Boyd Ruling: “Clear Appearance of Bias”

March 28, 2014 | by Katherine Dowdell


Boyd Theater auditorium | Image: Motion Picture News, 1928, courtesy Philadelphia Architects and Buildings

Boyd Theater auditorium | Image: Motion Picture News, 1928, courtesy Philadelphia Architects and Buildings

Editor’s Note: In response to the decision of the Historical Commission March 14 to grant the owners of the Boyd Theater a hardship exemption, clearing them, in effect, to demolish the Art Deco building’s monumental auditorium, the architect Katherine Dowdell, a long time preservation advocate, sent a critical letter to Sam Sherman, the Commission’s chair. Dowdell was appalled by the demeanor of the Commission, its failure at even basic procedure, and its continuous reliance on irrelevant information–much of it promulgated by groups in favor of demolition–in coming to its decision. That decision has left so many Philadelphians dumbfounded and feeling deeply distrustful of the very agencies charged with protecting the city’s cultural heritage. We asked Katherine to revise her letter for our “Soapbox” format, which you can read below. You can also click to her original letter, HERE.

The Historical Commission meeting and the two hardship committee meetings held to discuss the future of the Boyd Theater raised a number of questions. While this author strongly opposed the decision made, there are many concerns about the content and procedures of these meetings that should worry both sides of the issue.

1. The offer to purchase the Boyd, while arriving late in the game, significantly altered the applicant’s claim of financial hardship. Many people familiar with preservation ordinances and practices agree that a legitimate offer of purchase must be carefully considered. If the Commission had questions as to the legitimacy of the Friends of the Boyd offer, a continuance, as suggested by one commissioner, would have been a reasonable and prudent move. The Commission’s decision to dismiss this offer with so little discussion and with obvious skepticism does not seem based in fact, but rather in emotion and expediency.

2. It is understandable that the deteriorated and unattractive condition of the façade is a source of great distress to the neighbors. However, this is the responsibility of the building owners, Live Nation. It is not the responsibility of the neighbors, not the friends group, not the city. Why Live Nation is not being held responsible for the deplorable condition of the building is a mystery, but it is also an unrelated issue, though the Commission allowed it to be considered as an element in favor of the hardship application. The many complaints about the lack of upkeep were in fact irrelevant to either the building’s significance or the hardship claim, and should not have been allowed to continue.

3. The comments from various commissioners, at both the hardship meetings and at the full commission meeting, lamenting the lack of an interior nomination are likewise irrelevant. As was stated many times, each project is evaluated on its own merits. iPic reportedly started out hoping to use the entire Boyd Theater, but soon determined that their theater model would not fit within the existing building envelope. At that point, they decided to proceed with an economic hardship application, which would allow them to demolish the auditorium portion of the building. This was a deliberate decision. The financial data in the hardship application demonstrates that, for the iPic configuration, the auditorium could not be retained. It’s unclear how designation of the interior would have changed any of these facts. It is also important to remind commissioners that designation of the Boyd interior is within the purview of the Historical Commission. The Commission staff has written many significant nominations, and could certainly have done a wonderful job with a nomination of the Boyd’s interior.

4. At the continuation of the hardship committee hearing, one of the commissioners wondered if we are holding the Boyd to a higher standard than other projects, by the assumption and statements on the part of the applicants that no government dollars would be needed or made available to help balance the numbers. In a city where for-profit developers and companies regularly get public assistance and tax abatements for millions of dollars, this is a fair question.

5. Speakers both in favor of, and opposed to, a particular issue should be given equal time and treatment. If one side has a longer case, then it seems reasonable that they should have more time; however, all speakers should be required to stay on topic, regardless of which side they are on. The presence of rats or vagrants at a site, the odors emanating as a result, applause after a particular speaker, the winning of a Tony award, the knowledge of how to produce a Broadway play, and so on are all completely irrelevant to the significance of a building and an economic hardship claim. Additionally, special treatment of speakers during the public comment portion of the meeting gives the appearance of favoritism, even if that is not the intent. If someone with a “busy schedule” appears and is bumped to the front of the line, as happened at the first hardship committee hearing, it appears (and is) unfair.

6. These are public meetings. Minor annoyances such as reminding speakers to use the microphone (and having a microphone that can be easily used or repositioned by speakers), having enough seating, and so forth should be corrected to make the public feel welcome.

