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Laguna Beach’s historic movie theater undergoes concept review for revival

Rivian, an electric vehicle manufacturer, presented its concept review for the Laguna Theater  to the Planning Commission.
Rivian, an electric vehicle manufacturer, presented its concept review for the Laguna Theater on South Coast Highway to the Planning Commission on Wednesday night.
(Courtesy of Rivian)

The lights may come back on at Laguna Beach’s only movie theater.

The theater on South Coast Highway closed its doors in 2015 after Regency Theaters decided to pull the plug for its lease for the building at 162 S. Coast Hwy. after it was unable to secure a long enough extension on its lease to make changes to improve the theater and convert to digital projection. Since its closure, the building has remained vacant, though adjacent stores have continued to operate.

Rivian, an electric vehicle manufacturer, announced on July 30 that it would be pursuing the purchase of the historic property as part of the company’s retail strategy. The organization said it aims for a 2021 opening, pending city approvals.

The current two-story building was constructed in 1934 by the Aufdenkamp family and named the New Lynn Theatre when it opened in 1935, but the theater’s roots date to 1921. City staff said it is the first concrete and steel building constructed in Laguna Beach and is listed on the city’s local historic inventory.

“A high concentration of our preorder customer community lives in Southern California, and the opportunity to put our philosophy of adaptive reuse into practice at such a landmark location was really a great fit for us,” Amy Mast, a spokeswoman for Rivian, said in an email. The purchase is still in escrow.

The South Coast Theater building in downtown Laguna Beach. It's been closed since 2015.
(Don Leach / Staff Photographer)

Concept plans were submitted to the city on July 16 with the goal of restoration to “transform the historic theater to a community-focused hub that will include retail space, food and beverage and a restored theater for public programming.”

“Rivian sees this project as an opportunity to invest into the community of Laguna Beach by restoring the historic facade, modernizing the theater interior and introducing new public programming to make it an activated development year-round,” the company said, according to a staff report.

The current proposal would reduce the current two-screen, 674-seat theater to a single, 130-seat theater and restore the original proscenium arch and stage for screenings and live performances. The reduction in seating would allow for expansion in the lobby, which would include public seating and additional space for education and community programming.

The two retail spaces would be modified to have direct access to the lobby while the second floor would be altered to have additional seating and workspaces.

Two Rivian vehicles would be showcased in the lobby.

Commissioners raised the question of whether or not cars would be sold at the location, which Denise Cherry, senior director of facilities design at Rivian, said the rehabilitation and display of cars at the historic building would be a form of “brand education.”

“We think of this truly as a war to educate people on the mission of electrifying vehicles, whether that’s our car or a Volt or a Tesla or whatever that might be,” Cherry said.

The South Coast Theater building, where Regency Theaters decided to pull the plug for its lease in 2015.
The South Coast Theater building, where Regency Theaters decided to pull the plug for its lease in 2015.
(Don Leach / Staff Photographer)

Commissioners also asked whether or not Rivian would pursue registering the property on the state historic register, the reason for the reduction in seats and suggested the possibility for artists to work onsite. Commission Chair Pro Tem Anne Johnson raised the proposed concerns about how the display vehicles would be rotated.

Cherry said that discussions with current tenants of the adjacent storefronts have not begun because the transaction is not yet final.

No members of the public spoke on the concept review.

“I think it’s conceptually great. I know there’s some details and things to work out, but I’m so encouraged that this project is finally potentially being realized in terms of redevelopment of the movie theater for something that will provide the community,” Commissioner Jorg Dubin said.

Johnson and Commission Chair Susan McLintock Whitin both encouraged the application of the property to the state register and for the restoration to be in-line with state standards.

“We’re, of course, striving for a 2021 opening and so depending on how feedback on this goes and other things, we hope to be back in front of you guys before the end of the year for sure,” Cherry said.

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