Closing public comment, other moves: Lack of good faith by Pleasant Hill officials in deciding fate of iconic Dome theater?

As Pleasant Hill planning commissioners decide the fate of the CineArts Dome movie theater Tuesday night, they won’t be taking public comment about destroying the theater and replacing it with a big- box-looking chain sporting goods store, adding to the perception that this was long ago a “done deal” as City Council Jack Weir so famously told the Contra Costa Times.

This matter of closing public comment, whether allowed under California open meeting laws, shows an unwillingness to truly take in community concerns about the proposed destruction of a building that, a city report itself documents, is filled with historical and cultural meaning for their city and the rest of the area. The venue is also the only theater this side of the Caldecott Tunnel showing independent, art-house films. 

Commissioners also have not apparently considered that they have the legal option to declare the nearly half-century old movie theater a “historical resource,” an option described in a report by architectural experts the city itself commissioned to consider the theater’s historical significance. This reports points out that the building may not rise to the level of “exceptional importance” under certain criteria, but it does “exhibit a level of local importance within Pleasant Hill” and noted the city does have the ability, under state law, to declare the building a historical resource — if it so chooses. 

“It’s heartbreaking to lose something like this,” acknowledged commissioner Diana Vavrek at last week’s Planning Commission meeting. “It really does mean something to people in the community.”

But Vavrek brought up a gripe I’ve heard before from the city and from SyWest Development, the company that wants to demolish the theater and replace it with a 73,000-square-foot Dick’s sporting goods store. The gripe is that they have been laboring over the question of how to develop the Contra Costa Shopping Center off Interstate 680 for more than a decade. They wonder, why haven’t people who care about the Dome raised a ruckus before? 

That’s because it was only in December – four months ago — that SyWest Development revealed its plans to demolish the Dome complex and replace it with Dick’s — which is more than twice the size of the Dome complex. As soon as that news became publicized, fans launched two Facebook pages and an online petition,gathering more than 2,200 signatures, to rally in support of preserving the unique building theater — which also has an annex with four smaller theaters.  (In a previous post, I looked at an analysis of the Dome’s rich history, prepared by the city’s consultant. The analysis offers a great deal of background about Pleasant Hill, Central Contra Costa, the growth of the East Bay movie theater industry and the Dome’s place in all that.) 

All this time, the theater’s future has pretty much been alluded to in an undefined way in city documents, notably in the city’s Contra Costa Center Specific Plan. The plan, approved by the city in 2006 and amended in 2012, is not a development plan for any specific project. It’s essentially just an outline of what can be developed in the area where the Dome is located. It discusses maximum square footage, building heights, parking and other important issues but doesn’t necessarily say that the Dome would definitely be eliminated from those plans.

Senior planner Troy Fujimoto said the plan doesn’t mandate preservation of the Dome building, but it does encourage developing a movie theater in the area. A draft of the 2006 specific plan available on the city’s website in fact states that the theater could be efficiently reconfigured to provide for efficient expansion and reuse of the space and that the existing buildings can only be replaced – “when warranted.”

So, is the demolition of the Dome “warranted?” For the arrival of Dick’s? 

To their credit, commissioners at last week’s expressed regret – in some cases deep regret — about the loss of the Dome. Different commissioners talked about going to movies at the Dome, being fans of art-house, independent films and reading all the various emails and comments that came with petition signatures.

Meanwhile, I did not hear from them lots of enthusiasm about the Dick’s plan, although one commissioner, Alex Greenwood, said he’d vote to support it. At the same time, Greenwood also agreed with Dome supporters and film lovers who proclaimed that the Dick’s plan is “generic.” He wondered if there was some way the plan could be “more unique … more culturally woven into the fabric of Pleasant Hill.”

If commissioners are earnest in their expressions of regret, why are they so eager to rush this project along? Are they really eager to see SyWest demolish the Dome this summer and start building Dick’s? I know SyWest owns the property and should have the freedom to build what they want — as long as it benefits the community. 

Commissioners made what felt like an effort to appease the crowd—who by and large raised concerns about perceptions about the lack of public input in this current “done deal” project—by asking SyWest president Bill Viera to come back this Tuesday night with some projections on incorporating a small theater into the project. 

Does anyone expect Viera to come back in such a short time with any response other than something rushed and obligatory, to say he tried, he really tried, to make it work but, no, he couldn’t, and the only plan that will work is essentially the one his company has just submitted?

So far, SyWest’s solution to respecting the Dome’s place in Pleasant Hill’s history is to include a mural of the movie theater and mimic its shape in arches spanning a breezeway next to Dick’s. That plan was pretty laughable to Dome supporters, in a sad, sick way. 