There are very strong feelings on both sides of this issue; it’s a very difficult one. Both sides are clearly biased. The people who cannot be biased are the Commission members. Sadly, at all three meetings, there was a clear appearance of bias in favor of the applicants. It is the responsibility of the entire Commission, but particularly of the chair, to make sure that commission meetings are fair and relevant to the issues at hand. For the sake of the Commission’s future integrity, the conduct of the Boyd meetings should be examined so that improvements can be made to ensure better public understanding and participation in this important, but currently flawed, process.


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About the Author

Katherine Dowdell Katherine Dowdell is a principal at Farragut Street Architects, an architecture firm specializing in preservation and renovation work, and an adjunct professor at Drexel University. She is a long-time member of the AIA Philadelphia Chapter Historic Preservation Committee, and a former board chair of the Preservation Alliance for Greater Philadelphia.


  1. James says:

    Kathleen Dowdell’s statement that the Historical Commission showed a clear appearance of bias is not only insulting to the members of such but also goes a long way toward undermining preservation efforts of other historical buildings. To say such venom because she did not get her way with the Boyd decision will only serve to undermine her credibility as an advocate.

    She sees nothing wrong with infringing upon someone’s right to develop their property. Instead of taking a look at the facts presented in order to get “permission” to demolish the ornate theater space in order to construct eight smaller theaters behind the preserved facade and taking into consideration losses suffered by other existing theatres on South Broad Street, she has chosen to blame the Historical Commission for allowing the demolition of the theatre space. She made every effort to implode the new owners’ plans for the Boyd in the hope that someone somewhere will magically appear out of nowhere to buy the Boyd and restore it to its grandeur.

    Much time has been expended in discussing this issue. No one was blocked from commenting on the merits of the demolition proposal. Much careful thought was put in this effort and the decision is to allow the demolition of the Boyd theatre space but preserve the facade for future development of a 8 screen complex behind the facade. Wokuld she and others rather see the entire Boyd theatre demolished for a new condo tower?

    1. nobody says:

      When was the last time the Historical Commission actually saved anything? You attack her credibility while you ignore reality.

      Name a single existing movie theatre on South Broad. Oh right, there aren’t any. That doesn’t matter though because it won’t stop people from spreading that misinformation.

      Actually yes, I would have loved to see the non-theatre demolished for a condo rather than a suburban squatbox. Better nothing there than such a pathetic excuse for a “restored” facade when the facade was never the historically or aesthetically significant part of the theatre.

  2. George Lippard says:

    First of all, her name is Katherine, not Kathleen. Secondly, she is to be applauded for her clear, dispassionate language and LACK of venom. Thirdly, this decision is only the latest and most outrageous installment in an unbroken string of “hardship” rulings in which that clause of the PHC’s ordinance has been stretched beyond recognition to allow demolition. The PHC is now entirely under the thumb of local business interests whose will is exercised via Alan Greenberger, the Deputy Mayor of Economic Development, under whose jurisdiction the PHC falls.

    1. nobody says:

      Alan Greenberger and the PHC are just doing what the entitled suburban transplants want them to. The developers are acting in their own interest, no matter how disgraceful those actions are, as are other corporate and business interests. It’s what they’re supposed to do. The problem is that there is no impartial body to make unbiased, emotionless decisions anymore, as you pointed out. There’s no question at this point that the PHC is just a body that rubber-stamps whatever a developer wants to do.

      I do find it amusing though that whenever it’s something they don’t care about, it’s all about the “rights” of this or that businessman, yet as soon as it’s something that affects them, it becomes about their “rights” and how “evil” a corporation is and “corporate greed”.

      The only reason anybody blames a guy like Alan Greenberger is because the people who are supposed to push back against inferior development in the name of preservation aren’t doing their jobs and Nobody who doesn’t want to be controlled by a fellow holder of political office is controlled. Everybody is doing what they are supposed to be doing except the people who are supposed to push back.

  3. Davis says:

    The members of the commission have, in my view, made such a grievous error in judgment, they ought to resign. I feel Ms Dowdell has been exceptionally easy on them. The private property issue seems to suggest we live in a winner take all society when this is called the “Commonwealth” of Pennsylvania. To me, that means the public good ought to be taken into account. It’s not all about the almighty dollar – or shouldn’t be.

