COMMERCE CITY — The struggle for the owners of the 88 Drive-in to keep bringing their outdoor entertainment was already a Hollywood-style underdog story — and the city has just added a new plot twist to the story.
The Kochevar family, which owns and operates the drive-in theater just off of 88th Avenue, has talked for years about struggling to continue showing films as major studios make the switch from celluloid to digital projection, but now they have incurred a warning from city officials about traffic issues around the business.
In a letter dated July 14, Commerce City Chief of Police Troy Smith outlines a number of concerns law enforcement and public safety officials have had concerning the drive-in theater, which experiences its highest levels of attendance during the summer movie season.
“The manner in which the Drive-In currently admits vehicles onto its property causes significant traffic congestion,” reads the letter from Chief Smith to Susan Kochevar, further noting that the city is concerned with:
• Vehicles blocking the fire station entrance nearby and stopping on the railroad crossing;
• Aggressive driving by motorists seeking to get around the backup of cars waiting to enter the drive-in property;
• Motorists routinely blocking driveways and stopping along the street where parking is prohibited.
“The congestion created by Drive-In patrons leaves no room for emergency vehicles to get through ... this state of affairs places your customers, neighbors, and all those who visit or reside in the City in a potentially dangerous position,” Chief Smith wrote in his letter.
The letter was the latest step in a series of efforts on the police department’s part to work with the drive-in owners to address the traffic issues. After the city installed “No Left Turn” signs on southbound Rosemary Street earlier this year, Chief Smith and City Manager Brian McBroom met with Susan Kochevar about the issue and subsequently had the signs removed as other options to queue traffic on the drive-in property were proposed.
The situation escalated June 28, when eastbound 88th Avenue traffic related to the drive-in was backup to Interstate 76 and northbound Rosemary Street was backed up to Gala Gardens. Smith had a July 1 meeting scheduled with Kochevar and her attorney, but it was then cancelled.
The city has taken to reposting the “No Left Turn” signs and directing drive-in traffic to State Highway 2 for access from northbound Rosemary Street, and Smith’s letter also warned that the business could be cited for obstruction of public ways if the traffic issues persist.
The Kochevars responded to Chief Smith’s letter with a news release that attempted to place the blame of any traffic issues with the city administrators.
“To the extent any ‘dilemma’ exists, it is due to the abject failure of Commerce City to plan appropriately for the traffic at this intersection,” the release read.
Kochevar reiterated her feelings that the city has not done enough in terms of city planning to accommodate the flow of traffic that the theater attracts.
“There used to be over 4,000 drive-ins in the country. Today, there are (fewer) than 400. Apparently, Commerce City would like one less. ... We have served this community for 40 years on this exact spot,” Kochevar said. “It makes no sense for this to become an immediate issue when the city has had four decades to plan for it.”
Kochevar also took issue with Chief Smith’s suggestion that she has not been cooperative with the city in attempting to address the issues.
Kochevar’s attorney, David K. Williams, went as far as to describe the city’s behavior as “absolutely thuggish” and that accused city officials of attempting “to bully and threaten a long-time private business with closure ... bureaucratic arrogance at its worst.”
The Kochevars, after going public with their dispute with the city on the drive-in theater’s Facebook page, started an online petition for the public to show support for them. In less than a week, the petition site had the 5,000 signatures they had set as the goal.
The ongoing dispute with the city has served as a deterrent for the Kochevars to move ahead with some sort of crowdfunding campaign that has been suggested for financing the conversion to a digital projector.
The 88 Drive-In, which has capacity for more than 400 cars to park and watch on their outdoor screen, is the last remaining drive-in theater operating in the Denver metro area. They regularly screen three features in a row seven nights a week during the summer.