A developer’s application to demolish most of the Boyd Theater to create a modern high-end cineplex will be reviewed by the Philadelphia Historical Commission’s Committee on Financial Hardship Tuesday morning.
Live Nation Worldwide, the owner of the historically designated movie palace at 1910 Chestnut Street, contends that restoring the auditorium and lobby are financially unviable. If given approval, theater chain iPic-Gold Class Entertainment will construct eight movie screens and an Italian restaurant behind the theater’s restored façade and headhouse. Through the arrangement with Live Nation, developer Neal Rodin would acquire the property and lease it to iPic.
The hardship application is moving forward after a third-party consultant, Paoli-based Real Estate Strategies (RES), submitted its findings to the Historical Commission.
Live Nation’s application includes a report by EConsult examining three possible reuses of the building: as a single-screen movie theater, a Broadway-style venue, and a live music/concert hall. The estimated costs for each were found to be prohibitively expensive and not likely to yield a net profit.
RES’ report largely concurs with EConsult’s findings while expanding on other potential modes of reuse, concluding that the Boyd cannot be redeveloped as a whole without “significant public subsidies,” president Margaret B. Sowell wrote.
“From a development perspective, the reuse potential of the Boyd is adversely affected by a number of factors,” she wrote, chief among them the deterioration of the building and the theater’s limited frontage on an underperforming block.
The RES report also examines turning the auditorium into a retail outlet and a combined movie theater and restaurant space, but estimates for that to be profitable, a tenant would need to sign a triple-net lease of at least $120 per square foot. In comparison, the recent lease agreement for Nordstrom Rack to use the Bonwit Teller Building at 17th and Chestnut–formerly occupied by Daffy’s–was just $50 per square foot.
Additionally, the report makes reference to an interested developer, 1910 Chestnut LP, who pursued redevelopment of the Boyd in 2011 claiming there was a feasible way to restore it, but the individual behind the project refused to identify himself or disclose specifics to RES, Sowell wrote.
The independent review of hardship cases stems from a settlement the Preservation Alliance for Greater Philadelphia made with the PHC in 2011. The settlement allowed for the demolition of the mid-century Sidney Hillman Medical Center–two blocks from the Boyd–for a high-rise apartment building.
After the Committee on Financial Hardship votes on a recommendation on whether to allow demolition, the full Historical Commission will vote on final approval of the project. The next scheduled meeting is Valentine’s Day, Friday, February 14.
The PHC’s Architectural Committee will also meet tomorrow to review the proposed design for the new development, independent of the hardship case. Local architectural firm SPG3 is overseeing the design.
Caroline Boyce, the Preservation Alliance’s executive director, said she would address what she called “holes” in the hardship case.
“Our point of view is that the hardship application needs to reach the threshold of beyond a reasonable doubt,” she said. “We are continuing the process of reviewing the application and the consultant’s report as we believe it has some weaknesses, and we’ll be addressing those at the meeting.”
While Boyce declined to discuss specifics, Howard Haas, president of Friends of the Boyd, was more forthcoming in what he called an “insufficient” case for passing the hardship test.
One contention Haas cited was Live Nation’s RFP in 2008, which excluded live music concerts at the venue for seven years. “By making that a condition of sale, it precluded one of its possible uses,” he said, limiting potential interest, while noting that many classic movie palaces have been reborn precisely in this manner.
Developer Hal Wheeler was the only party to submit a bid to that RFP, and was attempting to secure public funds for his project before dying suddenly of heart failure in January 2010. Wheeler proposed erecting a hotel next to the theater and turning the theater itself into an entertainment and conference venue–though the project would have entailed the demolition of the theater’s stagehouse, which was deemed not significant by the Historical Commission. Live Nation did enter into a seven-year agreement for up to 60 live entertainment shows per year, according to the application, but the project terminated upon Wheeler’s death.
Haas also took issue with Live Nation’s claim, stated in the hardship application, that the company explored restoring the theater after Wheeler’s passing but “could not justify the rehabilitation costs in light of the revenues.” Haas called this claim unsubstantiated as it did not include any further details. (RES also acknowledges a lack of analysis on this particular claim in its report.)
While the owners have been responsive to some maintenance issues like snow removal and securing locks, he said, they had not been open enough with Friends of the Boyd in pursuing a sincere redevelopment plan for it, including a potential private-public partnership to make use of fundraising and subsidies.
Haas acknowledged meeting with the anonymous developer cited in RES’ report, referring to him as a “very interested party,” but said a confidentiality agreement prevented him from further discussing the matter.
The argument from iPic, meanwhile, is that all viable alternatives for reuse have been explored and that the current proposal represents the last and best chance to revitalize the Boyd and increase activity on a blighted Center City block. Supporters are counting among their ranks the Rittenhouse Row Business Association and Greater Philadelphia Film Office director Sharon Pinkenson, as well as near neighbors who don’t want the block to remain blighted and desire a modern movie screen.
In response to these concerns, Haas said, “We agree with them: we don’t want the Boyd sitting vacant any more than they do, but we believe it needs to come back to life sooner rather than later.” He added that they welcomed a mainstream theater, but not at the Boyd’s location.
Although iPic has not disclosed its budget for the new development, CEO Hamid Hashemi told Hidden City in November, “We are a commercial business, so we need to operate on a model that gives us a return on our expenses.”
Hashemi added that his company’s proposal was the only feasible option for private development that did not result in the Boyd’s complete demolition.
“It’s been vacant for 12 years, lots of people have looked at it,” he said. “We weren’t the first to look, but hopefully we’re the last. If we walk away from this, what’s going to happen? Someone else will come along and tear the whole thing down. What we’re doing is restoring the spirit of the original theater.”
The Committee on Financial Hardship will meet at 9 a.m. Tuesday, January 28 at 1515 Arch Street, Room 18-029. Later, the Architectural Committee will meet in Room 578 of City Hall. The architectural meeting begins at 1PM, with the Boyd on the agenda for discussion at 3:45PM.