Center City has had a movie theater problem for years, which is almost inconceivable considering the history of downtown Philadelphia, where movie palaces were once as common as haberdasheries. These days, it’s almost as impossible to see a movie in Center City as it is to find a nice Stetson. Well, isn’t that a fine how do you do!
At the moment, you have exactly three options to see a movie in Center City. Want to see a blockbuster? You’re going to the AMC in the Fashion District. Do you prefer an artsier offering? Ritz Five is the place for you. And if you want a little bit of both, the PFS Bourse would be the obvious choice. If you don’t follow the cinema scene closely, you might have thought that the theater at the Bourse was still a Ritz, but no, we are here to tell you that the Philadelphia Film Society took over the theater this year, moving their operations from the Roxy on the 2000 block of Sansom. You may or may not recall, PFS took over the Roxy back in 2012.
With PFS vacating the premises, the property at 2021-23 Sansom St. went on the market over the summer at a $1.325M list price. Though the listing describes the two small theaters and the vacant 2nd and 3rd floor spaces as being full of potential, the likeliest outcome for a buyer here was always going to be demolition and some vertical redevelopment. And indeed, the property is now under agreement, with the developers seeking to demolish part of the existing building and to construct a five-story apartment building with 20 units.
The project is by right, but before it can proceed it will need approval from the Historical Commission. The property sits in the Rittenhouse Fitler Historic District, and while the one-story section of the property at 2021 Sansom St. is non-contributing, the three-story section is contributing, dating back to 1860. With that in mind, the developers are planning to clean up and maintain the facade of the three story section, while building above and next to it. You can see the first pass in the elevation drawing above.
The initial feedback from the HC staff tells us that the project is going to need to go through some fairly significant changes before it gets approved. They don’t like that the gabled roof will disappear, which seems like a tough hurdle to overcome in any overbuild plan. The staff also doesn’t care for the fenestration pattern or the use of a metal panel bay window in the new construction plan. Perhaps the most challenging feedback though, relates to the fact that the Historical Commission must find that the “demolition is necessary in the public interest or that the building cannot be used for any purpose for which it may be reasonably adapted.” That tells us that the HC will be hard pressed to endorse any demolition here.
With all of this under consideration, we expect that the developers and their architects will need to go back to the drawing board both in terms of form and design before they’re able to get a thumbs up from the Historical Commission. That being said, we imagine there will be some path to get something approved here and this property will eventually transition from being a movie theater to being an apartment building. While some additional density will certainly be a positive at this location, we sure do wish that it was economically feasible to maintain a theater here. For decades, the Roxy has contributed to the arts and culture scene in Center City, and its loss is a truly unfortunate sign of the times.