At the time, Planning Commissioner Brian Abernathy asked why Mosaic was seeking the variance from City Council and not through the Zoning Board of Adjustment, as is standard practice. Mosaic’s attorney said the project’s funders would be more comfortable with legislation from City Council.
But most importantly, the structure of 1314-16 North Broad would be preserved in the plan. The arena would be refurbished and repurposed and the plans kept the existing structure intact. Scott Orens, of Orens Brothers, a seasoned development company that is partnering with Mosaic on the project, even told the press that they were considering hosting boxing matches in the hotel’s updated events hall. “This will be a historic building that will be preserved and redeployed to some new use,” Orens told the Inquirer in August 2011 when the project was initially announced. “It would not have happened without [the grant].”
Michael seemed happy with the plans. “We wanted to have it as a place for entertainment, restaurants, a museum for boxing, and of course, a hotel,” she told the Inquirer at the time. “Mosaic was the one group that wanted to work with my vision.”
But Mosaic and Orens Brothers told Hidden City, in a joint statement, that the initial plans they submitted for the state grant application in 2010 did not include preservation of the boxing arena. They had only explored the possibility of preserving and repurposing the arena after the grant was awarded, during the initial press reports about their plans.
“We spent a significant amount of time investigating the feasibility of maintaining the auditorium, in some form, for future use,” the statement read. “We examined the space for programs such as boxing, music, mixed martial arts, weddings, a fitness center, sports-themed restaurants, movie theatres, event space and conferencing.”
By last summer, despite the agreement with Mosaic, Michael’s back taxes had risen to over $89,000 (they have since been paid though the present year’s tax bill has not). And Mosaic’s plans for the Blue Horizon changed after they found out how much it would cost to repurpose the existing structure. Now, Reaves and Smallwood-Lewis announced plans to preserve only the façade of 1314-16 North Broad, replacing the guts of the building with a parking garage and moving all of the hotel rooms to the planned seven-story structure next door.
By December 2013, Hotel Indigo signed on as an investor to provide their brand for the planned hotel and restaurant.
The same month, Mosaic and Orens presented another revision of their plans to the Pennsylvania Historical and Museum Commission, which had granted the building a state historic marker and thus has some nominal say over the building’s development. In a letter to the Commission, Leslie Smallwood-Lewis wrote that the new plans involved demolishing the boxing auditorium and replacing it with hotel rooms, on-site parking and hotel service areas. The mansions fronting North Broad would be repurposed as the hotel’s lobby, restaurant and eight executive suites. Smallwood-Lewis wrote that the new plans had attracted Hotel Indigo, along with their $750,000 equity investment, as well as increasing interest from other funding sources and reducing the cost from $35 million to $23 million.
“Although with this plan we must forgo historic tax credits,” Smallwood-Lewis wrote, “we save $12M in project costs.” Utilization of historic tax credits as a financing tool would have required the building to be listed on the federal or state historic registers. But the Blue Horizon isn’t listed by federal, state, or Philadelphia regulators as historic. And only the Philadelphia Register of Historic Places confers legal protection against demolition.
Whether or not the conversion of the mansions into the lobby, restaurant and executive suites amounts to preservation, as Smallwood-Lewis argued in her letter, is debatable. The state Historical Commission did not agree with the developer. “While the brownstone facades will be retained,” wrote Douglas C. McLearan in the state commission’s response to Smallwood-Lewis’s letter, “the façades alone will not be able to tell the story of what went on inside the building. The loss of the rear addition will result in an Adverse Effect on The Legendary Blue Horizon. Therefore, it is necessary to seek measures to avoid, minimize or mitigate the adverse effect of the project.”
Five months after the Commission’s response, they still have not finalized their mitigation recommendations, and according to an email from Howard M. Pollman, the Commission’s spokesman, there is no timeline for when those recommendations will be forthcoming. But whatever the Commission recommends, Mosaic’s admission that their new plans would forgo historic tax credits indicates that they might not be open to a plan that doesn’t include demolition of the arena. The Commission’s comments aren’t binding. Mosaic and Orens, in their statement to Hidden City, said they and the Commission “have reached agreement on how to mitigate the loss of part of the Blue Horizon.”
This does not square with the Commission’s statement.
Smallwood-Lewis’s letter included a list of seven public supporters of the project, including the City Planning Commission, City Council President Daryl Clarke, the City Commerce Department, and Temple University. But the officials who signed onto the project did so with the understanding that the boxing arena would be preserved.
This didn’t stop Mosaic from citing the support letters in their response to the State Historical Commission.
Ben Leech, the advocacy director of the Preservation Alliance for Greater Philadelphia, says he is hopeful that the officials who supported the original concept will now reconsider.
Jane Roh, spokesperson for Council President Clarke, wrote to Hidden City in an e-mail, “Clarke obviously supports redevelopment of this site but in a thoughtful way that is done with community input. He’d rather this get done right than done fast.” Clarke’s office would not comment further on the project.
Along with many people interviewed for this article, Leech says he can’t see a hotel working at the Blue Horizon, and as a preservationist he thinks it’s the wrong project at the wrong site. “From our perspective, the demolition of the auditorium is untenable. It’s basically a waste–throwing away a historic resource for an unsustainable business,” Leech says.
