Mega-theater Is Approved By Bensalem Construction On The 24-screen Complex At Neshaminy Mall Will Begin This Spring. Neighbors Who Had Opposed The Project Were Disappointed By The Vote.

Posted: March 11, 1997

BENSALEM — It's show time.

At least in the township, where council members voted unanimous approval last night for 24 screens - more than any other movie theater in the Philadelphia region - at Neshaminy Mall.

Ron Winfrey, a spokesman for the developer, General Growth Properties of Chicago, said the company expected to begin construction on the 4,800-seat, $11 million theater this spring and roll the first film before Christmas.

General Growth's plan also includes 28,600 square feet of space for restaurants and retail stores.

At last night's meeting, residents who live near the mall in the township's Belmont Hills neighborhood wore black.

``I feel that what the council has just done has sentenced us to death - a long, agonizing death,'' said Carol Quigley, who carried drooping flowers and wore sunglasses.

``We're disgusted,'' said Helen Allred, who carried a tombstone-shaped sign that read ``R.I.P. Belmont Hills.'' ``We feel we've been had.''

Council President Joe Szafran said a committee of residents and township officials would be formed to meet with the developer regularly to monitor construction.

All five council members have said that General Growth was within its legal right to build and that denying the project could expose the township to litigation.

Residents have argued that the sheer number of films starting and ending will bring a constant stream of heavy traffic through their neighborhood.

General Growth has agreed to spend $755,000 to add lanes and improve signals at the area's most congested intersection, Neshaminy Boulevard and Bristol Road.

In exchange, the council agreed last night to waive $400,000 in traffic-impact fees.

Noel MacDonald, a spokesman for American Multi-Cinema Inc., which would manage the theater, urged the council and residents not to be intimidated by the 24 screens.

``A movie theater is not bigger than the number of seats in it,'' he said.

``I'm sure we would have a much easier time tonight if it were 10 screens and 4,800 seats.''

Council members spent more than an hour questioning the developer on traffic improvements.

Bensalem's planning commission, which functions as an advisory board to the council, originally opposed the project after hearing residents' concerns on Jan. 15.

In the weeks that followed, Szafran announced that General Growth was within its rights to build.

When a technicality forced them to reconsider the plan, planning commission members voted to hand it directly over to the council without reversing or affirming their original position.

Council members devoted nearly six hours to public comment at two meetings before last night.

At those meetings, General Growth told residents that a movie theater was necessary to the survival of Neshaminy Mall.

Neshaminy Mall is struggling to compete with nearby Franklin Mills and Oxford Valley Malls.

The 24 screening rooms would range in size from 100 seats facing a 30-foot screen to 590 seats facing a 61-foot screen, according to MacDonald.

The theater will be attached to the northeast corner of the mall, near Sears.

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