Morning Headlines: Redevelopment Plans for the Royal Theater

Royal-Theater-mural

It took about a year, but developer Carl Dranoff and JDavis Architects unveiled plans for the vacant Royal Theater at a South of South Neighborhood Association meeting last week. PlanPhilly has the details this morning.

Kenny Gamble’s Universal Companies purchased the historic building in 2000 but it has been mightily neglected since then. Dranoff partnered with Universal last year when the group announced plans for a mixed-use building to replace the theater. Details on the proposed building were fuzzy until last week’s meeting. Thanks to PlanPhilly, we now know the proposal includes the following provisions.

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Might Something Else Be Afoot at the Royal?

symphony houseJudging from the presence not only of Kenny Gamble, founder and CEO of Universal Companies, but also of his negotiating team at Tuesday’s formal unveiling of Dranoff Properties’ SLS International Hotel and Residences project, the record exec-turned-community developer and the master developer continue to maintain a strong working relationship. The two have long been partners in real estate deals, including Symphony House (left), Southstar Lofts and 777 South Broad. And now Gamble has agreed to sell two lots he owns at Broad and Spruce streets to Dranoff in order to make his project possible.

When we asked Gamble about the status of the Royal Theater, which remains uncertain amidst both a conservatorship challenge and a still-pending petition to demolish most of the structure, his response suggested that Dranoff may have ideas for the space. Though Dranoff has said he is only acting as an advisor to Gamble’s Universal Companies on the Royal, it seems possible that he may be considering more involvement.

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Ori Feibush on Universal Companies: “We Want to Give Them the Latitude They Need”

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Photo by Smallbones via Wikimedia Commons

One of the complexities of the development of the Royal Theater is a legal process that compels Universal Companies, the current owner of the historic South Street theater, to do something with the property or let it go to conservatorship.

Neighborhood resident Juan Levy filed an Act 135 petition that would mark the property as blighted should Universal do nothing to develop it. In that case, a court-appointed conservator would take possession of the Royal in order to rehabilitate it and then sell it, but with a profit limited to 10 percent.

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Universal Defends Its Record at Charged Meeting About Royal Theater

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After last night’s public meeting at the Bainbridge Club on the redevelopment of the Royal Theater, three things are certain:

1. Barring some miracle, the Royal will not survive whole.

2. Many residents would like owner Universal Companies to at least honor the theater’s history and heritage.

3. Universal will have to do more fence-mending to bring skeptical near neighbors on board with its plans.

The meeting was the first of what will likely be a series of public meetings to inform the community and obtain feedback on Universal’s plans to demolish and redevelop much of the African-American cultural landmark and build on an adjacent lot as a mixed-use project that will include street-level retail on South Street, apartments above, and new townhouses on Kater Street.

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New Plans for Royal Theater: South Street Retail, 30 Rental Units

Royal-Theater-mural

The meeting about the fate of the Royal Theater, the historic property on South Street, is now in session. (Need a refresher? Go here and here.) We’ll have a full report tomorrow, but here’s what we know so far thanks to the Philadelphia Daily News’ David Gambacorta, whose live tweeting of this event is both informative and hilarious.

Universal Companies, which owns the property, has a new plan in place that includes:

1. Retention of the historic facade.
2. 7,000 square feet of ground-floor retail space fronting South Street
3. Roughly 30 rental units on upper floors
4. 13 parking spaces
5. 6 new townhomes with garages fronting Kater Street

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Is Kenny Gamble Becoming a Blightlord?

Part of one of Philadelphia’s most beloved cultural landmarks, the Royal Theater, may soon be demolished–despite the fact that it’s owned by Kenny Gamble, who professed he would pay tribute to its legendary history by transforming it into the anchor of a new South Street West entertainment mecca. That was 13 years ago, and the building–the first black-run theater in the city, and one that played host to acts like Bessie Smith and Fats Waller–has been in decline since then, with Gamble having done nothing to act on initial promises.

On July 9, the Daily News’ David Gambacorta wrote an article about the Royal that cast a critical light on Gamble’s stewardship of the building, and his current desire to tear it down for commercial development. Now the City Paper’s Ryan Briggs takes a look at much more of Gamble’s real estate portfolio as Universal Companies, which was co-founded with his wife, Faatimeh.

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Morning Headlines: NYT Profiles Philly’s 13th Street. Plus: Kenny Gamble, Firehouse Demo and Turtles

• Slideshow: A Philadelphia Street, Transformed [NYT]
South Philly firehouse headed for demolition? [Inquirer]
Collingswood restaurant is up for grabs [Insider]
Threatened turtles Ridley Park’s costly ‘hidden jewel’ [Inquirer]
Kenny Gamble’s stewardship of Royal Theater dragged area down, neighbors say
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Kenny Gamble’s Petition to Demolish Royal Theater Due to “Financial Hardship” Faces More Opposition

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.

Petitioner Seeks to Turn Royal Theater Over to Feibush

Earlier this year, after Kenny Gamble’s Universal Companies put the crumbling Royal Theater on South Street up for sale, real estate agent and developer Ori Feibush made a bid for the derelict hulk, meeting the asking price of $3.2 million. Given the extent of the repairs that need to be made to stabilize, let alone rebuild, the theater, the price strikes us as a bit lavish, but Royal OCF Holdings met it.

Gamble, however, never took him up on the offer. Now a neighbor has filed a petition to give it to him.

PDQ reports that the neighbor, Juan Levy, filed suit in Common Pleas Court to have a conservator appointed for the building under the provisions of Act 135, the state law that allows historic buildings to be put into a form of receivership if it appears the building is being demolished through neglect. In the suit, Levy recommended Feibush as conservator.

For his part, Feibush states he did not seek this intervention and that the court is free to appoint whoever it chooses. But Feibush has plans already announced for both redeveloping the Royal and building on vacant lots adjacent to it on South and Kater streets, which is more than Gamble has done to this point. And as rumors have circulated that Universal is suffering a cash crunch, turning down an offer to buy the building for the asking price seems odd indeed. Unless you think that Gamble’s sale effort was just a ruse to allow him to petition the Historical Commission to release him from covenants not to demolish the building attached when he purchased it from the Preservation Alliance for Greater Philadelphia in 2000.

Stay tuned. This is gonna get real interesting real fast.

Royally Huge Act 135 Case Launched Against Owner of Royal Theater (PDQ)