The Royal Theater, located at 1524 South St., should be a sparkling gem in the middle of the continually improving South Street West commercial corridor. Instead, the building has been a millstone for the 1500 block of South Street, as it has been sitting vacant for decades. Some history: the building was designed by Frank E. Hahn and was constructed around 1919. The theater targeted African American audiences, featuring movies with black stars and performances by prominent black entertainers. In 1970 though, the theater closed its doors, meeting a similar fate to many great movie houses of the day.
Then, as we said, the building sat vacant for decades. Michael Singer bought the building in 1973 but did nothing with the property in the years that followed. The Preservation Alliance bought the building in 1998 and sold it to Universal Companies two years later for $300K. Included in that sale were the surrounding lots on South and Kater Street, all of which were sitting vacant. Over time, Universal came up with a few different plans for the property, most recently in 2011, but it wasn’t until they partnered with Dranoff Properties in 2014 that redevelopment seemed like a realistic possibility.
That plan went through numerous iterations after meetings with near neighbors and the community, with a final plan that included 45 luxury rental apartments, a 7,600 sqft retail space, and 20 parking spaces underground. By that point, the building was too far gone to be restored, and the plan called for the preservation of the historic facade and the construction of a new building around it. A councilmanic ordinance was passed to allow the project to proceed by right.
Nothing happened for about a year, and then news broke that Universal was going to sell the property to a new developer, Robert Roskamp. Unsurprisingly, the new developer had a slightly different vision for the property and tweaked the Universal-Dranoff proposal in a number of ways. The previous plan called for one large building, stretching from South to Kater Street, but the new plan has an apartment building with 57 units on South Street and 7 for-sale townhomes in the rear, with a drive-aisle in the middle. The new proposal adds some additional height on South Street while reducing the height on Kater Street. Also, many of the materials have changed from the original proposal. Yesterday, the project went to Civic Design Review, where renderings were presented by JKRP Architects.
The CDR meeting was mostly uneventful, and a motion unanimously passed to allow the project to conclude the CDR process. One neighbor on Kater Street spoke up at the meeting, indicating that some near neighbors still don’t like the project as it’s currently constituted. That being said, since the project is proceeding by right and the developer already has a zoning permit in hand, we don’t see how this project doesn’t move forward in the very near future. If you’ve passed by the property in the last few months, you’ve probably noticed that work has already begun, and the rear of the building has already been partially demolished.
It took almost fifty years, but all signs now point to the Royal Theater finally getting redeveloped and a heavy weight being pulled off of the 1500 block of South Street. Despite this large vacant building, the corridor as a whole has thrived in recent years, and once this project is complete it will be poised to take another step in the right direction. At this point, it’s probably time to start wondering about what tenant will take over the large retail space on the first floor.
Disclosure: OCF Realty, owner of Naked Philly, is managing the development for this project.