For the first time in more than two decades, new movie theaters are planned for Southeast L.A. County an area that has missed out on the boom in multiplex theaters.

Two separate multiplex developments are in the works: a 24-screen theater in South Gate and a 10- to 12-screen theater in Huntington Park.

Currently, there is only one movie theater that runs current releases in the densely populated area between downtown L.A. and the Artesia (91) Freeway, between the San Gabriel (710) Freeway on the east and the Harbor (110) Freeway on the west. There are five other second-run theaters, and none of them are larger than three screens.

By comparison, Santa Monica has seven first-run multiplexes with more than four screens each, and the San Fernando Valley has 18 first-run multiplexes with six screens or more, according to Entertainment Data Inc.

Southeast and downtown L.A. is "the last growth market" for theater operators who have saturated the suburbs and parts of West L.A. with new multiplexes, said Armando Aguirre, a retail broker with Grubb & Ellis Co.

"Theater owners have visibly stayed out of there until now," Aguirre said. "But they are coming to realize that there's a huge, underserved population there that's looking for entertainment."

More than 1.5 million people live in a 10-mile radius from South Gate, and 55 percent of that population is under 30 years old, the age group that spends the most on movies.

But theater development in the Mid-Cities area has its obstacles. Property in urban areas is more expensive than in undeveloped suburbs, and ownership is often spread among disparate holders, making the involvement of a city's redevelopment agency essential.

Then there is the hesitancy among theater operators, who often cite crime and low household discretionary income as reasons they have stayed out of minority neighborhoods. But Magic Johnson Theaters disproved those notions when it opened a multiplex at the Crenshaw Plaza mall in 1995.

The Magic Johnson 12-plex in Baldwin Hills, a middle-class African American neighborhood in South Los Angeles, now ranks among the top 50 highest-grossing theaters in the country, according to EDI.

In South Gate, a city of 86,000 nestled between the Los Angeles River and Alameda Street, the city's redevelopment agency recently selected Pasadena-based development company Southland Consulting Co. to build a 24-screen multiplex. South Gate currently has a second-run, single-theater movie house, but city officials say the population densities support a megaplex.

"From the 710 to Crenshaw, there's a huge unmet need for movie theaters," said Eugene Moy, the city's project manager.

The city selected L.A.-based Maya Theaters as theater operator. The company intends to target Latino communities and make a formal project announcement by June.

Maya Theaters will anchor the city's largest redevelopment project to date: a $20 million entertainment-retail complex spreading 23 acres in the northeast corner of the city, near Firestone Boulevard and Garfield Avenue.

In nearby Huntington Park, the city is in discussions with a developer who wants to build a 10- to 12-plex movie theater on a two-acre site near the intersection of Pacific Boulevard and Gage Avenue, according to Jack Wong, community development director for Huntington Park.

Wong declined to name the developer, citing pending negotiations. But sources say that Maya Theaters, Magic Johnson Theaters and Edwards Theatre Circuits Inc. are all interested in the site.

The city already has two small, independently operated theater screens and a two-screen Pacific Theaters cinema.

Neil Haltrecht, vice president of Pacific Theaters Realty, said that the L.A-based company has considered expanding its presence in Huntington Park, but there isn't enough land available to build the larger multiplex development it would like.

In fact, land assemblage has blocked previous efforts to build multiplexes in the area. The nearby city of Bell Gardens pursued theater operators for much of last year in an effort to build a multiplex on a six-acre site. The land could accommodate only four screens, and most operators want to build at least a 10-screen theater, according to Anthony Ybarra, community development director.

"We would have had to remove a lot of housing and commercial development in order to get a site that large," Ybarra said. The city has since decided to pursue a much smaller, entertainment-themed use for the site.

Michael Hans, vice president of real estate for AMC Theaters Inc., said the megaplexes are "most efficient" because they can offer the most first-run releases with multiple start times

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