  4. Jay Schwartz says:

    The fact that “James” puts the word “permission” in quotation marks reveals his own bias – he evidently does not believe in having a conservation law at all. However, we do have one, regardless of the law’s stewards in the Historical Commission current practice of paying lip-service to it rather than in enforcing the law. Thus, it was not Live Nation or Neil Rodin’s “right” to develop this property in a destructive way, since the property was certified historic long before either party took control of it.

    Would one rather see the entire Boyd theatre demolished for a new condo tower? In my opinion, that will likely happen within a decade, but I don’t see saving the Boyd’s modest façade as being much better in the meantime.

    And if the above commenter is going to lecture those who do speak their mind about “credibility,” he might want to consider signing his remarks with his full, real name.

  5. Everett Engbers says:

    Somebody on the Commission is getting paid to the detriment of the public interest to act in such a way as to benefit iPic. The only real answer to reuse of this important structure is for it’s restoration and use for legit theater and concert purposes. Dine-in movie operations are a fad that will ultimately fail as the general decline of theatrical film presentation is inevitable. It’s a irreparable loss to the city. If cities like St. Louis, Chicago and Los Angeles can do it, why not Philadelphia?

    1. S. Davis says:

      Exactly! This is approved by the mayor, and probably comes from higher up, such as the Democratic Party, who want to continue raising big bucks from the developers.

      1. nobody says:

        It’s laughable that you continue to try to blame the Democratic Party as if the Republicans wouldn’t do the same (and more likely more) for developers.

  6. Robert Ellwood says:

    If the Friends were really serious about having an offer from an alternate source, they should have come to the meeting with a “significant” down-payment check made out to Live Nation and a contract to enter into agreement to continue to work with Live Nation to complete a purchase deal for slightly more than iPic offered within a 6 or 9 month time period. The Friends’ purchaser would have presented at the meeting their preliminary “redevelopment plan” prepared in handout/presentation form for each of the Commission members, the press, etc., for all to consider.

    By the Friends presenting a buyer’s lawyer to convey virtual verbal plans definitely doesn’t imply more than yet another delaying tactic. There was more than enough time for the Friends to assemble some level of proposal (yes, not complete buy at least with some meat, etc.), in writing, to win the local residents, Commission, and others over that the 11th hour plan was solid, significant in that it restored the present facility, was partially funded with additional finance being worked out, and had better than a 50% chance of the proposal succeeding.

    My father used to say two things; “Action talks, BS walks.” and “The guy with a solid financial plan always wins.” Folks may think the Commission biased, etc., but big picture in my opinoin, after 12 years being closed and continued decay, the Commission acted to select a seemingly viable, financially plausible plan offered up in quite some time.

    1. nobody says:

      Slightly more? Why should it be slightly more? Just saying that shows clear bias. Keep moving those goalposts.

      The local residents? The local residents weren’t making the decision nor should they have any influence on the decision given that the Boyd is in the middle of the CBD of the 5th largest city and blocks away from the tower that broke the unofficial height limit in the city. You should have never been allowed to speak on the matter at those meetings. That isn’t a “neighborhood”.

      How about never once holding LiveNation accountable for the deplorable condition of the facade and the continued deterioration of the interior?

  7. Howard B. Haas says:

    If the above poster is a lawyer as I think he is, rather odd for him to so discount the testimony of a former chancellor of the Phila. Bar. Friends of the Boyd did provide a handout with plans & testified to the same. Live Nation had rejected with an email our purchase offer. Though developer Neal Rodin and iPic’s president & VP attended the hearings, Live Nation’s leaders did not attend (the attorney for iPic & Live Nation was present). The Historical Commission isn’t supposed to be chosing between competing plans but is charged with protecting our historic landmarks. As to the 1st comment, several Friends of the Boyd supporters had their hands up to testify when the Chair called an end to public testimony, without asking if people had different points to make. They did have different points to make, because we had coordinated that. And, he was the same Chair who chaired the Hardship Committee’s 2 meetings yet allowed all the non-relevant comments to be made again.

