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Turn old Phila. theater into mod multiplex? Not so fast, say pals of Boyd

Watching a movie at an iPic theater, an executive for the Boca Raton, Fla., company assures, is a "stress-free" experience.

The new Boyd. Artist's rendering.
The new Boyd. Artist's rendering.Read more

Watching a movie at an iPic theater, an executive for the Boca Raton, Fla., company assures, is a "stress-free" experience.

Reclining seats. Blankets and pillows, too. A buzzer on your armrest to call the waitstaff.

Sliders or flatbread sandwiches delivered to your seat.

And, after a show, dinner or drinks in the lobby.

"We want the lobby to feel like a five-star hotel rather than a theater," said Paul Safran, general counsel for iPic-Gold Class Entertainment.

But the company's plan for one Center City movie house is becoming anything but stress-free.

The issue is not what iPic wants to build, but where. It has set its sights on the shuttered Boyd Theater, whose fading front overlooks the 1900 block of Chestnut Street.

iPic wants to restore the Art Deco movie palace's facade and re-create the marquee as well as the entranceway.

But the existing auditorium, which once seated more than 2,000, would be demolished - replaced with a building that could accommodate eight screens for 744 moviegoers.

Safran said it was the only way to make the project economically viable.

The company, along with the building's owner, Live Nation Worldwide Inc., has applied to the city's Historical Commission for permission to tear down the Boyd. The first hearing on the matter is set for Dec. 17.

The proposal has alarmed groups that have fought to protect the theater from just such a fate.

The Preservation Alliance, a nonprofit that advocates to save the region's architectural treasures, plans to list the Boyd as the No. 1 site on its annual "endangered list," due out next month.

"This is the last great movie palace in Center City," said Ben Leech, director of advocacy for the alliance. "We've lost everything but this one."

The Boyd opened on Christmas 1928 as a silent-film theater, complete with pipe organ, orchestra pit, and murals painted on the proscenium. Leech said its massive interior was as "spectacular" as 30th Street Station or City Hall.

In 2008, the alliance successfully petitioned the Historical Commission to include the Boyd as a protected asset.

"We should be thinking of this as a resource," Leech said, "and not an impediment to development."

Safran said in an interview that the company spent six months trying to figure out a way to convert the existing theater into an iPic movie house. But, he said, iPic's people could not make the numbers work and walked away from the property.

Then, he said, local developer Neal Rodin approached iPic about the demolish-and-rebuild option. Rodin, who has an agreement to buy the property, would become the theater's landlord.

IPic's petition to the Historical Commission lays out some options and pricetags. The company says it would cost $53 million to convert the Boyd into a venue that could handle touring Broadway shows; $43 million for a multipurpose theater for all types of live shows; and $41 million for its original use - a single-screen movie theater.

The Boyd ceased operating as a movie house in 2002. In 2008, there was a plan to incorporate the theater into a hotel project. But the local developer behind the idea, Hal Wheeler, died.

Howard Haas, a Center City resident who founded Friends of the Boyd, questions why this site has to be used for the iPic project.

He has seen a presentation on the iPic concept that Safran has been showing over the last few weeks to city officials, neighborhood groups, and local businesses.

"It's impressive," Haas said. But, he added, "let them build it on vacant land, which we have plenty of in Center City."

Haas and his group will oppose iPic's petition before the Historical Commission.

The conversion project, however, has drawn supporters. Dan Coyle, a member of Friends of the Boyd, who lives across the street in the William Penn House, wants to see it happen.

He pointed out that the Boyd has been dark for more than a decade, creating an eyesore on the block. "We need something to happen across the street," Coyle said. "We're trying to maintain the integrity of the street. It downgrades the area. It's a shame."

When the Historical Commission takes up the matter, Leech said, the burden of proof in favor of demolition should be set "very, very high."

The application "is really saying that it's economically impossible for a single-screen theater to exist," Leech said. "But have they really tried other things enough to justify demolition?"

Nationally speaking, iPic is on the march. The company has nine theaters across the country, six in development and 15 - including Philadelphia - on the drawing boards.

Philadelphia, Safran said, is "ideal" for an iPic Theater. It's a big city with a vibrant downtown "that doesn't have a good movie theater," Safran said. "We honestly believe we're a good fit for Center City residents."

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