If you thought the Boyd Theater, or at least its remains, was about to fade into dull obscurity, guess again. This is, after all, Philadelphia. Locals fight tooth and nail over vacant lots atop unused piers, scream "shadows!" at prominent intersections prepping for high-rises. Few projects pass the first round, even the second or third, without facing a litany of lawyers, design reviews, and community concerns. And that's just in the nether regions.
Rittenhouse Square, on the other hand, well you better hope for an Act of Congress - or God - if you want to break ground. For years, Live Nation and Pearl Properties have been putting their chess pieces in place to redevelop the Boyd Theater, first as a modern theater with an Art Deco apartment building, and now with some dull retail and less than desirable residences.
All too often, neighborhood organizations - NIMBYs - are an unwarranted thorn in the process of progress. But the redevelopment of the Boyd site is not progress. Our neglectful Historical Commission allowed the historic auditorium to be demolished amid false implications that it would be replaced with something befitting the site's history. When the wrecking ball hit, the plans changed, and the city was presented with a design that looks more like creatively sheathed student housing than anything befitting one of the nation's greatest city's greatest address.
But something unique has happened and Inga Saffron, ever vigilantly crusading against the "it's better than nothing" philosophy, has the scoop. As Saffron points out, and as we've seen dozens of times in the past, neighborhood organizations typically lawyer up in the face of mediocrity. While a bevy of lawyers can stall projects for years, or even indefinitely, all to often we ultimately wind up with the status quo. Our selective memories have a short half-life, and when buildings like the Boyd fall, developers only have to wait for the vast majority of us to forget what we were ever fighting for.
Perhaps neighbors of the Boyd have recognized the ineffectuality of the courtroom, or perhaps they're just so pissed off at what happened to the historic Boyd Theater, that they've finally designed to turn the game on its side.
Neighbor Richard Gross decided to use the neighborhood's cash fueled passion to enter the design game, offering architects at Cecil Baker a number in the "low five figures" to either consult with Pearl Properties and Eimer Architecture, or come up with a better design altogether. What will happen with this unprecedented course of action remains to be seen. Pearl Properties reluctantly agreed to enter an agreement with Gross and his neighbors.
I don't know what construction-ready plans cost for a high-rise apartment with a retail component attached to a one hundred year old theater lobby, but I would imagine that $10-$14K would get you very little. If Gross manages to woo Cecil Baker - a deal that has yet to be made - it's possible that the firm will act as a consultant to Pearl and Eimer. But in an industry with no shortage of ego, it has to be quite a blow to find that neighbors are willing to pay out-of-pocket to fix your subpar design.
Perhaps if Eimer walks, or is fired, the neighborhood's contribution will simply supplement Cecil Baker's total bill. It's uncharted territory and anyone's guess.
What is just as interesting as the concept - and maybe even as uneasy - is the precedent it sets. It doesn't necessarily tell other neighborhood organizations to pony up the cash for better design, but it does tell a less-than-stellar Historical Commission that some residents are willing to resolve the mistakes made by the city.
In a perfect world that would be a strong message, one where the Commission realizes that they failed to do their job, the job of representing the best interest of the city and its history. But in Philadelphia, city operated agencies are better versed in excuses than resolutions and the chip on the city's collective shoulder can take unsolicited criticism as a personal attack.
It will be interesting to see how this new chapter in the Boyd drama unfolds. On one hand, a neighborhood organization has finally decided to step outside the box, proactively instead of reactively. That doesn't mean we won't wind up with dull infill at 19th and Chestnut, but it does show moxy. What is perhaps most important will be what the Historical Commission decides to do with this new coarse of action. I guess we'll find out sometime next week when they receive the telegram.
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