  8. Matt Wolfe says:

    This is unfortunate on any number of levels. If there is anything that bothers me most though it is the miserable scale of the project to replace the Boyd. They are replacing Philadelphia’s last remaining movie palace with a movie theater. A movie theater that could go on any surface parking lot or underutilized real estate in Center City. A movie theater whose concept is for people to be able to have a drink and eat mediocre food before, after and during the movie, albeit at a significantly higher ticket price. Understandably this is a concept that has worked in the suburbs, where haute cuisine may be the local Red Lobster. Have any of you had trouble finding someplace to eat before a movie at the Ritz or a place to go for a drink afterwards?

    Seriously, if they were talking about using the Boyd footprint for a 40 story office/residential tower that was going to cost millions of dollars to build and have some value added for the city, it would be harder to argue that the Boyd should be preserved. Harder, not impossible. But for this? I actually hope that they succeed because it could be good for Philadelphia, but I don’t see it. And if they don’t succeed, remember the villains in this plot the next time they come hat in hand with the next great idea to build a better Philadelphia.

  9. curt mangel says:

    The offer to purchase the Boyd was real and the members of the commission knew it.
    They all should resign. What they did will go down in the history of this great city as an urban crime of the highest order! Every one of the pack of fools should resign in disgrace!! For the first time in my years in this city I am ashamed of this city!

  10. PalestraJon says:

    While I strongly disagree with the point being made here (I think that the welfare of the City and neighborhood in terms of tax revenue and vitalization outweigh 30 years of derelict vacancy and we have 4 historic theaters already–there is no difference just because this one played movies), I also think that there is a certain degree of tautology going on here. The same people who decry the decision to allow the demolition are the same people who lobbied hard to get the Boyd historically certified. Of course they will complain about the reversal of that decision (because, that is what really is going on here), but if they are permitted to lobby for certification, certainly others are permitted to lobby to decertify. There’s something a bit disingenuous about claiming that “It was not Live Nation or Neil Rodin’s “right” to develop this property in a destructive way, since the property was certified historic long before either party took control of it,” when the people who lobbied to get it certified without anyone representing the interests of the neighborhood or city are defeated by a different lobbying group. Unless we are going to change the process to create a Certification Czar who has a final word, it’s always going to be political. And this time, the people who won the earlier battle lost. Tough to complain about the process, though, when you guys prevailed previously using the same process.

    1. nobody says:

      In what mathematical world does 12 years at most somehow become 30 years? Look at a picture of the Boyd showing “We Were Soldiers” sometime before the next time you try to make that bald-faced lie. “Welfare of the city and neighborhood”. First of all, this squatbox does absolutely nothing for the welfare of the city. Secondly, that isn’t a neighborhood. It is the CBD of the 5th largest city in the country. Stop thinking that a building blocks away from the building that broke the unofficial height limit of this city is somehow part of a neighborhood.

      We don’t have 4 historic theatres. “No difference because this one played movies”. Actually, that happens to be a huge difference.

      1. PalestraJon says:

        I’m talking about the 30 years since it was the Boyd, rather than a crappy 4 screen dilapidated crapbox where vagrants beat off into popcorn cups. And how many times in one message board will you use the term “entitled” as if the hallowed and self-appointed Protectors of the Boyd are not the embodiment of that term? “Historic” theater is a misnomer—the Walnut and Academy of Music are our only truly “historic” theaters. The Merriam and Forrest are contemporaries of the Boyd and are seriously underutilized. The only use of the Boyd without demoilition or severe alteration is as a stage theater–there is no market for 2000 seat movie theaters. So the magic “difference” you suggest is no difference at all. It does not matter that the Boyd showed pictures and the Forrest and Merriam (Shubert) showed plays. They serve the same purpose now and the distinction you make for saving the Boyd is artificial. It never should have received designation in the first place, except that “entitled” people like yourself have nothing better to do than to worship the cinema and believe anything associated with the history of movies is “historic.” The Boyd is neither historically nor architecturally special. It has a very nice Art Deco interior, but that there is no shortage of Art Deco structures. This building, whether or not you call it “blighted” or not, is a visible impediment to constructive devlopment in that neighborhood. And the fact that you don’t consider it a neighborhood where there are far more residences than offices is simply foolish.

        1. nobody says:

          In other words, not 30 years of vacancy. Glad we cleared that up.

          I’ll use it as many times as people show their entitlement. No, they in fact aren’t the embodiment of the term. Opinionated people with no knowledge but tons of entitlement are the embodiment of that term.

