A Philadelphia developer is wrapping up a deal to buy the shuttered Boyd Theater and says he intends to use the historic Chestnut Street movie palace as the anchor for a $95 million hotel-and-entertainment complex inspired by Atlantic City's Borgata, offering many of the same amenities but no gambling.
Hal Wheeler of the development firm ARCWheeler said he had signed an agreement with Live Nation that would enable him to purchase the 2,350-seat theater by Nov. 25. If the sale goes through, it could provide a happy ending to the Boyd's long-running drama.
Wheeler's development proposal, like Live Nation's earlier plan to turn the Boyd into a Broadway roadhouse, would restore the theater to its original art deco glamour. But the project's scope is far more ambitious, and aims to transform the 1900 block of Chestnut Street from a retail backwater into a Center City nightlife destination.
The key component is a 250-room, 30-story hotel, which would be built on the surface lot to the west of the Boyd and operate under Kimpton's Monaco flag. While the Monaco Hotel would offer only a fraction of the Borgata's room capacity, Wheeler said it would give him the ability to market the Boyd as a deluxe performance venue, especially to tourists and conventioneers.
He said he intends to position the theater as an urban alternative to the Borgata's Events Center, booking light-entertainment acts such as the comedian Robin Williams and the singer Alanis Morrisette roughly 60 nights a year. The rest of the time, the Boyd's lavishly decorated auditorium would host films, lectures, corporate meetings and wedding parties. Wheeler expects to include at least two restaurants in the project, including one in the Boyd's dramatic lobby.
Officials from Live Nation did not respond yesterday to requests for information, but according to Wheeler the music conglomerate would book all the live entertainment at the Boyd. Live Nation currently schedules acts for the Borgata's theaters, as well as the Tower Theater in Upper Darby and Philadelphia's Electric Factory. Those theaters would be the main competition for a reincarnated Boyd.
Although Wheeler's proposal would douse any hope of transforming the Boyd into a Broadway-style theater, his plan still appears to satisfy the city's preservationists, who have spent years fighting to save the 1928 movie palace. Only last month, the city agreed to protect the Boyd's facade, designed by the noted theater architects Hoffman-Henon Co.
"We have to be cautiously optimistic because plans by the prior owner fell apart," said Howard B. Haas, who founded the Friends of the Boyd in 2002 to fight its demolition. "But we are excited about the possibility of full restoration."
John Gallery, who heads Preservation Alliance, suggested that Wheeler's proposal might be more "economically sound" than the plan for a live theater because it offers a synergistic mix of uses rather than a single mission for the Boyd.
Wheeler, who is building the Ten Rittenhouse condo tower on South 18th Street, serves on the Preservation Alliance board.
The support of local preservationists will be crucial to Wheeler's project. He intends to ask the Rendell administration to contribute $15 million toward the $30 million theater renovation. He also will need state support to qualify for federal tax credits for renovation projects.
Nearly all the major U.S. theater-rescue projects received large government subsidies. New York channeled $20 million to renovate the New Amsterdam Theater for Walt Disney Co., and Maryland invested $27 million into refashioning Baltimore's France-Merrick Hippodrome as a performance venue.
But Pennsylvania has been ambivalent about adding another large theater to Philadelphia's already sizable inventory. The Kimmel Center and the Academy of Music, which already host Broadway-type performances, have struggled to pay their debts. Preservationists blame the Kimmel for torpedoing a state grant that would have helped Live Nation outfit the Boyd for Broadway shows.
Before giving up, Live Nation hired Martinez+Johnson Architecture to draw up a renovation strategy. Their plan called for constructing a stage house in the parking lot next to the Boyd, to provide the behind-the-scenes support space that the movie house lacks.
In devising a new plan for the Boyd, Wheeler tailored the proposal to avoid competing with the Kimmel, which rarely presents the pop performers who appear at the Borgata. Since those one-person acts - from David Crosby to Jackie Mason - tend to travel light, they don't need a stage house to unload trucks full of scenery.
Wheeler said he realized that the parking lot would be better used for a hotel that would complement the theater. The hotel makes it an attractive venue for weddings, bar mitzvahs and corporate events. It could also serve as a base for an enlarged Philadelphia film festival.
The downside is that, without a stage house, the Boyd could never be retrofitted for live theater.
"At some point, Philadelphia is going to need another performing-arts venue for Broadway shows," said David Anderson, a theater promoter who runs Broadway Across America. "It could have been done a lot cheaper at the Boyd than at someplace like the Kimmel."
But hotel-and-theater combinations are becoming increasingly popular in Atlantic City and Las Vegas. Planet Hollywood now runs a hip hotel and music venue on the Vegas strip. Wheeler's Monaco Hotel might not have a casino floor, but it would be easily accessible to gambling if Philadelphia's planned casinos are built.
Wheeler would not disclose the price he agreed to pay for the Boyd and its side lot, which borders Sansom and 20th Streets. Last year's sale of an adjacent parcel for $36.7 million set a record in the area. That lot, however, has frontage on Rittenhouse Square. While the developers there appear to have put their project on hold, the original design included a hotel.