Emily Guendelsberger Emily is senior staff writer at Philadelphia City Paper. She enjoys writing about feminism, opera, television, arts ecosystems, music theory, people with weird jobs and pretty much everything involving money. You can also find her writing at the A.V. Club, the Guardian and other fine publications.
This morning, a couple dozen Friends of the Boyd left picket-style signs leaning on chairs outside the conference room in which representative of the owners of the dormant Boyd Theater at 19th and Chestnut made a lengthy and thorough pitch to the Philadelphia Historical Commission (PHC) that they be allowed to gut the historic single-screen theater to turn it into an eight-screen fancy-pants multiplex. Though the signs were left outside, many in the packed, standing-room-only meeting wore Save The Boyd shirts, a visible sign of how many people are so passionate about the theater that they're willing to show up and silently sit through a very long meeting (we had to leave around the three-hour mark) on a Tuesday morning.
But the presentation by representatives of iPic Theaters didn't seem to bode well for those who want to preserve the building's Art Deco interior as well as its exterior. (Some of the facade would be preserved in iPic's plans, but the insides, also historical, would be completely torn out and replaced with eight theaters.)
The owners' representatives were there to argue in support of their financial hardship application to PHC. To succeed, a business essentially needed to persuade the commission that the historic property is such a white elephant that there's no reasonable possibility of any business being able to make a profit in the space as it is, and that there's nobody else out there with the money and desire to preserve it. They need to argue, essentially, not that their plan is wonderful, but that the only options for the historic space are either demolition or eternal disuse and blight. The PHC only grants demolition exceptions on this basis for one or two of the more than 10,000 Philadelphia buildings designated as historic per year, so that this hearing happened at all is something of a rarity. (Their application materials are available online if you want to see their specific arguments, which we're about to summarize.)
The hearing, from the back.
Peter Angelides of EConsult Solutions (also a professor of city planning at Penn) gave the main part of this argument, with calculations of the potential profitability of the different uses that have been proposed for the space, formerly a single-screen movie theater that seated 2300-2400. (For comparison, the Kimmel Center's big hall seats about 2500.) Obviously, people don't go to see movies that way anymore, so that's not on the table. There were a couple hypothetical possibilities that would keep the inside space as a one-room venue — a space like the Merriam or Forrest theaters that would present touring productions of Broadway juggernauts like Jersey Boys and The Lion King, or a large, Live Nation-booked concert venue along the lines of the Tower or Keswick theaters. Other ideas involve turning it into shopping or restaurant space —nobody seems to be really into those, but we got the numbers on them, anyway.
Angelides' financial analyses of each of these situations didn't seem to leave a lot of hope for the Friends of the Boyd — though, as we mentioned, we had to leave at hour three of the hearing. The models were based on the most optimistic possible assumptions — all loans would be good, all grants would be gotten, construction costs kept on budget, no further deterioration of the Boyd in the last decade, eventual ticket sales better than at comparable venues around the city, Philly's demand for Broadway musicals unaffected by a doubling of the supply.
But even in that best of all possible worlds, Angelides said, none of the plans were anywhere near profitable enough for it to be worth an investment of $35-$45 million in a space currently worth $4.5 million. That's what Angelides estimated it would cost, on top of the public subsidies of $10-$15 million that the owners could expect to get in the best of all possible worlds, to fix up the Boyd and replace all its systems — the electrical lines, heating, cooling, ventilation and plumbing are all shot.
There were a few questions from the commission after Angelides' presentation, but not many. One question from committee chair Sam Sherman Jr. seemed to be more for the benefit of the many Friends of the Boyd in the room about the public subsidies that would be necessary for the Boyd to operate as a refurbished single-screen theater — Angelides replied that the entire construction cost would need to come from someplace else for the Boyd not to be immediately swamped by debt. "So, to be clear," Sherman said, "the entire construction budget would need to drop from the sky; there would need to be no debt." Angelides said that that was the case as he saw it.
Frankly, none of the ideas from either side sounded very intriguing to this reporter — Philadelphia does not seem to be in need of another Broadway-tour venue for Jersey Boys or Phantom of the Opera to run for three months at a time, nor another very large Live Nation venue. The owners' plans also sound kind of lame — we actually just googled "super fancy movie theater new york" to try to find a similarly priced theater on the east coast, and iPic was the first result despite their not having any theaters in New York. (Indeed, iPic is the first result for just plain "super fancy movie theater," too.)
So what might this iPic theater look like, if it goes through?
Well, for non-members, low-end tickets are $19, reclining seats $29. The Italian bistro on the ground floor that the owners' plans refer to would likely be a Tanzy, a chain at other iPic theaters; the menu for the one in Scottsdale, Az., suggests that one might reasonably expect the cheapest pasta to be an $18 spaghetti and the cheapest entree to be a $26 chicken breast. Also, this is the photograph of who iPic pictures this being for:
Maybe attractive ladies (are those Kardashians?) who want to drink a Cosmo, watch a movie and wear a blanket and are willing to pay out the nose to do so are an underserved market. However, this reporter is unable to get particularly excited about demolishing even a parking lot to increase the proliferation of the word "luxe" in Philly — much less ripping out the Art Deco insides of a theater with a ton of history behind it. However, this seems like a fight that the Friends of the Boyd are unlikely to win.
The committee will make their decision on Valentine's Day.
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