          The Merriam and the Forrest, again, are not contemporaries of the Boyd in any way, shape, or form. The contemporaries of the Boyd have all been demolished in Center City. The few ones outside of Center City have been neglected and willfully defaced as well.

          Prove your assertions or stop claiming them. Also, I love how none of you can ever admit the two ideas could be combined, of iPics and Howard Haas. Actually, that in fact does matter, no matter how many times you claim that it doesn’t.

          Please tell me exactly how it’s “artificial”. To me, what’s artificial is a bunch of entitled transplants from the suburbs trying to lecture urban people on things having to do with urban neighborhoods, as well as their claims of “blight” and other nonsense.

          Entitled? Haha, you’re funny. Where I come from, nobody hands us a single thing and we get harassed and hassled for doing things ourselves. It’s even funnier because that could easily be turned around onto you considering your multitude of comments on the matter. Unlike you, I’m not one to grandstand online. You feel free to keep talking though. You seem to be really good at that, projecting things onto people and talking big online. Tell me some more about how I have nothing better to do when I’ve made much less comments than you on the matter and when if I really had the free time I’d have been doing my part to help those opposing the demolition.

          Blighted? No. A “visible impediment to constructive development”? No. A neighborhood? Definitely not. It’s a major street in the CBD of the 5th largest city. Call it a neighborhood all you like but it will never be one. If it was on a side-street then you might have a case but it isn’t.

          Foolish why? Because you disagree with it? Oh yeah, that proves that it’s so foolish. Anybody can make claims and throw words around. If you don’t prove them, then who ends up looking foolish in the long run? Not me.

  11. James says:

    A 40 story condo tower on the site of the Boyd? Nice thought but it was the city that discouraged such development (would be developers were warned of ZBA rejections on political correctness grounds) and allowed advocates to push for a preserved Boyd. You cannot say you didn’t get a chance to argue your case as you got more than enough time to make a good proposal backed up with credible sources of funding. The last minute offer by an unnamed benefactor did not cut the mustard.

    Nobody wants a theatre that steals business from other struggling theatres on South Broad Street.

    1. nobody says:

      Actually, it’s been proven that they in fact did not get their chance, and it’s hilarious that you try to blame the Preservation group for stopping any condo towers from being built when it was in fact that group who came to an agreement with Hal Wheeler on a highrise hotel at the site and it is your group that advocated for building the squatbox that iPic intends to build there. “Did not cut the mustard” according to who? You? The neighbors? Funny enough, none of you actually make any decisions and none of you should’ve ever been allowed to have any influence on the decision being made.

  12. S. Davis says:

    I appreciate Ms. Dowdell’s points. I raised some of them when I spoke at the Hardship Committee hearing, as a resident of Chestnut Street. I wanted to point the finger of blight at Live Nation, but instead pointed out that it is minimal. Real blight is far worse than a closed building. She is quite right that the meeting and vote was not conducted properly. It was enough to invalidate the proceedings, in my opinion. I don’t think the conduct of the meeting, the protests and cheering, presented any problem at all, though. It is normal, and should be allowed.
    Yes, one of the real issues is the likelihood of Ipic’s possible failure, leading to complete demolition of the building, and for what? It is ironic that an empty site of a former movie theater is adjacent to the Boyd, on Walnut Street. Why not make a deal there?
    The forces against opening another venue in Center City are self-serving, it would seem, trying to prevent more competition, or choices for presenters. That is to the city’s detriment.

  13. nobody says:

    Thank you. I am so sick and tired of seeing these kids try to talk about the “blight” of the Boyd. How can anybody be that sheltered to think that is blight?

    I agree that some of them are certainly self-serving and possibly connected to the current Center City theatres but I think most of them are just entitled people who can’t stand not getting their way. It’s not even close to the first thing they act and talk this way about. Just check out sites like philadelphiaspeaks sometime.

  14. Please keep comments on the issue at hand and not on each other. Read our comment policy:


  15. We’re done printing comments that simply attack other readers personally or attempt to label or define who they are. Present your ideas, argue for something, but no one cares to read arguments between people. We’re all interested in the future of Philadelphia, even when we differ for reasons of ideology or perspective: legitimate differences. Bring facts, check what you write, and make sure what you’re saying makes sense. –ed.

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