The champagne flowed and live fish graced the lobby at pre-opening events for the new 3-D Imax theater in the Irvine Spectrum this week. Outside, workers scrambled to finish a new parking lot.
The real test will come Friday, however. That's when the Imax officially opens for business, answering the question of whether 1,000 additional parking spaces will significantly ease the abominable parking and traffic congestion that has plagued the entertainment center since its initial opening nearly four months ago.
"We certainly believe and hope that it will significantly improve the situation," Janice Fuchs, the center's vice president and general manager, said. "We feel that this is a step in the right direction; I think we'll really know this weekend what impact it's going to have."
Glen Gemigniani, who works in a building across the street, has a different take entirely.
"It's only a Band-Aid," he said. "The whole thing's a mess, and it's going to get worse."
The problem began in November with the opening of the $27-million Edwards 21 theater complex. Billed as the largest cinema complex in the world, it has 158,000 square feet, 21 screens, 6,400 seats and only 1,292 parking spaces, all the city requires.
Almost immediately, attendance significantly surpassed expectations, leading to congestion and parking nightmares. The problem was eased somewhat, but not eliminated, by the addition of 1,700 parking spaces during weekends in several unpaved lots ordinarily used by employees in nearby office buildings.
The new Imax theater, touted as the first 3-D Imax on the West Coast, will add 468 seats to the mix. But planners say they are hopeful that the additional 1,000 parking spaces, expected to be completed by Friday, will largely neutralize the impact.
"We think they will be adequate at this time," said Arya Rohani, the city's transportation manager. "Finding parking should not be a problem."
Sam Allevato, head of the traffic bureau of the Irvine Police Department, agrees.
"Any time you have that number of people coming and going, you're going to have a lot of traffic," he said, "But the new parking will mitigate the problem substantially."
Officials, nonetheless, have some advice for people planning to attend this weekend's opening, which begins Friday.
Plan on arriving at least an hour early and, if possible, buy your tickets by phone in advance, suggested Don Barton, vice president of Edwards Theaters.
Rohani said he thinks that people should carpool and be prepared for delays.
"The choke points might not be parking, but getting to and from the site," he said.
And Allevato asks people to "be patient and obey the traffic laws," and to watch for banners and posters directing them to the new parking lot.
"People should park in the appropriate spaces, enjoy themselves and not lose their tempers."
At a charity screening this week to benefit Childhelp USA and the Orangewood Children's Foundation, Lee Lezama of Irvine called the Imax's parking problem "a sign of the times. When people find a good thing, they'll come to it. People will find a place to park--it's just a matter of how far they want to walk."
* TALL ORDER
Imax's giant 3-D film process moves from museums to mainstream. F1