A blockbuster cinematic project could premiere in downtown Westport.
The Westport Cinema Initiative signed a letter of understanding Monday with the owners of a Main Street property to build a movie theater in a parking lot adjacent to Tavern on Main Street restaurant, an agreement that paves the way for WCI to seek Planning and Zoning Commission approval to move ahead with the project.
"It may not seem like much -- just a dirt parking lot -- but the space is just about perfect in terms of its dimensions on which to build our theater," said state Rep. Jonathan Steinberg, who is also president of the WCI's Board of Directors. "Think of it like the mud lot in London on which the Globe Theater was built -- an unassuming piece of ground transformed into a locus of entertainment, inspiration and perhaps provocation."
WCI, a nonprofit group established last year, will next launch a public fundraising campaign to collect about $4 million to build an approximately 6,500-square-foot theater. The group envisions a cinema complex with three screens and a total seating capacity of about 200 patrons.
Operating seven days a week, the cinema would show mostly independent films, according to Steinberg. It would also host an extensive range of other film-based offerings, including educational programs for high school students and question-and-answer sessions with cast and crew members from films shown at the theater.
A new cinema would serve as a cultural magnet to downtown Westport. It would also help invigorate the evening scene in the town center, a goal that many town officials, downtown merchants and local arts supporters say has not been fully realized since the closing in 1999 of the last downtown cinema complex, the Fine Arts theaters.
The movie theater would stand adjacent to 142 Main St., a block of buildings that houses Tavern on Main, as well as the Great Stuff and Oddz clothing stores. Patrons would enter the cinema through an underpass beneath Tavern on Main's dining terrace.
"This is an icon of Westport history," said Philip Haemo de Thorneycroft Teuscher, who owns 142 Main St. with his two brothers, Jonathan and James. "I'm very pleased to announce that this will become a cultural locus."
Teuscher's father bought 142 Main St. in 1944. The property's oldest building dates to the 1820s, according to Teuscher.
The letter of understanding between WCI and the Teuscher brothers comprises a "precursor to the drawing up of a land-lease contract," Philip Teuscher added.
"It's been a wonderful year of coming to know Philip and thinking about this property," said WCI Director Sandy Lefkowitz. "We're very grateful that we could do this for the town."
Negotiations between WCI and Teuscher began after another prominent downtown figure, David Waldman, president of the Westport-based commercial real estate firm David Adam Realty, identified the lot as a viable site for a theater.
"I walked by it one day when I was on my way to a zoning meeting at Town Hall," Waldman told the Westport News. "That was my a-ha moment. This kind of use can really bring a great, constant vibrancy to the town at all times of the day."
Waldman, who is also a principal in the development group that has contracted to buy the downtown site of the Westport Weston Family Y, describes himself as an "unofficial adviser" to WCI and a donor to the nonprofit.
WCI leaders plan to present a theater site plan to the P&Z this fall. The P&Z considered in September 2011 a text amendment that proposed the creation of a "theater overlay zone" to facilitate the development of a new moviehouse in the town center. Commissioners then withdrew the proposal after the proposed text amendment sparked an acrimonious public debate. But the disapproving public reception of the amendment was not fueled by the prospect of a new movie theater. Instead, opponents decried a provision in the amendment that would have allowed a limited number of 60-foot buildings in the town center.
Several current P&Z commissioners have expressed support for a downtown theater.
"I'm very hopeful and encouraged that Phil stepped up," P&Z Chairwoman Catherine Walsh said Monday of Teuscher's involvement. "It's a measure of everyone's persistence and commitment to this project."
Assuming that they secure site plan approval from the P&Z, WCI leaders are targeting a 2013 groundbreaking and a cinema opening by the fall of 2014.
Lou Gagliano, chairman of the town's Downtown 2020 planning committee, also backed the project.
"This is an exciting day for downtown Westport," he said. "I'm really looking forward to having a theater in the downtown. I think it will create a lot of vibrancy here and really enliven the downtown."
The 142 Main St. property already boasts a cinematic pedigree: The site was a scenic backdrop in the Irving Kershner film, "Loving," and the Gregory Peck-starring screen adaptation of "The Man in the Gray Flannel Suit."
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