Fate In Balance, Historical Commission To Hear Boyd Theater Case Friday

 

The Boyd Theater's Art Deco auditorium | Photo: Chandra Lampreich

The Boyd Theater’s Art Deco auditorium | Photo: Chandra Lampreich

When an anonymous donor stepped forward last month with an offer to provide the funds for Friends of the Boyd to purchase the Boyd Theater, it seemed like a miraculous stroke of good fortune to advocates of the Chestnut Street movie palace. And perhaps that will turn out to be the case–but not without a fight from iPic Theaters and local developer Neil Rodin.

Rodin has agreed to purchase the property from its present owner Live Nation Worldwide and lease it to iPic, which plans to install eight movie screens and an upscale Italian restaurant. The Florida-based company is asking the Historical Commission for permission to demolish everything but the facade. The theater’s magnificent Art Deco interior is not protected, thus its fate is tied to whatever decision is made regarding the building’s exterior.

iPic and Rodin won the first round on February 27th, when the Historical Commission’s Financial Hardship Committee affirmed that iPic has shown reasonable cause to be granted a hardship and should be allowed to proceed with the project. The Hardship Committee’s recommendation is only advisory, and iPic’s application will go before the full Historical Commission March 14th.

The case will hinge on how Historical Commission members read the financial hardship section of the City’s historic preservation ordinance, which has been the subject of vastly different interpretations during several recent hearings.

To Friends of the Boyd and the Preservation Alliance of Greater Philadelphia, the presence of a legitimate buyer shows that iPic’s application doesn’t meet one of the three subtests for financial hardship–whether “the sale of the property is impracticable.”

“I think the standard is clear,” said Carolyn Boyce, executive director of the Preservation Alliance for Greater Philadelphia. “The offer on the table to purchase the Boyd is sufficient and the case should be closed.”

Boyce told Hidden City that she has met personally with the donor, a prominent backer of cultural and arts initiatives in Philadelphia. The offer, she said, “is sound and unconditional.”

Redacted grant letter sent by the anonymous foundation to Friends of the Boyd, the Historical Commission and LiveNation

Redacted grant letter sent by the anonymous foundation to Friends of the Boyd, the Historical Commission and LiveNation

However, at the Hardship Committee hearing, iPic legal counsel Matthew McClure of the firm Ballad Spahr, argued that the anonymous benefactor’s offer didn’t change anything. The application, he said, should be judged on the larger question of whether there is a financially feasible adaptive reuse for the building. McClure said that the theater has had three owners since 2002, none of whom were able to redevelop the property. “A mere transfer of title does not eliminate the financial hardship, which is endemic to this property.”

McClure also said the Friends of the Boyd’s offer doesn’t prove that the sale of the property is possible because “this is not a sale as contemplated by the ordinance.” His interpretation echoed the City Law Department’s reading of the ordinance, as relayed by John Farnham, Historical Commission’s executive director.

According to Farnham, the Law Department told him that the question of whether the sale of the property is impracticable or not is intended as a test of the market generally, rather than the the interest of an individual purchaser, particularly one without any expectation of return on investment.

A representative of the prospective buyer will be on hand at Friday’s hearing, according to Howard Haas, president of the Friends of the Boyd. The offer of purchase, he said, followed months of discussion over how to jumpstart preservation of the theater.

Haas said he believes that to meet hardship, iPic would have to prove they can’t sell the building. “The wrong standard–and this is where the confusion is–involves the potential use of the building,” he said. “So far as I know there’s never been an instance where there was a would-be purchaser at the time that they granted a hardship.”

The Historical Commission’s hardship criteria, which has come under recent scrutiny in cases involving the Church of the Assumption and the mansion at 400 S. 40th Street, is vague, and, in fact, open to legal interpretation. It reads:

To substantiate a claim of financial hardship to justify an alteration, the applicant must demonstrate that the property cannot be used for any purpose for which it is or may be reasonably adapted. The applicant has an affirmative obligation in good faith to explore potential reuses for it.

To substantiate a claim of financial hardship to justify a demolition, the applicant must demonstrate that the sale of the property is impracticable, that commercial rental cannot provide a reasonable rate of return, and that other potential uses of the property are foreclosed. The applicant has an affirmative obligation in good faith to attempt the sale of the property, to seek tenants for it, and to explore potential reuses for it.

Peter Woodall is the co-editor of Hidden City Daily. He is a graduate of the UC Berkeley School of Journalism, and a former newspaper reporter with the Biloxi Sun Herald and the Sacramento Bee. He worked as a producer for Radio Times with Marty Moss-Coane and wrote a column about neighborhood bars for PhiladelphiaWeekly.com.



6 Comments


  1. It should be readily apparent that the claim that the three previous owners were unable to redevelop the property is complete b.s. How can he speak for all three, number one, where is the proof of the claim, number two, and who can say if it is workable or not? Somebody hired real estate “experts” to work the numbers and, wow, they constructed their own spreadsheets, wow, and said at one point, the numbers worked. They didn’t say what changed that picture. Was it their paycheck?

  2. One owner died. Another went through corporate restructuring and decided to sell all properties owned nationally, not just the Boyd. Who is the third owner?

    The problem with the “market viability” argument is that it treats the market as static. It’s a snapshot of Chestnut Street and the surrounding vicinity today only. It does not account for the 1,000+ residential units that will come onto market within a 2 block radius (!) in less than 2 years through multiple large-scale developments. It does not account for the spate of retail stores that have opened or will soon open within 2 blocks – Joan Shepp, Uniqlo, Camper, American Eagle – or the many additional developments that will surely follow.

    This isn’t the west Chestnut Street of 1991. This area is booming, people are flocking in, and land rents are rising. Adaptive reuse that preserves the Boyd’s facade AND interior becomes more economically viable by the day. Hardship would be a total joke in this market.

  3. I think Matthew McClure was counting the Goldenberg Group as one owner, Clear Channel as a second and Live Nation as a third. Hal Wheeler only had an agreement of sale for the property.

    • So in other words, two owners who deliberately let the property deteriorate and never got called out on it, one of which (Goldenberg) has done the very same thing all over the city.

  4. Congratulations to all involved on further turning Philadelphia into King of Prussia, and congratulations to the entitled transplants in that “neighborhood” for removing that “blight” they’ve been whining about all this time.

    This is definitely how things should work in the fifth largest city in the country and the most historically important.

  5. Too often facadectomies are death to great architecture and classical design. More to come. Alas.

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