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Forum Theater’s closing provides an opening for Philly

The XXX-rated films are gone, along with the customers who trolled the Forum Theater on Market Street seeking public arousal.

The Forum Theater on Market Street near 22nd Street is now closed.  ( MICHAEL S. WIRTZ / STAFF PHOTOGRAPHER )
The Forum Theater on Market Street near 22nd Street is now closed. ( MICHAEL S. WIRTZ / STAFF PHOTOGRAPHER )Read more

The XXX-rated films are gone, along with the customers who trolled the Forum Theater on Market Street seeking public arousal.

As videos and the Internet killed porn theaters, the Forum was among the last to die, but it finally closed Nov. 30, giving Philadelphia the opportunity - for the first time in decades - to develop this key link between the city's east and west sides.

Richard Basciano, the man behind the proposal to revive the area with new apartments and street-level commercial space, is best known as the king of Times Square porn. But he also owns the Forum building and about a dozen other properties in the 2100 and 2200 blocks of Market Street.

Now 87, he says he never liked the smut business, has sold most of his holdings in that industry, and believes the Philadelphia market is finally ripe for a project he calls the "gateway to Philadelphia's Market Street West."

"That is exactly the mission I'm on now," he said.

He has been courting city and civic leaders, and they, too, hope that new construction can revive these blocks, which have remained seedy and largely vacant even as Center City has blossomed.

"Those [2100 and 2200] blocks of Market Street are kind of one of the last significant gaps in the quality of the streetscape," said Alan Greenberger, the city's commerce director. Drexel University's eastward expansion and the transformation of the west side of the city near the Schuylkill from industrial to commercial and recreational uses are "all suggesting that there is a wave that is going to happen to get the west side to meet the east side" of the city, Greenberger said.

With the primary property owner and the city on board, can it be long before the neighborhood around the Forum, which once welcomed Insatiable star Marilyn Chambers, is populated with coffee shops, a clothing boutique, and maybe a yarn store? There is already a Trader Joe's at 2121 Market.

Basciano hopes to move quickly. He is seeking bids from developers, but it may take years for him to complete his mission, if it happens at all. He had been trying to buy the properties he does not own in the two blocks, with no success. His lawyer, Frank Cresci, says Basciano plans to demolish the buildings he owns in the 2100 and 2200 blocks in January and use them as parking lots pending redevelopment.

One of the real estate holdouts is the Salvation Army, which owns its the building that houses its store on the southeast corner of 21st and Market.

Maj. Charles Deitrick, general secretary for the adult rehabilitation center command of the Salvation Army, said the organization would consider moving but was happy with its current location.

"At this point in time, it's just discussion," he said of a possible move.

A city fire station stands at 2110 Market. Basciano hopes that will move, but Greenberger says it is staying.

"That is an important fire station. I don't expect it to be going anywhere," Greenberger said. He added, however, that he believed the station could be incorporated into any development.

The economy and the rental market also would have to remain strong enough to support such a new project.

Basciano has spent much of his life in New York, where he operated several sex businesses before selling all but one. The employees at his remaining location, Show World on Times Square, are like family, he said, so he keeps that location. His partner in the skin business was Robert DiBernardo, who was murdered in 1986 on the orders of mob boss John Gotti, but Basciano maintains that he knew nothing of DiBernardo's connections to La Cosa Nostra.

For two decades, Basciano has focused on real estate. He has long owned the Forum, a parking garage, and other commercial properties in Philadelphia. He keeps an apartment in a luxury building here.

In the 1980s, he sold two parcels to make way for One Liberty Place and the Independence Blue Cross building, and in the early 1990s, he began buying more buildings in the area, believing development would continue creeping west.

Recessions and real estate downturns meant that 20 years would pass before the timing seemed right. He also had tenants in some of the buildings, including Anthony Trombetta, who operated the Forum.

When Trombetta fell behind on his rent there and at a location in the 2100 block of Market, Les Gals, where the risers on the stairs boasted of the naked women available for viewing upstairs, Basciano evicted him from both properties, creating a critical mass for development.

Basciano says he believes University of Pennsylvania and Drexel University researchers, as well as Philadelphians who commute to New York City, are eager for more apartments in the area.

He would most likely begin developing the Forum and surrounding real estate first and move east from there.

Greenberger says he plans to talk to other area property owners to push the project forward and eliminate the blight on the two high-profile blocks. The rundown porn theater and nearby vacant buildings are among the first sites many people traveling from 30th Street Station see.

"We are certainly motivated to see something happen, and so we will be doing what we can to move this along," Greenberger said.