He holds out hope that the grant won’t be wasted on Mosaic’s current plan. “Hypothetically, the city could push the state to repurpose the money [from the grant].” In fact, if Mosaic isn’t able to come up with the financing for the project, the City’s Commerce Department has the authority to move the state RACP funding to a different, worthy project. Officials would need only to request the change, which the State’s Budget Office would approve. Typically, these requests are granted, however, some uncertainty will surround RACP funds if a new governor takes office in 2015.
Adding more pressure to the situation, now preservation groups at the state level have begun to get involved. In January of this year, Preservation Pennsylvania added the Blue Horizon to its list of endangered historical structures. Locally, preservationists agree the building, and particularly its interior, would be a strong candidate for being protected by the City’s Historic Commission on the Philadelphia Register of Historic Places.
But Mosaic and Orens insist that preservation is not feasible. In their joint statement, they said, “Unfortunately, in the end, preserving the auditorium would add millions in costs to bring the building up to code and result in a net loss of income from rental revenues. Frankly, the space is too small and there is no parking available for the size these events have to be to be profitable. To go in this direction would cost much more money and have the net effect of significantly jeopardizing the sustainability of this building.”
Does North Broad Need a Hotel?
The question remains, regardless of the historical significance of the Blue Horizon, does it make sense to build a boutique hotel on North Broad Street just south of Cecil B. Moore Avenue? A spokesperson for the hotel brand insists that the location will attract guests looking for arts, shopping, entertainment and dining outside of Center City, but while the corridor may be gradually revitalizing, it still lacks these amenities to draw tourists. And arguments that the hotel will take overflow from the convention center aren’t supported by the hotel industry’s own data.
Mosaic and Orens, in their joint statement, argue that the Blue Horizon, as it’s currently configured, is not financially viable. They point to other boxing venues and theaters of a similar size that have been shuttered.
“Even more appropriately sized theaters, with better locations and available parking are struggling in Philadelphia, with some even threatening to close,” they said in the statement. “This building has struggled financially for more than three decades and has fallen into significant disrepair.”
Though Mosaic and Orens did not comment directly on the details of their plans, Hotel Indigo responded to requests from Hidden City about the interior design and other aspects of the planned hotel. Caroline Huston, Hotel Indigo’s representative, says the hotel brand has been working closely with local designer Benita Cooper on plans for salvaging architectural details from the building. Huston says the wooden balcony chairs, metal details, a ticket booth and stenciled wood panels will be salvaged from the arena and used in the interior of the hotel. The hotel will also feature display nooks with other salvaged items. Huston and Cooper did not provide more specific details about the other items Hotel Indigo would use. Though a Washington Post reporter gushed about the wooden balcony chairs in 2009–“with arm rests as smooth as century-old banisters and a wire fedora holder suspended from the underside of each seat bottom”–not much else has been recorded about the salvageable material.
Cooper has acquired historical photos of North Broad Street to use in a series of custom mural wallpapers throughout the hotel, according to Huston. “The entire hotel will pay tribute to the old while offering new amenities that fit the needs of our target guest,” she says.
As far as the Blue Horizon’s location, Huston says many of Hotel Indigo’s customers seek out destinations outside of the city center.
“We are focused on opening hotels in neighborhoods that we believe have an undiscovered story to tell,” she says. “Our guests want to experience something unique and different when they travel. They want to be near the arts, boutique shopping, museums, neighborhood restaurants and the like, and those things are often found in different pockets of a city.”
That doesn’t sound like North Broad Street today, but Huston says Hotel Indigo is counting on increased revitalization of the neighborhood as well as current demand from the Temple community. Ray Betzner, a Temple University spokesperson, says the hotel at the Blue Horizon site is not on Temple’s radar, but he points to demand for affordable lodging in the Temple area at Temple’s own boutique hotel, the Conwell Inn.
“We do have visitors come in because it’s cheaper than staying right in Center City,” Betzner says. “A lot of the visitors are not affiliated with Temple.”
A recent Smith Travel Research study showed that Center City hotel occupancy rates in May and June of this year were down 4.9 and 6.9 percent from the same time last year. At times this summer, nearly one out of every four hotel rooms in Center City was empty. This is hardly compelling data for the need for more hotel rooms, especially as far out from Center City as the Blue Horizon.
Of the long delay in the redevelopment process, Huston says, “The Hotel Indigo brand, along with the franchisee, is committed to this project. It’s not uncommon for a hotel opening to experience challenges that must be overcome, particularly when you’re developing a historic building.”
Benita Cooper, who has done consulting work for high-end residential developments, private renovations and restaurant interiors in the city, declined to provide details about her work on the interior design, referring Hidden City to Hotel Indigo.
Hotel Indigo has yet to identify the franchisee of the Blue Horizon hotel.
Mosaic and Orens, in their joint statement, said their plan, celebrating the history of the buildings through interior design will better serve the community and the site’s heritage. “We will honor the legacy of the Blue Horizon and North Philadelphia throughout the building in a way that tells a better story about its past and its heroes rather than merely preserving a quaint but nonfunctional auditorium that is well past its prime,” they said.