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Old Posted Aug 12, 2017, 2:17 PM
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Kimmel Center pursues radical plan to remake the Merriam Theater

The Kimmel Center is laying the groundwork for an ambitious reworking of the Merriam Theater that would demolish part of the building and replace it with a tower that could be up to 32 stories high.

Plans are still early, and could move in a different direction. But ideally, the performing arts center, which purchased the century-old theater from the University of the Arts in November, would partner with a real estate developer to raze the seven-story building fronting South Broad Street that currently houses the theater’s lobby and offices above.

In its place would go a tower whose base would contain roomier lobby spaces and amenities leading directly into the theater at multiple levels. Above the theater lobby levels, the new tower, likely residential, would continue to rise, with larger floors possible by cantilevering over the Merriam Theater itself.

The hall — with its richly colored murals and decorative plaster work — would undergo a restoration, backstage rigging and other equipment would be updated, and new seating installed. The project would “take the bones of a handsome theater of its period and revitalize it for the next hundred years,” said Richard Maimon, partner at the architecture firm KieranTimberlake, which created the scheme.

“Right now we have a number of artists that just won’t perform there because of the condition of the theater,” so a renovation would provide “the chance for us to increase the interest,” says Kimmel Center president Anne Ewers.

One attractive aspect of the plan is the prospect that the Kimmel might not have to seek big money from a donor community already being solicited for major campaigns for the Philadelphia Orchestra, Philadelphia Museum of Art, and other institutions. The Kimmel sees potential revenue sources in selling air rights for a tower over the Merriam, as well as rights to naming the tower and renaming the theater.

How much revenue?

“It all depends on negotiations with the developers,” says Ewers, adding that state money might also be sought. “A lot will depend on what we figure out in terms of what we’re going to do and what the price tag is going to be. But certainly there are some great revenue opportunities in the naming and air rights and the relationship we work out with the developer.”

There is much to do before such a plan could proceed. Aside from seeking proposals from developers, set to begin this week, the Kimmel has retained a series of consultants to solicit opinions from various constituents — neighbors, the arts community, and the general public. A public meeting is being planned for late September to air thoughts and concerns, and the Kimmel hopes developers might bring other proposals, such as mixed-use ideas for the building connecting the theater to the street.

“We’re coming to the nexus of a conversation between the development community and the public to come to a place where we can by the end of this year have more definitive plans to move forward,” said Ross S. Richards, Kimmel senior vice president of facilities and operations. “The venue needs a lot of work, and this is our opportunity to get it right for the long-term.”
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