Last month the Philadelphia Historical Commission sent Pearl Properties back to the drawing board for its mixed use complex at 19th and Chestnut. Pearl must have misunderstood the reason their original design wasn't approved, because their redesign - if you can call it that - appears to be the same building with its bland-filter turned up.
What was proposed last month wasn't great, especially compared to the Art Deco rendering of an apartment tower we were led to believe would be flanking this prominent corner. Instead, its tower was pushed back to Sansom Street while a dull retail component sidled up to the Boyd Theater's head-house. Interestingly, in both renderings, Pearl ignores what is its most interesting component: the corpse of the Boyd Theater.
Almost as if Pearl doesn't want anyone to ask what will happen of the theater's grand lobby, it pixelates into the background with something that looks like a store called Vivace. Perhaps hoping to grab some street-cred with a Versace implication, it really just implies that the Boyd's lobby will not serve as the lobby to its residential component, or as a lobby at all. Instead, we might assume, the lobby will be chopped up into another small-box retailer like the drugstore across the street or so many other once-theater-lobbies in Philadelphia.
And what about the new elements? If this were a design competition and Pearl given a second chance, we'd see a wildly different and more dynamic design. It's easy, although shortsighted, to assume that the Historical Commission rejected Pearl's initial design because the complex is replacing something astounding, an astounding demolition that the Commission did approve. In its place, at best, should be a concession, something that at least tries to replace what was lost.
But this isn't a competition, it's bureaucracy and Pearl is dancing with the city. What seems to have happened leading up to the Boyd's demolition appears to be continuing right under the idealistic noses of the city's preservationists. As the Boyd traded hands, or appeared to trade hands, owners and speculators seemed to be laying down groundwork that would insure that the ultimate outcome would be extraordinarily profitable at the expense of preservation, or the architectural best interest of the site.
Live Nation got a hardship exemption to demolish the Boyd's auditorium, then Neil Rodin all-but promised it would be replaced with an even more lavish cinema experience. Meanwhile, Pearl pitched a glorious high-rise for the corner of 19th and Chestnut. The triad had satisfied everyone, albeit with much public reluctance. But right before the Boyd's roof was ripped off, Rodin backed out, Pearl quietly exited the movie theater business, and the chaos exposed itself as a perfectly orchestrated project plan.
A plan that has left us with no hope that Pearl's mixed use plan for 19th and Chestnut will ever be anything more than the lowest common denominator. Despite its unimpressive facades and configurations, the layout makes absolute, commercial sense. The low rise retail component will face 19th and Chestnut, its most heavily trafficked intersection, while its mid rise apartment tower will sit on Sansom, likely above a parking podium, where nothing notable will be seen from the street.
It's ugly, but this isn't a building designed to impress or win awards. It was always a heavily commercial endeavor. We'll never know for sure if this was Pearl's plan all along, but it's clear that preservationists and the more clueless Historical Commission were duped by Live Nation, Neil Rodin, and Pearl Properties. The only piece that seems to be still up for debate, the piece we should be primarily focused on, is ironically the only piece left that matters: the Boyd Theater's grand lobby.