New look for Walnut Street Theatre

May 28

By Matt Blanchard
For PlanPhilly
On the cusp of its 200th anniversary, the Walnut Street Theatre is planning to punctuate its third century with a 45-story skyscraper.

The building, so far called Walnut Street Theatre Tower, is to combine expanded theater and rehearsal space for the Walnut in its base with a 360-unit high-end “continuous care” retirement home in the tower. It will rise on a parking lot immediately east of the theater.

On Tuesday, theatre officials and the developer, Roskamp Management of Florida, unveiled designs they said were “very preliminary” at a meeting of the Washington Square West Civic Association. The board’s response was enthusiastic, but with concern that the tower’s design meet a high aesthetic standard.

“Density does not worry us, height does not worry us,” said association member Cecil Baker. “But we want something with great civic presence…. We’re looking for contemporary, state-of-the-art, lively, joyful architecture.”

Architect Ted Watson of Heery International said that the tower’s design was expected to change significantly before construction starts in about 24 months. Total height is to be 517 feet, just a hair taller than the recent St. James condominiums a block away.

In mixing a new theater with a residential tower, the project is reminiscent of the Philadelphia Theater Company’s new home inside Symphony House. In this case, however, it is the theater that owns the underlying site and will end up owning the entire tower.

Walnut Street Theater president and Producing Artistic Director Bernard Havard said he’d been seeking to acquire nearby properties for 18 years.

With their audience and school programs “bursting at the seams,” the Walnut “literally cannot handle the number of people who want to come to our theater,” Havard told the board. “I regard this as a very exciting venture, and as a neighbor, I hope you will get behind this project.”

At street-level, pedestrians will encounter a “curtain of glass” effect and behind it, a spacious lobby with a café. Beyond the café on the west end of the site will be a new 400-seat theater-in-the-round, and to the east, a restaurant and the elevator lobby for the 55+ retirement community.

By choosing senior housing, the Walnut Theater Tower will be serving a growing niche market. Roskamp operates five high-end retirement homes today, in Arizona and Florida, and is building a sixth in Exton, Pa. They argue that America’s over-65 population will double to 80 million by 2040. Some of those people will want to stay in the city.

“We have a need for housing seniors, and we don’t have the facilities in Philadelphia to do that,” said Roskamp’s Dan Sevick. The Walnut Street Theatre Tower will offer in-house medical offices and a skilled nursing facility, and 183 parking spaces in an underground garage for residents only. Current plans call for vehicle ingress off Walnut Street, usually considered a violation of good streetscape design. That may change, say theater officials, if the Walnut can secure a small lot on Sansom Street now owned by Parkway Corp.

The choice of senior housing also has a synergistic benefit for the Walnut. The tower’s population of elderly urbanites is not just a target market for retirement communities, but for the theater whose box office will be right downstairs.

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