The Ritz Five Theater in Society Hill may be upgraded and expanded into a mixed use development, including a multi-story apartment building.
The theater is a Landmark Theaters property, but Mosaic Development Partners – the developer with plans to turn the Blue Horizon boxing venue on North Broad Street into the boutique Hotel Blue – is the national chain’s local partner.
Reached by phone late last week, Mosaic’s Leslie Smallwood Lewis and Gregory Reaves said the possible project is so extremely preliminary, they didn’t want to talk about it.
“It’s so early on, there’s nothing definitive. There are no plans in place. We are literally at the drawing board,” Reaves said. “There is a great potential that nothing could happen.”
But if the ideas Mosaic shared with the Society Hill Civic Association’s Zoning and Historic Preservation Committee do take place, the changes would be significant.
Mosaic told the committee the existing Ritz building might be torn down. The new theater facility could be modernized and expanded, with the screens at the Bourse location relocated to Society Hill, bringing the number there to eight, said Zoning and Historic Preservation Committee Chairwoman Lorna Katz Lawson.
The rooms housing each screen would be smaller, but “with comfy chairs and alcoholic beverages served by waitresses. You could rent theaters for private showings, parties, whatever,” Katz Lawson said. Committee members were not thrilled by the idea of another liquor license in the neighborhood, she said.
There would be apartments built atop the theaters. “A 14-story apartment building. That is their minimum,” Katz Lawson said. There would be about 90 apartments, she said.
The developer also hopes to use part of Dock Street as an outdoor cafe, Katz Lawson said.
Dock Street is wide near the theater, she said, but that width is quickly eaten up at night, with theater and restaurant traffic and “triple parked” cars waiting for valets.
The ideas presented at the meeting with Katz Lawson’s committee called for providing no parking, something that would require a zoning variance.
No height variance would be needed to build 14 stories high on the site, Katz Lawson said. Any building over 50 feet tall on the parcel at 214 Walnut Street would have to be built at a 25-foot setback, because of its proximity to the national park, Katz Lawson said.
The height talked about at the committee meeting would impact views from Society Hill Towers – the North Tower is just across the street – but there would be no effect on light or air circulation, she said.
Then there is the issue of the current Ritz Five building itself.
Katz Lawson would rather not see the current Ritz building razed, but said due to a decision made about a decade ago, it does not have any historic protection.
The Ritz was built in the 1970s by its former owner, the late Ramon L. Posel.
While centuries younger than some of the buildings in its neighborhood, Katz Lawson said the Ritz is “a very modern response to the historic district. The color, the scale … replicates the sense of how older buildings were made.”
A decade ago, when the Society Hill Historic District earned its status, both the Ritz and the Positano Coast building across the street, which was built at the same time, were listed as contributing to the district, Katz Lawson said. If that status had remained, they would have been protected. But Posel appealed the designation and won, she said. The Positano building has since undergone significant renovations.
So if the Ritz building were slated for a tear-down, “There’s no way we could object. There’s no way we can go back in time and try to have it reclassified as contributing.”
The low scale of the Ritz and other buildings also relate to Dock Street in a way that harkens to the street’s past life as a waterway. “That’s why the Merchant’s Exchange is where it is,” Katz Lawson said. “People were bringing commodities in and trading them there. Dock Street is called Dock Street because that’s where the docks were.”
Both Katz Lawson and Society Hill Civic Association President Steven Weixler also characterized the ideas presented to the committee by Mosaic as preliminary to the point where they are not sure what, if anything, will happen.
Mosaics Smallwood Lewis said the opinions of the neighborhood residents are important, which is why the preliminary meeting was held. “We only met with them to let them know we are trying to come up with some ideas,” she said.
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