The days of downtown Berkeley’s last commercial movie theater could be numbered.
Developer Panoramic Interests submitted preliminary plans this week to build a 17-story apartment complex at what is now the Regal UA Berkeley theater at 2274 Shattuck Ave.
The project would preserve the building’s art deco United Artists facade, which has looked out onto Shattuck Avenue for the past 90 years. But most of the structure behind that facade would be demolished and replaced with 293 apartments, 24 of which would be affordable for renters considered very low income.
It’s not clear how long the theater will remain open. Representatives for Regal Cinemas, the Tennessee-based chain that operates the theater, did not respond to requests for information about its future.
Panoramic is seeking approval for the project under an expedited city process created as a result of the 2018 state housing law SB 330, which speeds permitting for new housing and limits local governments’ authority to block or delay projects that comply with existing zoning laws. Panoramic Interests owner Patrick Kennedy could not be reached for more information about the project.
Panoramic’s plans were first reported by SFYIMBY.com. The San Jose Mercury News reported the company bought the theater for $7 million.
Plans for the half-acre site call for units ranging from studios to five-bedroom apartments. What is now the theater’s lobby would become a commercial space, with plans suggesting a café as one possible tenant.
The project, which sits close to UC Berkeley and BART, does not include any on-site parking for residents, and has storage space for 82 bicycles.
Known these days as a destination for big blockbusters, “The UA” opened to fanfare in 1932. According to a history article published by the Berkeley Daily Planet, then-Mayor Thomas Caldecott and the entire city council were on hand for the opening of the 1,800-seat theater.
It was part of the United Artists company, a film studio and theater operator founded by a group of early Hollywood stars, including Charlie Chaplin, who were seeking better pay and more creative freedom. The Berkeley theater’s original marquee and neon “UA” tower have both been removed, though the bas-relief on its facade remains, with panels representing “Artistry” and “Unity,” and its interior is filled with art deco fixtures.
If the theater closes, Rialto Cinemas Elmwood would be the last first-run movie theater left in Berkeley. (While the Berkeley Art Museum and Pacific Film Archive holds movie screenings, it does not show new releases.)
Downtown once boasted a half-dozen movie theaters, three of which — the UA and Landmark Theatres’ Shattuck Cinemas and California Theatre — were still operating at the start of 2020.
But with theaters struggling to draw customers since the pandemic, Landmark announced last fall that it was permanently closing the California, then shut down the Shattuck in May.
Regal Cinemas’ parent company, Cineworld, has faced similar challenges — its stock tanked this week after officials reported lower-than-expected ticket sales, according to The Wrap.
Meanwhile, developers have been drawn to the large parcels those theaters occupy in prime locations near UC Berkeley in the heart of downtown.
Developer CA Ventures plans to build an eight-story, 189-unit apartment complex that will involve demolishing Shattuck Cinemas’ theater. And Gilbane Development has submitted plans for a 15-story, 214-unit project at the California Theatre site that calls for including a live theater space on the ground floor and preserving the structure’s marquee and art deco facade, which were declared landmarks earlier this year. Both developers insist it was Landmark’s financial woes — not their projects — that prompted the closure of the theaters.