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State okays cinema's disabled access plans

The 20-screen cinema planned for St. Petersburg's downtown BayWalk retail and entertainment development received needed state approval Monday for its plan to provide access to disabled moviegoers.

Receiving the approval, technically a waiver of state disability access laws, was anticipated by the project's backers and city officials, but failure to win it could possibly have jeopardized the entire project. The multiscreen theater was designed to serve as BayWalk's anchor tenant and focal point.

Monday's action was twofold: First, a panel representing the state's disabled residents reviewed handicapped access plans from Muvico, the Fort Lauderdale-based designer and operator of the movie complex. They then sent it for final review to the state Building Commission, meeting for three days this month at the Tradewinds Resort and Conference Center on St. Pete Beach.

Although Muvico's access plans were praised by members of the access council, it was narrowly approved on a 3-2 vote with two other members absent. Later Monday afternoon, members of the Building Commission unanimously approved the plan.

Four disabled St. Petersburg residents spoke critically of the plan before the access council. Afterward, though, disabled rights activist George Locascio called the approval a "win-win."

The two biggest issues for people with mobility disabilities _ most often people who use wheelchairs _ are usually the range of seating choices available to them throughout the theater and the lines of sight they provide. Until recent years, wheelchair users were often relegated to the first row of the room, where they had to crane their heads back uncomfortably to see the screen.

In addition to their disabled seating plans already submitted, Muvico representatives also agreed to a proposal Monday that would reserve a handful of extra seats in the better viewing areas for the handicapped until five minutes before the movie began. If no disabled people claim them by then, they could be used by anybody.

All participants agreed Monday that the Tampa Bay area has a disabled population higher than the national average. The extra reserved seats would help gauge how much extra space they might need.

"This is a really good policy," advisory council chairwoman Barbara Bernhart told Building Commission members. "We commend them for being that amenable to making that policy," she said of the Muvico group.

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