Knockout: Philly design board approves plan for housing at Blue Horizon boxing site

An artist's rendering shows the 13-story apartment tower Orens Brothers Real Estate plans to build

An artist's rendering shows the 13-story apartment tower Orens Brothers Real Estate plans to build on the site of the historic Blue Horizon boxing arena. (Wulff Architects)

Philadelphia’s design review board voted on Tuesday to advance a plan to replace North Broad Street’s famed former Blue Horizon boxing arena with a 13-story apartment tower, while preserving several historic mansions at the site.

During a virtual hearing, Blue Horizon owner and developer Orens Brothers Real Estate presented the city’s Civic Design Review with a plan to bring 14,000 square feet of retail space and 208 units of housing to the historic North Philadelphia commercial corridor.

On the 1300 block of North Broad near Thompson Street, the Blue Horizon complex comprises three 19th-century brownstones originally built as lavish residences but later combined and converted into a Moose Lodge and, in the 1960s, a boxing ring. The arena, situated behind the mansions, would go on to become a storied location for fights — regarded highly internationally and used as a location for a “Rocky” sequel. But in 2010, the 1,200-seat venue closed over financial difficulties.

Over the last decade since, preservationists have sought to save the iconic boxing ring even as the surrounding blocks transformed. But while the current project preserves more of the Blue Horizon complex than past proposals, it would spell the end of the arena itself.

The developers said they would instead preserve and restore the brownstone mansions as retail space, include on-site moderate-income housing units, and install a plaque reflecting the “historic significance” of the site.

“We’re not going to change the facade in any way,” said Dave Schmauk of Wulff Architects, Inc., which designed the project. “Everyone is happy with that.”

Ultimately, the board recommended advancing the development, citing the complex nature of the site and lengthy vacancy.

“This is a very challenging project,” CDR chair Daniel Garofalo said. “But this committee is pro-development and we want to give developers every chance to succeed.”

While the board acts solely in an advisory capacity, completion of the CDR review moves the project one step closer to ending a long saga over the future of the 1314 N. Broad Street site.

The project isn’t Orens’ first attempt to revive the site. In 2015, an $18 million proposal from the developer in partnership with Mosaic Development sought to demolish nearly the entirety of the property to make way for a hotel. The threat led to a push to nominate the building to the city’s historic register. Ultimately, the exterior facade was certified, but not the interior boxing ring.

But even with that decision and state grants in hand, the proposal stalled. Later, those plans were refined into a 140-room Marriott hotel concept under the company’s boutique “Moxy” brand, before being scrapped and replaced with the current residential plans.

CDR member Leo Addimando, managing partner of Alterra Property Group and president of the Building Industry Association of Philadelphia, a trade group, said it was important to salvage at least part of the historic site.

“Some people might bemoan the loss of this beloved boxing venue,” said Addimando. “But this is also about putting this building back into public use.”

No public comments were made during the Blue Horizon presentation, however the project will require additional review as it requires zoning variances.

CDR also voted to advance two other nearby proposals along North Broad Street.

The board approved a plan for 922 N. Broad Street that would bring 134,000 square feet of residential units and 21,760 square feet of retail to a former CVS pharmacy at Broad Street and Girard Avenue. Another housing project that won support would plant 63 housing units at 813 N. Broad Street, replacing a defunct gas station about a block away with the homes as well as 13 parking spaces.

During the latter presentations, Diane Monroe, from 14th Democratic Ward executive committee, memorialized the loss of the Blue Horizon arena.

“I went to many, many fights there,” she said. “It’s just sad to hear.”

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