It looks like Bethlehem’s crumbling Boyd Theatre has screened its final movie.
Fans of the city’s last cinema house hoped the charming theater might be saved when developer Charles C. Jefferson bought the property in January 2016 for $1.35 million. But, alas, it looks like the water-logged building is beyond saving.
Bethlehem Mayor Bob Donchez confirmed the developer plans to tear down the theater and build apartments there.
Jefferson told Lehigh Valley Business on Tuesday that he plans to demolish the theater to make way for a $22 million, 120-unit apartment project with lower-level retail by leveraging a federal opportunity zone, a tax incentive written into the new tax law.
Jefferson did not respond to a phone message seeking information on his plans, and emails for himself and his company came back as undeliverable.
The opportunity zone designation gives developers of commercial and residential projects breaks on capital gains taxes for investing in economically disadvantaged areas. It is meant to encourage urban investment outside of city centers.
The stretch of East Broad Street where the Boyd sits has long vexed city officials. The decaying properties created a sharp demarcation between the city’s restaurant row and Main Street shopping. The Boyd shuttered in 2011 and as it decayed the adjacent storefronts were condemned in 2015. Shortly after, the city declared the property blighted.
“We’ve been waiting a long time to see redevelopment at the Boyd,” city Director of Community and Economic Development Alicia Miller Karner said. “… It is a critical block to us. It is the bridge between Main Street and a significant residential area.”
Donchez has long said retail and housing should be a key element of the redevelopment of the Boyd property.
On Wednesday, Donchez said while it’s unfortunate economics mean the Boyd must be torn down, Jefferson is proposing a very good project for the city.
“I think that block has a lot of potential,” the mayor said. “I think it is underutilized.”
Jefferson has shared conceptual designs with the city and the mayor is quite pleased with the proposed mixed-use. New housing units downtown will bring more vitality to the city center and the retail will hopefully better link Broad Street to Main Street, Donchez said.
“It makes that block stronger,” he said.
Jefferson told Lehigh Valley Business that the entire project could cover 147,800-square-feet with about eight total floors. Two floors would front onto East Broad Street with about eight to the rear, including lower level parking and retail topped with apartments.
“I think there is a tremendous demand for apartments in the downtown,” Donchez said. “That’s not just Bethlehem, if you look at Allentown and Easton too.”
The developer estimates that construction could start this fall, but no plans have been filed with the city.
The Boyd sits within one of the census tracts targeted via the opportunity zone program and Bethlehem’s Northside 2027 boundaries, a targeted neighborhood revitalization program that includes a city Local Economic Revitalization Tax Assistance — or LERTA — incentive.
LERTA is designed to encourage property improvements in deteriorating areas by phasing in any increases in taxes that come with renovations. Fixing up a facade won’t trigger a reassessment, but changing a property’s use or adding square footage with a new garage or porch does. The Northside LERTA comes with a 10 percent tax abatement over 10 years.
“I am excited about the prospect of redevelopment here,” Karner said. “Across the street doesn’t have the traditional retail frontage, so it becomes more critical for this stretch to support the continuation of the (central business district) and connecting the neighborhood to the downtown.”
This marks the second major residential development pitched for Bethlehem’s historic downtown core, although the Boyd sits outside of the historic district itself. Former ArtsQuest head Jeff Parks and developer Dennis Benner and sons have plans in the works for a $15 million, 50-unit luxury apartment building at 143 W. Broad St., dubbed Skyline West.
At one time, Moravian College was interested in buying and rehabbing the former movie theater into a performance venue, but abandoned the plans when faced with a $30 million price tag and no major donor to make it a reality.
Water damage has long plagued the 1,100-seat Boyd and the buildings surrounding it. The theater closed following heavy rains in May 2011.
When the city condemned the property in 2015, officials found an elaborate tarp system along with 50-gallon drums set up in second floor office space.
The property consists of the theater, which has an orchestra pit and dressing rooms backstage, five storefronts, 10,000 square feet of office space and a onetime nightclub below the street surface.
Currently, Jefferson’s company Jefferson-Werner LLC is working with Lehigh University to renovate the former Lehigh Valley Cold Storage building, 321 Adams St. in South Bethlehem, into 30 market-rate apartments, a retail space and courtyard. The project dubbed Brinker Lofts also sits in one of Bethlehem’s five opportunity zones, linked to census tracts.