Firm seeks zoning switch


After 14 years, the Columbia Palace 9 multiscreen movie complex isn't so regal anymore.

In a volatile commercial age, what was in 1986 the planned town's most modern, luxury megaplex is now facing ever tougher competition from the newer Snowden Square 14 theater, and plans for still another new theater behind The Mall in Columbia.

That might be why Towson's Continental Realty, owner of the 7.7 acres off Route 108 on which the theater sits, is asking Howard County for a zoning change that would allow commercial retail development on the site. The county Planning Board recommended approving that request last week. The final decision rests with the Zoning Board, which is composed of the five County Council members.

Despite the growing competitive pressures, J. M. Schapiro, Continental's vice president, said the rezoning request means "nothing. We've no plans to knock it down," he said, refusing to comment further.

Others see things differently.

"People want newer, bigger, brighter," said Scott Cohen, president of the Maryland chapter of the National Association of Theater Owners.

With the high-tech United Artists' Snowden Square 14 theater dominating the eastern half of the Columbia movie market and the Rouse Co. planning a new 10-screen movie complex behind The Mall in Columbia, the Palace 9 is in a competitive bind.

"The Palace opened when it fit the need. Now it's too small, it doesn't have stadium seating, there's not enough lobby and you've got Arundel Mills opening a 24-screen megaplex Egyptian Theater. It will kill them. It's just a normal evolution," said Cohen, who is also president of RC Theatres, builder of the region's first stadium seating, surround-sound megaplex at Eastpoint.

Loews Theatres, which leases the Palace 9 building, did not return a phone call seeking comment.

According to county planners, who support the rezoning, the Palace 9 is in an awkward spot under zoning laws.

To do any construction on the Palace's Columbia site - even to modernize the theater - the landowners need a zoning change. The Palace 9 was built on land zoned for warehouse or office park use, which also allowed theaters in 1986. But county officials changed the law to require a special zoning exception for theaters, so the Palace 9 is now a non-conforming use - grandfathered. Without a change in zoning, however, the building owners can't change the use or rebuild.

Despite opposition from Long Reach Village Board President Henry F. Dagenais, the county Planning Board voted last week to recommend the major commercial rezoning Schapiro wants.

"I don't know how they're surviving now," Dagenais said about the Palace 9 after the meeting. He is worried that Continental might build a supermarket or other business that would compete with Long Reach Village Center. But county planners and board members said a change is justified because so many other commercial rezonings have been granted near the theater in recent years.

"It's not large enough to compete with the Long Reach Village Center," said county Planning Director Joseph W. Rutter Jr., especially because about 3 acres of the site is taken up by a storm water pond.

The bigger competitive picture is even more complex, said Chris Carlaw, Rouse Co. vice president for development in Columbia.

"The overall movie theater industry today is economically challenged," he said, explaining that overbuilding has made funding for construction of modern theaters harder to find.

That may mean Rouse's project at The Mall in Columbia will take longer to complete than first thought, Carlaw said.

But he added that in Columbia, "I believe the industry views the United Artist stadium theater seating as able to dominate one-half the market. I believe the Palace 9 has been a successful theater in the past, but everyone would agree that it cannot compete in its current configuration."

Either it must be rebuilt or another theater will go up to serve the other half of the Columbia market, he said.

Another nearby theater is the General Cinema III, Columbia's original three-screen lakefront theater, trying to survive by filling a niche for independent or art films. Depending on a variety of local factors, said Brian Callaghan, director of communications for General Cinema in Chestnut Hill, Mass., older theaters - even a few with one screen - can fill a need and survive.

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