Vierra explained during a break in the meeting that the CineArts movie theater isn’t making a profit. SyWest, by the way, just owns the building. It doesn’t operate the theater — the operator is Cinemark — though SyWest is the development arm of Syufy, the company that originally built the Dome in 1967. 

(But, the theater seemed to be doing a pretty good business on a Tuesday afternoon in January, when I went to see a matinee — and took the above photo — and the parking lot was fairly crowded, and there were a good number of people in the theater I was in.)

Vierra also noted a review by a consultant SyWest hired to offer another opinion of the building’s historic value. This report interprets the language of the city’s architectural experts in a way that, not surprisingly, is favorable to SkyWest’s interests. Among other things, it says that retrofitting the building to meet current code requirements for fire and other safety concerns would not be financially feasible.

Not financially feasible in what way? The report isn’t very specific about that. 

Not financially feasible compared to tearing down a building that, in four years, could meet the eligibility requirements for listing as a California Historical Resource?

And that, in the hands of a more creative, less “generic”-thinking developer would continue to make Pleasant Hill a draw and put the city on the map culturally (as opposed to a town that one Dome supporter said “you just pass through on the way to someplace else.”) 

And that, in the long term, could contribute to the long-term cultural and economic vitality of the city and the region?

Yes, arts and culture do very much contribute to a community’s economic sustainability, as my hometown of Walnut Creek has found over the years. According to the national Arts and Prosperity IV study, non-profit ventures in Walnut Creek generate $32.5 million annually, create 865 jobs and deliver nearly $3 million in local and state revenues.

Also, the city architectural consultant says the building retains “a good deal of physical integrity and could potentially be eligible for listing in a local register of historic places.” The main reason the 46-year-old building is not yet listed as a California Historical Resourcesis is that it’s only four years shy of the 50-plus year eligibility, the report says. 

As this report notes, according to guidelines of the California Environmental Quality Act, the city is not precluded “from determining that the building may be a historical resource.”

So, what’s stopping the city from doing so? Or at least opening up a better dialogue with the community about the future of the Dome, now that a development plan for that site’s future is finally on the table? 

UPDATE: Fans of the Dome and independent movies will hold a peaceful protest outside Pleasant Hill City Hall at 6:30 p.m. in advance of the 7:30 p.m. Planning Commission meeting. For more information, check out the Save Independent Film and the CineArts Dome in Pleasant Hill Facebook page. 

7 thoughts on “Closing public comment, other moves: Lack of good faith by Pleasant Hill officials in deciding fate of iconic Dome theater?

  1. As someone who sees indie films at the Dome at least once a month, I am heartbroken over plans to demolish it. Not only would it mean one less venue for great film (Berkeley and Livermore would remain) but the building itself is unique and iconic. I'm always more excited to see a movie in the actual dome than in one of the theaters in the back. It's such a cool space. I wish the plan had been to remodel and revitalize the theater, luring in more customers and $$$ to the shopping center.


  2. We go to the Dome theatre on a consistant basis and end up seeing almost all the films that come through there….without a doubt, the Dome Screen is THE BEST IN THIS VALLEY and quite possibly the East Bay !!
    To lose such a treasure , and to be replaced by another
    sporting goods store and an ugly building is an outrage… especially when there are at least 5 other sporting goods store with in a 4 mile radius of the Dome….
    We will be boycotting dicks (sic) if this goes through !!!


  3. As far as I'm concerned, the Dome Theater (CineArts) is the only game in town for those of us who cherish foreign and independent films. As a regular attendee for several years, I bemoan the (what appears almost inevitable) destruction of this building. No other venue in the East Bay is quite like it. Must film festivals, such as the recent well-attended Jewish Film Festival, search for a new home? And is Dick's Sporting Good store really what Pleasant Hill needs to improve its image?


  4. The key point is that the Dome Theater is the cultural icon of Pleasant Hill, which without it would not only lose its character and charm, but likely people who come from other parts of the Bay Area, such as myself who lives in Oakland. A sporting goods shop can go up anywhere in Pleasant Hill, but it cannot replace a cultural landmark, as the store is purely retail. It would seem like preserving what citizens want seems like the better way to go.


  5. So sad. This is one more example of “you can't fight City Hall” and why it is so important to remember this when it comes time to vote for our representatives. Martha, you are so right, four months is hardly ample time for the citizens of PH and surrounding cities to weigh in on a decision that affects so many. Your writing ability is off the charts, I so enjoy every word. On a different note, would you consider running for City Council in Walnut Creek? We need you!


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