I-95 is a gift and a curse for Philadelphia, providing expeditious vehicular access to points north and south of the city (when traffic cooperates), while at the same time cutting off large swaths of greater Center City from the Delaware River waterfront. Even though I-95 is a relatively new addition to the city, with the last section having been completed in the mid-1980s, it’s already due for a significant renovation project, known as I-95 Revive. This project started roughly a decade ago and has successfully streamlined the connection between I-95 and the New Jersey Turnpike, shaving like 12 minutes off a trip to New York City. Looking forward, it should also result in additional capping of the highway and various improvements to Penns Landing. Unfortunately, Penndot isn’t taking a more aggressive approach to capping the road, and large sections will remain open to the sky. Also, the project will continue for at least another ten years, and has created considerable inconvenience and aggravation for people that rely on I-95 for their commute, not to mention the thousands of people that live near the highway.
Another aspect of the I-95 Revive project is the renovation of local streets surrounding the highway, including Richmond Street in Port Richmond. This will ultimately entail the installation of new underground utilities, new trolley tracks, new street lights, and a widened street. As a side effect of this effort, Richmond Street had been closed to most local traffic for quite awhile, and that’s still the case today as the project approaches its conclusion. Needless to say, pedestrians aren’t exactly flocking to Richmond Street, since it’s a huge active construction site. The businesses on the corridor are suffering as a result of this work, and it seems likely that several will end up closing their doors. One victim is Port Richmond Books, a huge used book store located in a building originally constructed as the Richmond Theatre.
The theater was constructed at 3037 Richmond St. in 1913 and per a Hidden City story, was used mostly for storage after the movie house went out in the 1950s. Port Richmond books opened in the cavernous space in 2005, and the book business is hard enough as it is, let alone trying to survive as your street is sliced and diced. With the business closing, developers are purchasing the property with an eye toward demolition and the construction of a 31-unit apartment building. The property is zoned for multi-family use for some reason (and not for mixed-use commercial), but the developers still went to the ZBA to pump up the density. That approval came through last week, and we imagine that work will get started as soon as construction subsides to the point that they can reliably get trucks down the street.
The loss of the business is certainly a bummer for the Richmond Street corridor, one that has shown a little bit of juice in recent years as development has trickled over from Fishtown. It’s also unfortunate that the old theater building will be torn down. Its facade doesn’t seem to check the necessary boxes to be deemed historic, but it still has cast a unique presence on the corridor and added to the architectural diversity of the area. For people that grew up in the area and remember seeing movies here it must be especially painful, as a part of the neighborhood’s history will soon disappear. We’d have certainly preferred the preservation of the building and its revival as a movie house, but given the economic realities of the present, we don’t see how that would have ever been possible.
And so the Richmond will join the looong list of old Philadelphia theaters to meet the wrecking ball. It certainly will not be the last.