IRVINE — Construction on what could be the nation's largest cinema complex--a 135,000-square-foot theater center with seating for 5,800 moviegoers--begins today just north of the El Toro Y, where the Santa Ana and San Diego freeways merge.
The cinema complex, part of a $30-million entertainment and retail center designed to resemble a Moroccan village, will have 21 screens. Four of the theaters will have screens more than three stories tall and seat 500 moviegoers each. One screen will be devoted to art and foreign films, and another--possibly outside the main building--will only be used for coming-attraction trailers and cartoons. Parking for 4,500 vehicles will be provided.
"It's going to be a landmark for Orange County," said Keith Eyrich, a vice president in the retail division of the Irvine Co., which is building the entertainment center in partnership with Edwards Theaters Circuit Inc.
The cinema complex--scheduled to open in October--will be on a 235,000-square-foot site off Irvine Center Drive in the Irvine Spectrum, the developer's 3,600-acre office park.
The theaters are part of an entertainment center that will include a food court called "Oasis" and a plaza designed as a bazaar where kiosks selling food, crafts and accessories could be set up. Book and music stores are planned, as are four major restaurants. Other courtyard areas will have fountains.
With nighttime activities, the center will likely have some outside lighting displays, such as computer-generated laser lighting, officials said.
"It is such a wonderful theater. It will be a destination," said James Edwards Sr., chairman of Newport Beach-based Edwards Theatres Circuit, Orange County's largest chain of movie theaters. "We have many neighborhood theaters, but things change. We need more modern theaters."
A miniature locomotive is planned for inside the theater to entertain children with rides, Edwards said. The theaters will all have digital sound and one screen may be devoted exclusively to Spanish- and other foreign-language films, said Edwards. Some of the theaters will have amphitheater-style seating to give moviegoers a clearer view.
At 21 screens, the Edwards complex will surpass the 18-screen Cineplex Odeon located next to Universal Studios-Hollywood, now the largest in California. Though a theater under construction in Texas is set to have 24 screens, developers and entertainment analysts believe the Irvine center will be the nation's largest in square footage.
"Our entertainment center will be the downtown of Orange County," said Frederick O. Evans, the Irvine Co.'s retail division president. "We want to create a play place and still provide services to the 35,000 daytime residents of the Irvine Spectrum."
Mission Viejo resident Tamara Anthony, a manager at AST Research Corp. headquarters at the Irvine Spectrum, said she is looking forward to seeing movies right after work. Though concerned about increased traffic, Anthony said "the good outweighs the bad." Real-estate watchers said the entertainment complex should fill a need in South County.
"It's different, it's bigger and it's easy to get to. These all combine to make a very exciting project," said Greg Mickelson, a vice president in the retail division of the Koll Co., a Newport Beach development company. "The size of the screens and the arena seating--I think it intensifies the movie experience and makes it more unique."
Some of the nation's largest theater companies are building megaplexes; AMC has begun construction of a 24-screen, 80,000-square-foot complex near Dallas. Currently, the nation's largest movie complex is a 20-screen theater in Grand Rapids, Mich., according to Jim Kozack, spokesman for the National Assn. of Theater Owners.
Though the Edwards complex will be at one of Southern California's most congested freeway interchanges, county planners have said they do not expect cinema buffs to have trouble getting there, thinking that most movie fans would be arriving in the evening, after the afternoon rush-hour. And $247-million in improvements are underway at the El Toro Y interchange to help ease congestion.
The Spectrum business park, opened in 1974, was always planned to include a retail development. As early as 1976, the Irvine Co. unveiled plans for a $300-million shopping mall that would have opened by 1980 on land at the current site, which was then called "The Golden Triangle." The company's ambitious plans included an enclosed mall anchored by Nordstrom and four other department stores, more than 100 adjacent shops, a 350-room hotel and an ice rink.
Those plans were never realized, but Irvine Co. officials said that plans for a regional mall are back on the drawing board and could be unveiled next year.