gordon’s Riverhead Enterprises group in 2006 for $4.3 million. Apollo’s grand plans for Main Street — which included a multi-screen movie house — went down the tubes with the economic meltdown of 2007, and the town subsequently canceled the master developer agreement.

Former supervisor Sean Walter worked to bring a movie theater downtown, believing it would spark revitalization. He said Regal Cinemas was interested in Riverhead and thought they could be convinced to locate downtown, where Parr was still interested in building a theater. But the theater chain, Walter acknowledges, was only willing to consider Route 58.

In April 2015, Aberham told RiverheadLOCAL he was then negotiating with “several” movie theater companies interested in coming to Riverhead.

“I believe a movie theater would be a very good use for the center and very good for the town,” Aberham said at the time, though he declined to name the theater companies who were interested.

“We are looking to redevelop the whole site,” he said.

Cuddy said this morning a movie theater would be a great thing for the Riverhead community and the surrounding area. He said he hopes a theater company would see the potential and strike a deal with his client for the site.

Philips, he said, was “ready to go.”

Supervisor Laura Jens-Smith said the town is anxious to see a movie theater developed somewhere.

“Everybody wants a movie theater,” she said.

Jens-Smith said she’s reached out to several movie theater companies, so far without result.

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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.