Changing Skyline: iPic didn't come, so now what for the Boyd?

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The Boyd Theatre at 19th and Chestnut Streets.

All anyone had to do was say the word multiplex and the Boyd Theatre's fair-weather friends abandoned the grand dame of Philadelphia movie palaces as if the place was on fire. Demolition of the art deco auditorium was sanctioned by the Historical Commission in March, and within days, wrecking crews were on the scene, supposedly for the Florida chain iPic.

Now we know it was all magical thinking.

Neil Rodin, the developer who said he was bringing iPic to Philadelphia, never followed through on his much-ballyhooed plan to buy the Boyd from its longtime owner, Live Nation. Meanwhile, iPic has problems of its own and lost its financing for the project, according to a source involved with the company. In late October, Live Nation quietly sold the theater at 19th and Chestnut to Jim Pearlstein and Reed Slogoff of Pearl Properties for $4.5 million.

What happens next is anyone's guess. IPic insists it is negotiating a new lease with Pearl, but that may be just part of the script. Nationally, the theater business is in decline. Overall ticket revenue has fallen 4 percent this year from 2013, and the all-important cohort of 13- to 24-year-olds seems more interested in video games than in going out to the movies.

IPic's concept, which relies on $24 tickets and in-theater dining, always sounded like a risky business model. In March, iPic CEO Hamid Hashemi admitted the company wouldn't have been able to afford a Center City location if Rodin hadn't offered a bargain rent. So maybe it wouldn't be so bad to have them out of the picture.

Pearl's main interest isn't the movies, anyway. Though Pearlstein and Slogoff didn't return my phone calls, it is well known that Pearl has been trying to get approval for a 26-story, neo-traditional apartment tower on a small Chestnut Street lot immediately east of the Boyd.

The problem is that his 295-foot building would be twice as dense as zoning allows for that tiny site. Adding the Boyd to the mix enlarges the footprint of the property and solves the density issue. Instead of having to seek a zoning variance or special Council bill, Pearl can now construct the tower by right, simply by applying for a building permit.

So what happens to the Boyd, which opened in 1928 and is the city's lone survivor of Hollywood's golden age? One person who has spoken to Pearlstein, Deputy Mayor Alan Greenberger, says the developer "is still trying to figure out what he's doing." That suggests, hopefully, that he has no immediate plans to demolish the theater if his negotiations with iPic go nowhere.

Pearlstein could even emerge as the hero of this sorry preservation debacle.

During the hearings before the Historical Commission's hardship committee this year, iPic and Live Nation argued that the Boyd's huge, 2,350-seat auditorium and odd footprint made it impossible to adapt the historic building for any new purpose. The committee agreed and granted them permission to tear down everything but the Chestnut Street facade and an exterior vestibule.

As awful as it was to lose the auditorium, designed by the theater duo Hoffmann & Henon, and decorated with ornate stencils and richly colored plasterwork, many were surprised the commission also approved demolition of the Boyd lobby. Probably the best space in the theater, it is sheathed from floor to ceiling in etched mirrors, and includes a mural celebrating the history of women's achievement, quite an unusual subject for 1928.

Whatever happens now with iPic, Pearlstein has the power to insist the lobby stay. The Boyd's auditorium is certainly big enough to accommodate any number of new uses.

Of course, it would be better still if Pearlstein found a way to repurpose the auditorium without destroying its exuberant decoration.

I never bought the testimony from Live Nation, Rodin, and iPic that the Boyd was too eccentric to save. A credible plan was put forward in 2008 to turn the auditorium into a multiuse space for concerts, events, business meetings, and the occasional movie, but it collapsed after its developer suffered a fatal heart attack.

In that plan, the event space would have been linked to a high-rise hotel west of the theater and transformed into a traditional ballroom. Pearl now has the opportunity to do the same thing on the east side by connecting the auditorium with his apartment tower.

Because his apartment design calls for ground-floor stores, it's also possible to imagine the Boyd auditorium getting a new life as a funky retail space, especially now that Chestnut Street has reemerged as an important shopping thoroughfare. Pearl already owns the store lots attached to the Boyd on Chestnut Street, and it's done a great job with retail at its two recent apartment developments, the Sansom and the Granary.

Turning the Boyd into a nonprofit cultural center - long championed by the Friends of the Boyd - remains an option, although a difficult one. It's disappointing that a succession of city administrations have ignored the Boyd's potential, even while other cities were lobbying for grants and funding to preserve their classic theaters.

Indeed, the city seemed almost eager for the Boyd's demise when Rodin announced he would buy the building if he could knock it down for a multiplex. People who had fought for the building's preservation, like Sharon Pinkenson of the Greater Philadelphia Film Office, abruptly switched sides. IPic, she wrote, "will become an instant asset to Center City and to film lovers like me."

In most cities, historic designation means a building is protected - forever. In Philadelphia, designation is increasingly seen as a temporary state, good until a developer offers a compelling alternative. For movie lovers, the short-term prospect of a Center City multiplex trumped the Boyd's long-term historic value.

Let's hope the sequel with Pearl Properties has a better ending.


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