When we first learned last September that Sansom Street’s Roxy Theater was closing, it was sad — though not entirely unexpected — news. Center City’s only active movie theater had become dirty, run-down and generally decrepit, screening the worst that the big studios had to offer.
But then the city let out a resounding cheer when it learned in October that the Philadelphia Film Society (the organization behind the annual Philadelphia Film Festival) was taking over the Roxy and turning it into a respectable cinema for truly independent and repertory film. When I spoke with PFS executive director J. Andrew Greenblatt back in October, he suggested that screenings could begin prior to the new year, meaning Jan. 1, 2013.
I checked in with Greenblatt in early March to find out where the project stood, since there were still no scheduled screenings, and he told me that the Roxy would reopen in April. So I ran a piece in the April issue of Philadelphia magazine saying as much.
And when mid-April came and I didn’t see an invitation to the grand opening of the Roxy in the mail, I called Greenblatt again to find out what the holdup was. “We just have to put the chairs in,” he told me.
The Film Society also ran a Kickstarter fundraising campaign on behalf of the Roxy, explaining that “in order to open in spring 2013, we need to quickly raise $40,000.” The fundraising goal was met on March 29.
Well, here it is months later, with spring 2013 but a distant memory, and there’s still no Roxy.
“We got hamstrung by the city’s permitting process,” explains Greenblatt now. “A process that we thought would take three weeks took three months, and that’s with paying for expedited review. You hear about this stuff with the city, but you’re never quite sure that it’s true until you experience it for yourself. And it’s still hard to believe.”
The Roxy project actually consists of two addresses: 2021 and 2023 Sansom St. As far as the city is concerned, these are two separate lots, requiring separate sets of permits. And when the Film Society originally applied for those construction permits, they only applied for 2021 Sansom Street, meaning they were unauthorized to perform work on the 2023 Sansom St. portion of the project. A savvy zoning lawyer probably could have explained this to them.
In March, someone called 311 to complain that un-permitted work was being done on 2023 Sansom St. Inspectors visited the site and issued a violation, telling workers that they couldn’t touch 2023 Sansom Street without the proper paperwork.
Since then, the Film Society applied to have the two addresses consolidated into one lot, so that the permits would cover the entire Roxy project. Department of Licenses and Inspections spokesperson Rebecca Corcoran Swanson says that this consolidation plan was approved on July 16. “They just need to come in and pay for it and talk to the plans examiner,” says Corcoran. Balance due, according to L&I: $158.
As for Greenblatt, who is now also knee-deep in planning October’s Film Festival, he tells me that those seats still haven’t been installed — yes, the same ones he was waiting to install back in April. “But at least the walls are up,” he says, possibly with a hint of a chuckle.
“So when will the Roxy be open?” I ask him.
“October,” he insists. “Well, at least that’s what the contractors are telling us.”