Ryan Briggs Ryan Briggs is a staff writer and connoisseur of City Hall intrigue, business dealings, neighborhood gossip and local lore. Ryan has studied, worked and resided in Philadelphia since 2004, covering politics and development issues for Hidden City, Next City and Metropolis, amongst other fine publications.
The troubled management (or lack thereof) of Universal Companies' real-estate portfolio was back in the headlines this week: The Daily News covered the possibility of partial demolition for the historic Royal Theater on South Street, most likely as a result of neglect on the part of the nonprofit affordable housing developer.
But the Royal is just one piece of a real-estate empire controlled by Universal and its founders, Kenny and Faatimeh Gamble, that includes a number of high-profile, blighted properties — most notably, the site of the Gamble's future home.
In 2011, the Gambles demolished a string of fairly well-kept rowhomes on the 800 block of South 15th Street owned by the Gambles and Universal partner Rahim Islam, reportedly as site preperation for the construction of a 4,000-square-foot home. Nearly two years later, the site remains a gaping hole, complete with a sign that unironically reads, "Another Development by Universal Companies." Although construction was nominally halted because of problems with a contractor, rumors have surfaced that the Gambles are short on cash for what would be — to say the least — a generously proportioned abode.
Additionally, Kenny Gamble, and his wife's company, Salaam Enterprises, own 10 other vacant properties in the surrounding area, scattered around the eastern end of the Graduate Hospital neighborhood. Some of these properties encompass thousands of square feet and sit on highly trafficked blocks, such as 1438-40 South St. and 1442-44 South St. Although the properties are fenced off, many have sat empty for over a decade, while the surrounding properties have developed at a staggering pace.
Gamble's for-profit ventures also appear to have suffered. In 2010, the 309 S. Broad St. headquarters of Gamble and Huff Records, a recording studio, was the victim of arson following a break-in by a drunken South Philadelphia man. At the time, Gamble vowed to rebuild, saying, "What’s most important is that we will build it again and continue to rebuild. Nothing is going to stop us.”
But three years later, the building, at the corner of one of the city's busiest and most visible intersections, remains boarded up, despite an outstanding violation of the city's "Doors and Windows" ordinance. That building was sold to Gamble's company in 1997 for roughly half its assessed market value at the time by the Philadelphia Authority for Industrial Development.
It's possible that in all three instances, money troubles have stalled ambitious plans for development. But none of the mentioned properties is listed for sale. Gamble often receives credit for helping revive his once-beleaguered home neighborhood. The question is whether, now, he might be holding it back.
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