The Gaslamp promises to go Hollywood, inspired by the legendary Grauman's Chinese Theatre, with a multimillion-dollar rebooting of a 15-screen multiplex that went dark a year ago.
Interior demolition has begun on the former Pacific and Reading cinema building at Fifth Avenue and G Street to prepare for an upscale eight-screen replacement, paired with a Landshark Bar & Grill by Jimmy Buffett and a celebrity-driven Sugar Factory restaurant, lounge and candy store.
"We're innovators and feel the theater business has to go to a different level," said the project's developer, Elie Samaha. "What we're trying to do is create a new experience for people to come into downtown."
Samaha is a film producer and part-owner in the TCL Chinese Theatre (Grauman's Chinese in Hollywood, opened in 1927), where star-studded premieres are held and tourists worship at the foot- and handprints of celebs embedded in the pavement.
He said the "Theatre Box" project will open by year's end and host film festivals, Comic-Con screenings and countless birthdays, bachelorette parties and nights on the town.
"San Diego has been our target for the last four years and the Gaslamp Quarter has been our target for that long," he said.
Samaha said he signed a 30-year lease with the building owner, OliverMcMillan, and expects to spend "lots of millions" renovating the 73,000-square-foot building that's been closed since early-February 2016.
The project will include:
- Theatre Box: Eight screens on the second floor with 815 state-of-the-art seats, down from the original 15 screens with 2,906 seats. Seven luxury auditoriums would include food and drink service, ordered by iPads embedded at each seat - and, according to Samaha, cashmere blankets available to keep warm. Two of the theaters might be combined to create downtown's first Imax theater.
- A Sugar Factory restaurant that spills out onto Fifth Avenue with French bistro-style service; the Chocolate Lounge serving chocolate fondue, movie-star-themed cocktails and other adult fare; a gelato stand; and a candy store with hundreds of choices, many tied to superheroes. Virtual reality video games will be available, too.
- A Landshark Bar & Grill restaurant, part of singer-songwriter Jimmy Buffett's Margaritaville collection of hotels, bars and restaurants, that would open onto G Street.
- A 5,000-square-foot rooftop bar that would open sometime in 2018.
Icelandic architect Gulla Jonsdottir, based in Los Angeles, said her design, still being formulated, may include images of dragons as a nod to the Grauman's Chinese theme plus touches of Hollywood's heritage by way of exterior screens flashing images from old movies. About 50 of the Grauman's Chinese Theatre's excess hand- and footprint panels would be installed on the ground floor.
"Honestly, today going to films, people want more than to see a film," she said. "They arrive early, have a glass of wine, something to eat, enjoy the whole experience. I think it's going to be great."
OliverMcMillan built the building for the Pacific Theatres chain in 1997 on the site of a parking lot, and Reading took over in 2008. While it screened first-run movies and film festivals, it did not include any onsite parking and patrons complained of an inoperable escalator and less-than-perfect maintenance.
The company originally expected to turn the building into a high-end retail venue but Samaha said he made a pitch last August and signed a 30-year lease for the property.
With streaming, DVD rentals and home-entertainment systems, movie buffs can just stay at home and watch the latest blockbusters and art house releases. So the trick for movie-theater developers is to up the experience to something way beyond what anyone can provide privately.
"It becomes a night out and not just a night at the movies," Samaha said. "You're going to have an amazing menu with amazing food or walk next door to Landshark and have an experience if you want to be in a louder space... There's nothing like it in the Gaslamp Quarter."
Gaslamp leaders are thrilled with Samaha's plan.
"Obviously, to have a high-end, luxury cinema in the heart of the Gaslamp that will activate G Street, which has always been a dead street on the north side, is going to be bring a level of attraction that the Gaslamp needs," said Michael Trimble, executive director of the Gaslamp Quarter Association. "We're looking to attract high-end customers. We have large convention business that happens year-round and we have a large residential base within the East Village and Marina District and downtown that is looking for a theater where they can enjoy the movies."
Kris Michell, president and CEO of the Downtown San Diego Partnership business group, said the plans look "magnificent, absolutely stunning.
"This will help everyone and every genre of the arts," she said.
While the lack of onsite parking may have stymied the success of Pacific Theatres and Reading, Samaha and Gaslamp boosters believe new parking garages, Uber and Lyft car-hailing services, the FRED downtown free ride shuttle service and, in a few years, self-driving cars make parking less of a problem. Obviously, a perceived parking problem does not deter revelers who jam the Gaslamp every weekend night.
The Theatre Box project isn't the only venue for film downtown.
- UA Horton Plaza 8 continues to screen first-run films on the top floor of Westfield's mall, and it's possible when Westfield announces redevelopment plans for the shopping center that a luxury movie theater complex and other new entertainment might represent a key new component.
- The Balboa Theater at Fourth Avenue and E Street hosts a regular schedule of vintage hits, "Cinema @ The Balboa," along with its live performance lineup.
- The San Diego Symphony turns its former Fox Theatre auditorium at Seventh Avenue and B street into a movie palace when the orchestra or an organist accompanies a film, as was done last weekend with a sell-out showing of "Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone" - with ticket prices that ranged from $20 to $75. "We like to think our own movies (scheduled) is a premium experience," said symphony spokesman J.D. Smith.
- The Spreckels, downtown's oldest theater at First and Broadway, may acquire new equipment to stream live opera, Broadway musicals and other top-drawer entertainment for local audiences. "It turns it into a destination for the night," said manager Shaun Davis.
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