With the entertainment industry drastically changing its brick-and-mortar cinema models, a pair of commercial developers hope Lynnfield's voters will likewise change their minds about allowing a movie theater in town.
Insisting the construction of "monolithic" mega cinemas are now a thing of the past, MarketStreet Lynnfield's development team contends a smaller amenity-focused movie theatre would blend in perfectly with the wildly popular, open-air shopping center off I-95.
Willing to bet Lynnfield's voters will agree with that assessment, MarketStreet's development team is forging ahead with Town Meeting legislation that would allow for a 800-seat cinema, with eight separate screening rooms, to be built towards the rear of the mixed-use lifestyle center.
Voters, who narrowly rejected a similar rezoning initiative back in 2008, will get their say on April 24, when the community will hold its Annual Town Meeting assembly.
Under a proposal formally introduced late last month, Ted Tye, a managing partner of MarketStreet owner National Development, explained the 40,000 square foot theater would be tucked away from abutting homes towards the rear of the 395,000 square foot outdoor market.
To offset the impact, the petitioner, along with partner WS Development, will also erect a 300-plus space parking garage behind the Wahlburgers restaurant — or across the street from the new theater. The commercial real estate managers have also proposed the elimination of a 40,000 square foot office park, which was scheduled to be built out as part of the last phase of construction for the development.
"We're back here to talk about theaters. We're excited, because it's a little different than what's been talked about in the past," Tye told Lynnfield's Board of Selectmen last month.
"There would be no discretion as to where they could be located. And they would be [tucked away in back] in an area furthest away from the residents." the National Development partner later said of the cinema and parking garage's location on the 80-acre site, which would be fixed by the proposed zoning change.
Referring to a 44-page report issued last summer, the petitioners are also proposing to implement two major traffic fixes recommended by Lynnfield's MarketStreet Advisory Committee (MSAC).
Specifically, the developers have committed to integrate a so-called adaptive management systems into traffic signalization equipment along Walnut Street, a major thoroughfare though the community that bisects I-95 by the lifestyle center.
The smart technology, which can reconfigure light cycles based on real-time traffic conditions, is expected to dramatically decrease development-related vehicular congestion, which has during peak holiday shopping seasons caused backups all the way to Saugus.
"Through a combination of cameras, computers and sensors, it allows the traffic to flow where it's most busy. This is the way things are moving in the transportation industry," said Tye of the adaptive signal system, which would be tied into three traffic lights along Walnut Street.
In a second major mitigation component, a new right-hand turning lane would be added to the I-95/Route 128 off-ramp onto Walnut Street.
The turning lane is expected to free up motorists seeking to bypass the MarketStreet property and head towards Lynnfield Center. Presently, area residents tend to get stuck in traffic caused by motorists waiting to turn into the outdoor market.
Technically, the 13-person MSAC, established by the Board of Selectmen back in 2017, advised town leaders that the infrastructure improvements were needed regardless of whether a new movie theater was sited on the old Colonial Golf Course grounds.
Though the committee did examine the potential impacts of a movie theater, and further recommended zoning language to control the scope and impact of that development component, its report was issued months before the development team would release specific details about its newest proposal.
In fact, the task force, formed after National Development and its partner submitted and then rescinded a previous movie theatre rezoning plan in 2017, emphasized it was not issuing any opinion about the suitability of the cinema plans.
"The conclusions and recommendations included in this summary should in no way be construed by the Board of Selectmen or the town that the MarketStreet Advisory Committee supports or rejects the theatre proposal. The information included in this summary is for informational purposes only," the advisory group stressed.
Fifth cinema plan
Lynnfield's officials and local voters have generally opposed a movie theater at MarketStreet since the mixed-use development was first pitched back in 2007.
More than a decade ago, as the new owners of the Colonial Golf Course and hotel site, National Development officials agreed to drop the movie theatre component from the initial rezoning proposal for the sprawling property.
As a result of that compromise, Town Meeting voters agreed to rezone the golf course parcel to allow for 395,000 square feet of retail space, 180 luxury apartments, and 80,000 square feet of retail space. National Development also set aside 7-acres of land for an elderly housing complex, while another 103-acres was also gifted to the town for its use as nine-hole golf course.
More than a year later, the development team returned to re-pitch the cinema option, which at that time would have included a 38,000 square foot complex with seating for 360 patrons. The zoning change, which required a two-thirds majority, fell just 14 votes shy of passing.
In 2013, the petitioner returned again with a a request to construct a 1,200-seat cinema, but the property owner rescinded that proposal in the face of stiff opposition. Four years later, in the late winter of 2017, yet another Town Meeting zoning change was presented for an 800-seat movie theater.
According to Lou Masiello, a senior vice-president at WS Development, the current proposal, the fifth iteration of the movie theatre concept, comes as major changes are sweeping the entertainment industry that dovetail with the changing face of the retail marketplace.
"We see consumers with an alternative method [to buy products from the Internet]. They're changing their perspective on how much their time is worth," said the WS Development representative. "This property cannot become stale…We have in almost all of our successful plazas a movie theater. It brings another important reason to come and patronize our properties." .
Specifically, the petitioner contends the movie theater sector, facing competitive pressures from new age video streaming services like Netflix, has dramatically altered its business model to draw consumers away from the alluring convenience of watching movies within the comfort of their own homes.
As a result, hulking complexes, geared toward packing sprawling viewing auditoriums with as many customers as possible, are now giving way to smaller capacity luxury cinemas with oversized chairs, in-theatre food service, and separate dining options that include outside bar and restaurant tenants.
"They're rethinking the size of their offering. 15 years ago, a new movie theatre was considered a mega-complex. They were in the order of 100,000 square feet with up to 3,000 seats. They dominated the landform with respect to [the building footprint] and parking," said Masiello.
"But today, they're much more sensitive to design. They're designed to be integrated into places [like MarketStreet] that have other offerings," he added.