11th-hour offer to buy Boyd Theater

Much of the Boyd Theater on Chestnut Street , built in 1928, could be demolished under one proposal, but a local group hopes to prevent this. CHARLES FOX / Staff Photographer
Much of the Boyd Theater on Chestnut Street , built in 1928, could be demolished under one proposal, but a local group hopes to prevent this. CHARLES FOX / Staff Photographer
Posted: February 23, 2014

Just days before the Philadelphia Historical Commission is scheduled to decide the fate of the historic art deco Boyd Theater, an anonymous donor has offered to purchase the theater on behalf of a preservation-minded nonprofit.

Howard B. Haas, who founded the Friends of the Boyd a decade ago to save the ornate movie palace, said Friday that a "civic-minded benefactor" had provided a letter of intent stating his willingness to match the sales price offered by a developer, $4.5 million. The letter was delivered this week to the building's owner, Live Nation, and the commission, but neither has responded, Haas said.

Haas would not disclose the name of the donor, explaining that the person did not wish "to wade into the public arena."

But Ben Leech, advocacy director at the Preservation Alliance, confirmed that the group had met with the donor, and that the offer was solid.

"It's a reputable offer," he said. "Howard has really pulled a rabbit out of the hat."

It is not clear how the commission's Hardship Committee will view the eleventh-hour offer.

The committee is scheduled to meet Thursday to consider the demolition request from Live Nation, a national entertainment company that has owned the Boyd since 2005. Live Nation began presenting testimony on its financial hardship claim in late January, but the committee ran out of time, and the case was scheduled to resume next week.

Because the Boyd is a landmarked building, Live Nation must prove that redeveloping the theater in its current form is an unreasonable financial burden. The commission's staff director, Jonathan Farnham, said the donor's offer would be considered along with the rest of the evidence. Since the Hardship Committee is advisory, the final decision will be made by the full commission, probably March 14.

If the commission does grant Live Nation hardship demolition, the company plans to sell the Boyd to Philadelphia developer Neil Rodin, who has teamed up with iPic, a Florida movie company. The $4.5 million sales deal would bring Live Nation half of what it paid for the Boyd in 2005.

The movie operator intends to replace the Boyd's 2,400-seat auditorium with eight luxury screening rooms. While iPic would retain and renovate the narrow facade, its front shop windows, and the signature curved marquee, the distinctive auditorium would be gutted.

Reached at his office Friday, Rodin dismissed the likelihood that Haas' donor had the ability to complete a deal with Live Nation.

"Haas has had many people come forward over the years" saying they wanted to buy the theater, he said. "Nothing has ever happened."

The Boyd, which was considered one of the city's most glamorous movie houses when it opened in 1928, has had several near-miss redevelopments since its last picture show in 2002.

In 2008, developer Hal Wheeler unveiled an ambitious plan to incorporate the theater into a hotel development. The auditorium would have served multiple uses - hotel ballroom, conference center, and occasional live theater and movie house. But Wheeler died suddenly before the project could secure financing.

If preservationists succeed in buying the Boyd, it would be only the first step in a long process. Although the Friends of the Boyd is a registered nonprofit, it does not have any paid staff. It would need to develop a business plan and raise millions for renovations.

Haas said he recognizes the challenge of redeveloping an old theater, and acknowledged it could take years, as well as substantial government subsidies. But he promised that the Friends' first goodwill act would be "to spiffy up the Chestnut Street facade" and ensure that the roof is in good order.

"It won't be an eyesore anymore," he said.


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