UPDATED with statement from a theater representative.
A roller-coaster ride of a two-hour hearing about alcohol sales at the Port Theater on Thursday twisted, turned, was nearly continued, was nearly withdrawn — all before a unanimous vote that had supporters and opponents expressing satisfaction in the end.
The Newport Beach Planning Commission met Thursday to consider a use permit that would allow the theater, which opened in July after about a decade of vacancy and then construction, to sell alcohol until 11 p.m., as well as to serve alcohol at special events.
Chairman Michael Toerge asked audience members to raise their hands if they planned to speak for or against the permit, and he and other commissioners then said they wanted to be clear that they supported the theater. But, they said, there were elements to the application that raised concerns.
“This application is something more than going to the theater and having a glass of wine,” Toerge said.
Toerge said the theater’s plans to provide entertainment, such as performing arts events and public and private parties, made it “perfectly suited for an operator license.” The city began requiring operator licenses in January 2011; click here and here to read more about operator licenses.
“Not only does it make good sense,” he said, “I think it’s required. I think the code applies, and I think it’s required here.”
The commissioners also expressed concern about elements of the use permit, such as whether cutting off alcohol sales at 11 p.m. would limit alcohol consumption.
“There’s no restriction here on bottle service,” Toerge said. “There’s no restriction from someone buying that at five ’til 11 and enjoying it until midnight or 1 a.m…I’m in support of this application so long as it acts like we all want it to act.”
While the theater’s lawyer began consulting the owner about how to respond to the commissioners, including whether to withdraw or change their application, another theater representative presented a slide show about the history of the Port, which was built in 1949 and once hosted an elephant for the premier of “The Greatest Show on Earth.”
But the theater, said Jessica Prause, went from a spot where children could meet Lassie to a decrepit building with holes in the ceiling.
“It was raining in the movie in Seattle,” she said, describing one woman’s experience while watching “Sleepless in Seattle.” “It was raining in Corona del Mar, too, and it was raining in the theater. She had to use an umbrella — it may have been the first 4D movie experience.”
Owner Fariborz Maseeh renovated the theater and added state of the art projection equipment because he wanted to run a theater, she said.
“If we wanted to be a bar, we would have bought a bar,” she said. “People are not going to buy a ticket if they want to go to a bar and drink.”
The average age of a Port customer, she said, was 45.
“They are not looking to go to a loud nightclub. It’s absolutely absurd.”
After the slide presentation, theater representatives spoke. At first, they indicated that they would agree to seeking an operator license from police and also would remove all alcohol by 11 p.m. — but would want to be able to offer alcohol throughout the theater, even during all-age showings.
Toerge then suggested a continuance until January to give staff time to consider the implications of the change. But Commissioner Kory Kramer said he was ready to vote in support of the permit immediately, and the board decided to see what members of the public had to say.
Fourteen people spoke, fairly evenly divided in support and against alcohol at the Port Theater. Opponents said they worried that the theater could host large events that would cause parking congestion and noise in their neighborhood.
“They could very easily turn this into a 350-person sports bar, and that’s exactly what they are talking about,” said Corona del Mar resident Dan Purcell. “They want to start pouring liquor as much as they can because that’s where the money is.”
Corona del Mar resident Nik Froehlich said he worried that the theater was going to get bogged down in red tape and bureaucracy that would take months and months to sort out.
“If you want it to happen, you can make it happen,” he said.
After the public comments, the Port Theater’s lawyer said they withdrew the request to expand liquor service and would agree to what was included in the staff report, along with an 11 p.m. cutoff on alcohol sales and consumption. They also would agree to obtaining the operator license and, as staff originally required, would work with police on a security plan.
The commissioners and city staff then discussed and made changes to clarify the permit, including adding language that would limit bottle service to wine and the operator license requirement, and they passed the use permit in a 6-0 vote.
After the hearing, opponent Carol Ann Rohr said she thought the decision could work out.
“If they comply with they requirements, and if the police department is clear on the requirements, I think we can protect the neighborhood,” she said. “We want to be supportive, but we don’t want to be overrun.”
Maseeh and spokeswoman Prause quickly left Council Chambers after the vote without stopping to talk to anyone, including Corona del Mar Today.
On Saturday, Prause emailed the following statement: “We would like to thank the community for the tremendous support they have given us, especially those who took the time out of their evenings to attend the Planning Commission meeting and appear in favor of our request on Thursday night. We are truly humbled by the support received. The participation warmed our hearts and taught us our effort has not been expended in vain. We at Port Theater will do what it takes to provide our supporters with a first class theater deserving of our community. We believe the decision by the Newport Beach Planning Commission was well thought out, and while we received a more restrictive permit than we hoped for, we are happy with the result. We also thank the members of the Commission for their service and the time and consideration they took making their thorough decision.”
But Cho, the lawyer, said the outcome was positive.
“It is a victory for the Port Theater in the end,” he said.
Theater representatives could work with police on the operator license and security plan simultaneously, he said, and possibly complete the process in six weeks. They also needed to wait 14 days to see if anyone appealed the Planning Commission decision, and then work with the state Alcoholic Beverage Control department.
So when can movie-goers buy a drink at the Port?
“Best-case, mid February, early March,” he said.