Greenwich Time (Sunday)

Ideas floated for reuse of old Branford movie theater site

- By Luther Turmelle luther.turmelle@ hearstmedi­

The hulking building that sits silently on the southwest corner of the Exit 55 interchang­e between Interstate 95 and Route 1 seems oddly out of place at what is one of Branford’s busiest and most high profile intersecti­ons.

That wasn’t always the case. The building, a former Regal Cinemas multiplex, used to draw moviegoers from all along the shoreline.

But that changed a year ago. That’s when the theater screened its last film, a victim of the COVID-19 pandemic and consumers changing tastes in the way they consume Hollywood’s big budget films.

Still, Branford’s top economic developmen­t official said he remains hopeful that the property, which is almost 14 acres according to town land records, can have a second act.

“There has definitely been interest in the property,” said Perry Maresca, the town’s economic and business developmen­t manger. “But there’s nothing we can discuss at this point.”

Maresca described the zone that the defunct theater is located in as “a hybrid that gives us some flexibilit­y in how the property can be used.”

The 12-screen theater opened in 1998 as a Hoyt’s Cinema. It became a Regal theater when the Tennessee-based chain acquired Hoyt’s, which was owned by an Australian­based company, in March 2003.

The Branford theater closed nine months before its British corporate parent, Cineworld, filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy protection. And since then, there have been negotiatio­ns between Cineworld and the world’s largest movie theater chain, AMC, about the Kansas-based company acquiring some Regal locations. But last week in a filing with the U.S Securities and Exchange Commission, AMC said it had ended its negotiatio­ns with Cineworld.

With a return to its former use probably out of the picture at this point, a New York City-based retail consultant said one possibilit­y is that the theater site could end up as a warehouse club.

Burt Flickinger, managing director of the Strategic Resource Group, a New York City-based business that does consulting work for retailers, said executives at BJ’s Wholesale Club “have been very aggressive in terms of acquiring former movie theater locations and turning them into big box retailers.

“BJ’s converted a multiplex from that very same chain in to one of its stores in on Long Island in Westbury,” Flickinger said of the Nassau County, N.Y. community. “They’ve been there about two years and it has been a spectacula­r success.”

But Branford has resisted membership-only warehouse clubs so far. Plans for a Costco Wholesale Club were rejected by town officials in 2016 and were the subject a federal lawsuit in 2019.

Experts in adaptive reuse point to the successful conversion of what was once a multiplex in Fairfax County, Va. into mixed-use developmen­t that now serves as a de facto town center.

Jason Beske is an Virginia-based senior urban designer with the Canadian engineerin­g firm Stantec. His colleague, John Bachmann, is a practice leader for community developmen­t with the firm. Beske and Bachman said a multiplex in Merrifield, Va., that sat on 31 acres and included over 900 parking spaces was redevelope­d and is now known as the Mosaic District.

The redevelopm­ent effort was started in 2010 by a Washinton, D.C.-based company, Edens, and was completed in 2018. The Mosaic District encompasse­s 2 million square feet of retail, office, hotel and residentia­l space with restaurant­s.

Edens is a commercial real estate company that owns ShopRite Plaza in Brookfield and Brookside Center in Bridgeport.

Maresca said the town has benefited from its associatio­n with Connecticu­t’s biotechnol­ogy cluster for several decades now..

He said Branford attracts a lot of health care and biomedical companies because of its proximity to Yale University and the ability to draw upon the New Haven area’s talent pool. The community also has the necessary infrastruc­ture to accommodat­e lab space, which is in high demand.

“Branford has a reputation with the biotech sector that goes back to the late 1980s,” he said. “There is an extreme amount of interest in what we have to offer as a community.”

Bachman said Stantec has done some work with life sciences companies.

“But I’m not certain if you could retrofit a life science company into a former theater,” he said.

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