Across the street from Rittenhouse Square sits one of Philadelphia's most prominent and embarrassing vacant lots. Once upon a time, the Rittenhouse Eric Theater made its home on the north side of the 1900 block of Walnut Street. When the hundred year old historic brownstone-turned-office next door caught fire in 1994, the damage to the theater resulted in its demolition. The lot has been vacant ever since aside from a temporary use as a PHS pop-up in 2012.
Over the years, the property has seen a collection of possible projects come and go. It's a particular challenge because the parcel is also tied to several properties on Sansom Street including the mysterious Rittenhouse Coffee Shop (long vacant), the empty seven story Warwick building (shuttered since 2003), and the Oliver H. Bair funeral home. We covered the collection of proposals for this site years ago, including the plan for a parking garage with restaurant and movie theater from the PPA, a concept from Michael Singer in 2004, and another idea from Castleway, the current owners, in 2008. Clearly, none of those things happened.
A report two days ago in the Philadelphia Business Journal gives us the newest glimpse of hope for this parcel. According to the story, Southern Land Company has the property under agreement with a $30M purchase price. They prefer to rezone the parcel (a la Little Pete's or the Royal Theater), and have already met with CCRA and city agencies about the idea. If rezoning happens, they'd be looking at 360 rental apartments, 65 condos and 27,500 sqft of commercial space. And parking, too. Without rezoning, chop out 140 apartments and fifteen condos. Interestingly, the sale price will rise by $10M if rezoning happens. The PBJ story came with a drawing of a massing for the project that could be on the table which would mean a smaller structure on Walnut Street and two big buildings on Sansom Street.
It's hard to tell from the image whether this project would mean the end of the historic buildings on Sansom Street, nor are we clear on the zoning refusals triggered by this proposal. Furthermore, considering the battles waged from prior ideas for the parcel, it will be fascinating to observe the response to the project from neighbors, preservationists, and nearby businesses. We'd be willing to bet that the final iteration of this project will differ from what we see in the image above.
With so many swings and misses with this parcel over the years, it's no sure thing that a project will even happen here with these new owners. Then again, with the economy improving and interest rates likely to swing upward in the years to come, we're hopeful that something will finally get figured out. It would indeed be a shame for this parcel to sit vacant for another two decades.