If the lack of the Royal Theater’s redevelopment in the 13 years that Kenny Gamble’s Universal Companies has owned it seems perplexing, imagine how strange South Broad Street will seem if the very building where he and Leon Huff made their musical magic (and their millions) with Philadelphia International Records is demolished. Because sources tell Hidden City that will happen under a Dranoff Properties plan to develop a mixed-use, hotel-condo tower on the Southeast corner of Broad and Spruce Streets called Avenue Place. (Natalie Kostelni reported Dranoff’s preliminary plans for a mixed-use tower in the Philadelphia Business Journal last month.)
Multiple sources indicate the 40-story design comes from Kohn Pedersen Fox and that au courant hotel brand SLS will anchor the tower. Symphony House II this is not. Two vacant buildings owned by Gamble-affiliated parties would presumably need to be demolished to make way for the project.
301-309 South Broad Street, home of the offices and studio of Philadelphia International Records, has been closed since a fire destroyed most of its interior in February 2010. Officially 1344-52 Spruce Street to the City, it’s owned by the Great Philadelphia Trading Company, the real estate division of Philadelphia International Records. Great Philadelphia Trading purchased the building in 1991, but PIR has kept offices and studios there since 1971. Little historical information exists for the three-story, neoclassical building of brick and limestone trim, but it was likely built in the 1920s. At one time, it featured a wraparound sign on its cornice, and has for years carried a large billboard on its roof. More recently, Utrecht Art Supplies occupied the ground floor space until Dick Blick bought out Utrecht and closed its two Center City stores.
311 South Broad Street, which Gamble’s Assorted Music Partnership purchased in 1997, opened in 1910 as Superior Laboratories, and was later a popular nightclub called Piccadilly Dine & Dance. According to the Athenaeum’s Philadelphia Architects and Buildings, the three-story, brick, granite, and terra cotta design came from an A. Levy. The building’s southern wall provided the backdrop to the PHS Pop Up Garden this past summer.
The two properties are separated by tiny Cypress Street, which goes through from Broad Street to Juniper and on to 13th, and would possibly need to be struck from the grid to accommodate such a large development. In order for that to happen, City Council would need to write a bill authorizing that change, which the Streets Department and Planning Commission would need to review and approve first.
It’s not the first major proposal for this block of South Broad Street; in 1995, University of the Arts proposed a 17-story tower on the Pop Up Garden’s empty lot (profiled as such by GroJLart for Philaphilia), but the plan fell through largely from the opposition of near-neighbors backed by the Washington Square West Civic Association. WSWCA declined to comment on the Dranoff proposal.
Nor is this the first time action has been planned on these parcels. Despite their age and location on South Broad Street, neither 301-309 nor 311 holds historic designation. Both indeed fall within the Broad Street Historic District, on the US National Register of Historic Places since 1984, but that’s an honorific distinction and contains no measures to prevent demolition. The Philadelphia Historical Commission does, however, keep files on many buildings even when they’re not designated. The one for these two properties contains a letter to the Commission in 1982 asking, “If we request either one or both of these properties be certified ‘historical’, and our request was granted, what restrictions would be imposed if any, that would prevent us from demolishing either or both locations and erecting a: 1) skyscraper, 2) parking facility, 3) hotel or 4) other complex.” The letter was penned on The Mighty Three Music Group letterhead by former business affairs manager Earl Shelton on behalf of Gamble, Huff, and Thom Bell.
An SLS would be Dranoff Properties’ first official foray into hotels, although they partnered with New Orleans’ HRI Properties to propose a new, 267-room Starwood Hotel at 18th & Vine when the Family Court relocates to the building under construction across from Love Park. Headed by reigning Hotelier of the Year Sam Nazarian, Los Angeles-based SLS Hotels burst onto the luxury hotel scene, opening locations in Beverly Hills in 2008 and South Beach Miami last year, and locations in New York and Las Vegas will open next year. In a July 2013 press release announcing SLS’ expansion into China, parent company sbe included mention of opening one in Philadelphia “within three years,” archived at the Wall Street Journal HERE.
Kohn Pedersen Fox, one of the world’s preeminent architecture firms, is no stranger to Philadelphia, either. A rundown of KPF’s contributions to the local landscape include Mellon Bank Center, One and Two Logan Square (and the adjacent Four Seasons Hotel), 6 and 8 Penn Center, the US Airways International Terminal, Wharton’s Huntsman Hall, the erstwhile American Commerce Center, and several others. Philadelphia native Gene Kohn, KPF’s chairman, is himself a Wharton graduate, and in 2010 he won the Alumni Award of Merit by the University of Pennsylvania. KPF’s broader accolades include the tallest (or once-tallest) buildings in Hong Kong, Shanghai, and Seoul, among others.
A 40-story tower would be the tallest building on South Broad Street by far. (Symphony House, for example, is 31 stories.) It would also nestle very closely with Center City One, the 30-story brutalist tower next door on Spruce Street, built in 1974.
Hiring KPF for Avenue Place represents a higher design shift for Dranoff, whose neighboring properties on the Avenue of the Arts include Symphony House and 777 South Broad, as well as Southstar Lofts, currently under construction at Broad & South. And it’s an interesting evolution of the unusual partnership that Dranoff and Gamble have developed, including those projects and the Royal Theater, for which Dranoff serves as an advisor.
Carl Dranoff declined to comment on the project or confirm any of the players involved, but did say, “we’re evaluating the feasibility of a major project on that site. We’ll announce it when the time is right.”