Kenny Gamble’s attempt to demolish most of the historic Royal Theater on 15th and South, an African-American landmark, faces more than just the approval of the Philadelphia Historical Commission. It faces a state challenge that he himself put into place, according to Eyes on the Street:
In 2006 Universal Companies was awarded a $50,000 Keystone Historic Preservation Grant from the Pennsylvania Historical & Museum Commission (PHMC) for exterior repairs. And when the grant was finally processed in 2008, there were strings attached: A restrictive covenant filed with Universal’s deed requires that Universal and any subsequent owner preserve the building for 15 years. Until 2023 all alterations must be approved by PHMC.
The Commission will probably try to mitigate the damage Gamble wants to do to the building, which he’s applying to do under a hardship provision that claims he simply doesn’t have the financial wherewithal to fix it up. When he purchased the building in 2000, he had grand aims–goals that still hadn’t been realized as of 2007. That year, Philadelphia Magazine’s Matthew Teague wrote about Gamble’s plans for a South Philly music renaissance:
He envisions South Philly as an entertainment corridor with an emphasis on the city’s musical heritage, similar to Beale Street in Memphis. In a major step toward that goal, Gamble persuaded the Rhythm & Blues Foundation to move from New York to Philadelphia, and next he plans to develop a $50 million National Center for Rhythm and Blues on the empty plot at Broad and Washington. He envisions a massive complex including a concert hall, a music academy and a Hall of Fame.
But the Royal’s role in all this was confusing. In 2000, Universal said it would be converted “into a live performance theater.” In 2007, Universal’s Rahim Islam told Teague, “We bought it to preserve it.” Apparently, the past 13 years have not improved Gamble’s financial standing enough for him to be able to afford either plan.
Along the way, there have been would-be buyers of the property, an important factor when determining whether the hardship provision should apply. In other words, if Gamble can’t afford to fix it up, could he sell it to someone else who could? He says there haven’t been viable offers. Developer Ori Feibush says there have been–and that he was one of them. He also wants to demolish much of the building in order to put in two floors of commercial space and two floors residential. He, too, would be bound by the approval of the Pennsylvania Historical & Museum Commission.
At the moment, however, the fate of the building is in the hands of the Philadelphia Historical Commission, which is examining the case. It’s a tough one.
PREVIOUSLY: Petitioner Seeks to Turn Royal Theater Over to Feibush [Property]
• Universal seeks OK to demolish most of Royal Theater [PlanPhilly]
• Demo or alteration of Royal Theater requires state preservation review [Eyes on the Street]
• Royal Theater Can’t Be Demolished Without Approval From State Historic Commission [Curbed Philly]
Meanwhile, Ori Feibush competes with Gamble to destroy the landmark as well
Forgive us our skepticism: The building is in wretched condition partly due to Gamble’s poor stewardship, but is there something we don’t know about Gamble’s
and will have the same right to intervene should someone else buy the building.
That’s the other wrinkle here.