Universal to Royally Screw up the Royal

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Last night, in a presentation to the South Street West Business Association, a representative from Universal Companies finally presented a proposal for the future of the Royal Theater. The proposal, in case you’re wondering, is totally insane. Universal intends to tear down the rear section of the theater and replace it with six or seven market-rate houses, with fourteen parking spaces onsite. The facade of the theater will be preserved, along with the first 25-30 feet of the building closest to South St, which could be used for retail, meeting spaces, offices, and community spaces. In addition, Universal will build new structures at 1520-22 South St., and 1536 South St., currently empty lots, with retail on the first floors and apartments upstairs.

At the meeting, the representative reiterated approximately one million times the plan is not final, that this is just a proposal, and that they are not yet set on any aspect of the plan. Wethinks the lady dost protest too much- this plan sounds a little too carefully conceived to be just a preliminary idea. Despite the fact that everyone wants an entertainment venue, Universal doesn’t see that as an option at this point. The representative cited a number of reasons, blaming the tough times, difficulty getting financing, the changing neighborhood, parking issues, finances, challenges in leasing commercial space, viability issues, finances, the dynamic on Kater St., and finances.

The group at the meeting was mostly, as you might guess, perturbed by this totally horrible plan. One member asked whether Universal had done any research to show that a theater or movie theater was not viable, but the rep was not sure. Another person asked whether Universal would consider donating the property to an organization with financing in place to use it as an entertainment venue, and the rep said she would make that suggestion to higher ups (Yeah, ok). Another participant suggested that Universal sell off a handful of its numerous vacant lots to finance the renovation, but the response was “it’s just the timing.” She implied that just because lots are undeveloped doesn’t mean that they don’t have a plan for them. Our take: If you’re upset about a vacant or dilapidated lot owned by Universal, just give them ten years or so and they’ll be sure to put together an abominable plan for it. Trust us.

A few developers at the meeting suggested that Universal would, in fact, be able to procure financing and easily rent the full space of the theater to a retail tenant, due to the fact that it offers about 11K-22K sqft. of space, roughly ten to twenty times the available space of other spots on South St. One suggested renting the downstairs to a retail tenant and doing performing arts upstairs. When another suggested a supermarket, the Universal rep responded “Oh hell no we don’t want the Royal Theater to be a Supermarket!”

Unmentioned in the meeting was the fact that Universal’s plan is nearly impossible to enact, at least within any sort of reasonable budget. We admit that we don’t know much about structural engineering, but it seems like it would be awfully difficult to shear off a section of a building and expect the rest of the structure to remain in place. If we’re not mistaken, removing a large portion of the back of the building would make it necessary to take down the entire building. While it may be possible to maintain the facade, it will be extremely complicated and costly to hold it in place. And correct us if we’re wrong, but doesn’t the historic designation for the building prevent Universal from taking any of it down?

So there you have it, folks. Kenny Gamble’s long-awaited plan for the Royal Theater involves tearing most of it down to build a parking lot and market-rate housing, the sale of which could fund the renovation of the front of the building. Ten years after purchasing the building for $250K, Universal has come to us and said that the time isn’t right and the money isn’t there to do justice to the Royal Theater- all the while claiming that they have been maintaining it appropriately in the interim. While it’s true that the building suffered greatly during the decades it was owned by Michael Singer, we find it hard to believe that Universal did much aside from what was absolutely necessary to prevent the building from collapsing over the past ten years. Furthermore, we find it egregious that Universal claims that they can’t make an entertainment or commercial use work in the space because of money issues, but would be able to maintain a community space on South St. that would generate little to no cash flow.

Universal claims they understand the dynamics of the community. They say they want to figure out what would work best for everyone, and to that end are willing to have a dialogue, hold focus groups etc. They say they understand the value of the Royal. We say they understand the value of dollars. Building seven homes on the lot in back of the Royal with parking would net Universal a decent profit, and that appears to be priority number one. We think there’s a reason that Universal doesn’t know what it wants to do with the front of the Royal- because they don’t really care what happens to it.

We know that the Royal Theater, if kept intact, could house one or two anchor tenants that would fundamentally change the dynamic on South St. West. We’ve spoken to countless neighbors and business owners who dream about a vibrant Royal site, rather than an eyesore of a shell, surrounded by vacant lots and fronted by one of the worst stretches of sidewalk on South St. The Royal Theater is one of, if not the most important parcel in the neighborhood both because of its history and its future potential.

What a shame it would be to allow Universal Properties to destroy both, just to make a buck. Please Mr. Gamble, for everyone’s sake, sell that building! And while you’re at it, sell the three lots next to it and the two lots across the street, too. Do us this favor and we might even name South Street after you too. Gamble Lane has a nice ring to it, don’t you think?

Will South St. someday be Gamble Lane? Totally up to him.