No matter how hip South Beach residents think they are, they have for years suffered from a major case of cultural deprivation: no first-run movie theaters. South Beachers have had to endure the painful, humiliating chore of driving several miles out of town, to places like the Omni in gritty downtown Miami and the Byron-Carlyle in tame, decidedly square North Beach, to see new movies.
But several entertainment companies are now maneuvering to put an end to such indignities, and South Beach may soon have its first multiplex. At least two chains, Wometco Theaters and AMC, are considering several locations for movie houses, some that would be built with as many as twenty screens.
"The time has come," says City Manager Roger Carlton. "It's the largest 'unscreened zone' left in the United States. The availability of land and parking was the only thing that kept theaters from coming in."
Discussions about new movie theaters for the Beach heated up this past December when city officials asked developers to propose parking-related construction projects. The city didn't specifically request theater proposals, but sought ideas for mixed-use parking projects with commercial or residential components.
Among the responses was a proposal from Wometco for a ten-screen theater on a public parking lot between Washington and Collins avenues near Sixteenth Street. "It seems to be in a position where it could provide parking to people going to Lincoln Road and to the northern end of South Beach," says Wometco spokesperson Seth Gordon. Of those ten screens (which Gordon says is a flexible number), Wometco plans to devote four to independent or "art films" and the remainder to first-run movies.
Wometco's biggest competition in the battle for South Beach moviegoers is AMC, which has considered sites at Fifteenth and Ocean Drive, on Lincoln Road Mall, in the South Pointe area (in partnership with German investor Thomas Kramer), and on Collins Avenue at Fifth Street. "Right now, given all the different deals, we'd like to start at Fifth and Collins and see how the market performs, then proceed to Lincoln Road," explains Frank T. Stryjewski, vice president of operations for the southeast division of AMC. While he believes South Beach can support 30 screens, Stryjewski says AMC would like to begin by building a theater with as many as eighteen screens showing primarily first-run, mainstream movies and a smattering of independent films. (Sawgrass Mills has the only other eighteen-screen theater in South Florida, Stryjewski says.)
The AMC-Wometco rivalry isn't something new in Dade County. Both companies have immensely popular theaters squaring off against one another on opposite sides of Kendall Drive, and Wometco is planning to build a ten-screen theater in the Mayfair House Hotel, across the street from AMC's eight-screen theater at CocoWalk. (AMC has recently signed a lease to double the number of screens at CocoWalk.)
Amid the entrepreneurial jostling, the Miami Beach City Commission last month suspended further discussion of any cinema projects until a private consulting team has presented its recommendations regarding the potential of movie theaters in the Lincoln Road area. (The moratorium is expected to continue for at least another month.) But the suspension of official debate hasn't put a stop to backroom lobbying and political jockeying for possible sites.
"I've asked the relevant people to consider zoning changes in the area of Fifth Street and below to prevent a theater from going in there," candidly admits Bruce Menin, executive vice president of Crescent Heights Investments, which has teamed with Wometco.
"I'm sure he's part of the city infrastructure and an insider and probably has a lot of influence," snipes AMC's Stryjewski. "He's probably going to do what's best for him first and what's best for the city second."
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The subject of movie theaters has become highly political in recent weeks. Two Beach officials have declared conflicts of interest in the matter and recused themselves from further involvement: Commissioner Neisen Kasdin, who is a partner in a law firm that represents the owners of a Washington Avenue site under consideration by Wometco; and I. Stanley Levine, co-chairman of the Lincoln Road Task Force and a partner in the same firm as Kasdin. Commissioner Sy Eisenberg, who sells insurance to Crescent Heights and is the father-in-law of the firm's managing director, has requested an opinion from the city attorney regarding his potential conflicts.
"There hasn't been enough discussion about the business issues of this thing," comments AMC's Stryjewski. "Right now everyone's focusing on who owns the land, how we're going to assemble it, or whether there is a conflict of interest, as opposed to how the theater should be built, how it should be designed to fit into South Beach."
Those sentiments are echoed by Craig Robins, president of Dacra Development, which owns and has refurbished some of South Beach's most prominent Art Deco landmarks. "I think it's important that whatever development is done in South Beach is focused toward street life and street traffic," Robins offers. "I think the continuing notion that we need to have malls or other antisocial developments that detract from South Beach would be a mistake." If a theater were to be built on Lincoln Road, for instance, Robins would like to see the entrance placed on Lincoln Road proper, forcing moviegoers to walk around the block from parking lots behind the building, thereby generating pedestrian activity around the shops and restaurants on the outdoor mall.
Because South Beach is only about six cars shy of complete gridlock on an average Friday night, parking is first in everyone's mind. City regulations require that one space be provided for every four theater seats, but City Manager Carlton says his staff is investigating the possibility of reducing that requirement around Lincoln Road. "It would be an incentive to get developers to come to Lincoln Road, where there is a lot of underused parking," he says. But Carlton assures that the commission wouldn't approve a reduction that would "create a traffic nightmare in the neighborhood.