Last night, close to a hundred people attended a meeting at the Bainbridge Club where representatives from Universal Companies presented their plans for the long vacant, slowly deteriorating Royal Theater. We’ve been ringing the bell for a revitalized South Street West for years, and the historic Royal stands not only as a reminder of the corridor’s history as an entertainment district, but also as a throwback to the blighted nature of South Street from just a few decades ago.
At the meeting, representatives from Universal spent a good twenty minutes describing the history of their company and detailing all the good stuff they’ve done over the years. Universal is currently working in twelve neighborhoods in the region. They’ve developed 1,500 residential units in Philadelphia and other cities. They run ten charter schools. They’ve partnered with countless developers, large and small. Their president is a famous songwriter and producer, and one of his songs is on the radio every thirteen minutes!
Then they moved on to detail the history of the Royal Theater. The building was constructed around 1919, designed by Frank E. Hahn, and targeted African American audiences. A few years after the theater closed in 1970, it was purchased by Michael Singer, who attempted to have the property demolished in 1991 after years of neglect. After a long fight, the Preservation Alliance purchased the building in 1998, and then sold it to Universal Companies two years later for $250K. Over the last thirteen years, Universal has looked at several possible redevelopment possibilities for the property, working with various potential partners, but they haven’t been able to put together a plan for the site that works. It seems that the limiting factors were 1) that they were trying to maintain the space as an entertainment venue 2) that the building was in terrible condition and the redevelopment costs were quite high. Repeatedly though, the Universal representative stated that his company was an excellent steward for the property over the years.
Universal then presented a plan that was eerily similar to the plan we told you about over two years ago. They intend to demolish the building, and save the facade. They will then build a new building behind and next to the facade which will include about 7,000 sqft of retail on South Street and thirty apartments for rent. On Kater Street there will be six new homes, each with two-car, rear-access parking. There will also be a small lot with about a dozen spots for the apartment building, also accessible via Kater Street.
This plan is subject to all kinds of change, as it will be vetted by the SOSNA Architectural Review Committee, the SOSNA community, the South Street West Business Association, and the Historical Commission. Some members of the audience, during a Q&A session, expressed gratitude that the building would finally be developed and asked that some element of the retail reflect the building’s history. Others had terrible experiences as neighbors of Universal projects in the past, and were concerned that Universal wouldn’t be as responsible as advertised while redeveloping the site. Mr. Islam, CEO of Universal, got defensive a couple of times and was rather testy with a particularly aggressive
So here we sit, over two years after this plan was first introduced, hearing about it again for the first time. Is it the best plan for the Royal? If it is, what’s taking so long to get things moving? Is Universal actually capable of executing a plan for this challenging site? And is it true that they had a legitimate offer at $3.2M that they turned down last year, as one participant stated?
Please, Universal, bring this building back to life already. Save as much of it as possible. Demo and replace the rest. Include plenty of retail and lots of residential units. Build on those vacant lots next door. And the others you own on the block. Do it yesterday, do it without public money, and do it right. And if you can’t, sell it all.
South Street West deserves a revitalized Royal Theater. Let’s hope it comes to pass in our lifetimes.