Committee approves Royal Theater rezoning over near-neighbors’ objections

City Council’s Committee on Rules approved a bill on Tuesday that rezones a property at 15th and South to allow the historic Royal Theater to be redeveloped into apartments and retail space.

The proposal from developer Carl Dranoff calls for 45 apartment units, 7,600 square feet of retail space on South Street, and the full restoration of the theater’s historic facade. It will be built in partnership with Universal Companies, an entity owned by record producer Kenny Gamble.

Last month, the City Planning Commission requested more time to consider the bill. While the Commission staff supports the rezoning of the property, some neighbors on Kater Street, behind the theater, felt that the proposed redevelopment is too bulky.

Since that meeting, according to witnesses at Tuesday’s committee hearing, the developers agreed to set back the upper portion of the development that fronts on Kater Street by an additional four feet. But some of the Kater Street neighbors are still unsatisfied with the proposal.

Paul Toner, a lawyer who’s representing a group of Kater Street residents, reiterated his claim that the bill constitutes spot zoning. He and one of his clients said the proposal doesn’t provide a proper transition between low-density and high-density development.

But many more witnesses spoke in favor of the proposal. Some, including Kater Street resident Allen Edmunds, said that the current proposal from Dranoff is the best they’ve seen of the handful of failed proposals that have been floated during the theater’s four decades of vacancy. Edmunds said that the developers had been conscientious in trying to respond to the Kater Street residents’ concerns; the residents, he said, continually raised the threshold for what was an acceptable level of compromise.

Lauren Vidas, the chair of South of South Neighborhood Association, said that despite the property receiving a rezoning by ordinance rather than through the zoning board, the process involved more community involvement than almost any other project she’s been involved in. Marcus Iannozzi of the South Street West Business Association said that while the community is considering a wider remapping of the neighborhood, the Royal should be remapped now because there is finally a viable redevelopment proposal.

Vidas also said that at SOSNA’s last meeting, attendees voted overwhelmingly to support the project.

In an interview with PlanPhilly last week, Councilman Kenyatta Johnson, who introduced the rezoning bill, said that he tends to put the issues and concerns of neighbors who live nearest to a given proposal above those of neighbors who live further away. But on Tuesday, despite the unresolved issues with the Kater Street neighbors, Johnson supported the committee’s approval of the bill.

“Members of the community have always advocated for some type of development and revitalization of the Royal Theater,” Johnson said. “… We worked with the developers to provide a level of concessions in regards to some community concerns, and I must say they have gone over and beyond the call of duty to address those concerns.”

If the bill is approved by the full Council, which could happen next week, construction could begin in the summer of 2015 and be finished 18 months later, according to Peter Kelsen, an attorney for the developers.

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