IRVINE — Edwards Theatres unveiled plans Wednesday to build the county's largest cinema complex, an 18-screen movie center just north of the El Toro Y--where the Santa Ana and San Diego freeways merge.
Construction is to begin this spring at a site off Irvine Center Drive in the Irvine Spectrum office park. The $20-million center would open in the summer of 1995 under a plan announced by Edwards and the Irvine Co., which hopes to build a major shopping center there.
The complex would match in size the 18-screen Cineplex Odeon next to Universal Studios, now the largest in California.
At least two of the new movie screens will show foreign and art films, said James Edwards Sr., chairman of Edwards Theatres Circuit Inc., Orange County's largest chain of movie theaters.
"We've been trying to locate there for the past 15 years," Edwards said. "The amount of traffic plus the amount of homes and people there will make this a focal point for south Orange County."
Though the cinema complex is to be at one of Southern California's most congested freeway confluences, county planners say they don't expect movie fans to have much trouble getting there. Film goers generally arrive in the evenings, when most of the afternoon rush-hour traffic has already cleared, said Elaine Beno, spokeswoman for the Orange County Transportation Authority.
A new freeway interchange is being designed to handle the traffic needs of the area for the next 20 years, Beno said. Planners are taking care that business, shopping and entertainment areas remain accessible during the $247-million reconfiguration of the El Toro Y, Beno said.
City planners, too, say that the multiscreen complex is not likely to add much to the area's freeway congestion.
"Theaters are not major traffic generators," said Don Lamm, deputy city manager in Costa Mesa. He said theatergoers to the 15 screens concentrated around Bristol Street use parking space that is occupied by shoppers or office workers during the day.
The Irvine Spectrum is a 3,600-acre business development where about 30,000 people work. The Irvine Co. has proposed building a shopping mall on the land, much of which is vacant, but has been hampered by Orange County's real estate downturn.
The cinema complex "will be a catalyst for attracting food and retail operations to the site," said Richard Sim, executive vice president for the Irvine Co. "It will serve as a sort of a beacon for south Orange County."
The new multiplex should do well, said Shadi Sanbar, director of the media services group for accounting firm Arthur Andersen in Los Angeles.
Film makers and distributors are looking for newer theater complexes with the latest sound and visual features, Sanbar said, because movies such as "Jurassic Park" are so technologically advanced. If they have a choice, he said, customers will go to theaters that offer the best in technology.
Tim Warner, president of the National Assn. of Theater Owners of California in Los Angeles, said that in most cases building a theater complex smaller than 18 screens doesn't make sense. The New York area, he said, now has multiplexes with as many as 27 screens.
"That's the only way you can offer a total variety of films that the marketplace and the public demand," he said.
Also on Wednesday, Edwards announced plans for an eight-screen cinema in Westpark Plaza, a neighborhood shopping center at Culver Drive and Alton Parkway in Irvine.
At least two other movie centers are proposed for south Orange County: a 24-screen complex at Foothill Ranch Towne Centre, about five miles from the Spectrum; and a six-screen Edwards Cinema in Rancho Santa Margarita, about 10 miles away.
No definite construction date has been set for the Foothill Ranch cinema, said Dougall Agan, spokesman for developer Foothill Co. He would not reveal who would operate the theaters.
Agan expressed confidence that the area can support two huge multiplexes.
"Our site is in the midst of a high-density residential housing project," he said. "The Spectrum isn't. We have the demographics to support ours and the retail element in place."
Foothill Ranch recently announced that it has signed up major discount retailers Wal-Mart and HomeBase for its 113-acre Foothill Towne Centre, which the developer says will be the largest retail "power center" in Southern California.
Dennis Macheski, real estate research director in Irvine with accounting firm Price Waterhouse, said: "The demand for theaters is extremely high in Orange County. It's an affluent area that is still growing."
The Spectrum cineplex is likely to be a success, Macheski said: "Edwards knows quite well their markets, so if Edwards is doing it, I'm not too worried."