A City Multiplex's Suburban Angst


Parking is the universal gripe everyone has about downtown, either finding it or paying for it.



 

Mayor Buddy Dyer believes a multiplex will be a blockbuster hit for downtown Orlando, but I think the urban theater concept will end up as a box office flop with suburban audiences.

Coming some time in July to The Plaza high-rise will be a 12-screen cinema-grill that Dyer heralds as a key to the urban core’s revitalization. Didn’t he say the same thing about The Plaza and 55 West? The former has been beset by cash-flow troubles and vacancies while the latter fell into bankruptcy before it opened.
With Dyer’s urging, the City Council agreed to invest $6 million in the unfinished theater project on South Orange Avenue. For more than two years Plaza developer Cameron Kuhn yanked everyone’s chain saying the theater was nearly built and that he had an operator lined up to run it.

The theater is now in the hands of a new ownership group, but that group is in the same situation as Kuhn was when his empire faltered. The new owner doesn’t have the cash to complete the theater, so the city has decided to bail out the beleaguered project with a “strategic investment.” That’s government-speak for a loan, on which the city says it will make a premium rate of return over the next 10 to 15 years.

But I’d say that Paul Blart: Mall Cop has a better chance of winning an Oscar than the city does of collecting on its investment.

An urban multiplex sounds good in theory, but there are reasons so few cities the size of Orlando have one—not enough nearby residents to draw from, lack of convenience because of traffic and parking, and, ta-dah!, the surrounding suburbs are loaded with movie houses. Would, say, a resident of Winter Park or even of Colonial Town go into downtown to watch the same movie that’s playing at Winter Park Village or Fashion Square Mall?

Not unless there is a big incentive, and I don’t see the downtown location offering one to enough moviegoers for the cinema to succeed.

The theater doesn’t distinguish itself as different from the pack except for its draft-house-style amenities. The Plaza cinemaplex will house a few theaters furnished with tables so patrons can dine on restaurant-quality food with beer or wine to wash it down. The Plaza also may show some foreign and independent films, which could generate interest if a few sleepers pop up.

These amenities, however, won’t appeal to the masses and they won’t overcome the theater’s problem of location, location, location. Parking is the universal gripe everyone has about downtown, either finding it or paying for it. The new theater has an adjoining garage, which will charge moviegoers $2 to park. That’s not bad for city parking. But the experience of maneuvering in The Plaza’s garage, which has more hairpin turns than San Francisco’s Lombard Street, will surely discourage some repeat business. Few parking garages are memorable. The Plaza’s is unforgettable.

A downtown cinema-grill may one day work in Orlando, but that day won’t be here for a few more years. There aren’t enough lights on in those condo towers at night and the new arena and performing arts center aren’t built. The theater could fail by the time the city’s real estate market has improved and the venues are opened.

A movie theater won’t revitalize downtown. For it to succeed, downtown must already be vital. And right now, that’s a Hollywood-style fantasy.

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