The Second Coming of Bart Blatstein

The legacy of one of Philadelphia's most prominent and controversial developers will ultimately be determined by what happens in Northern Liberties.

By Steve Volk
Add Comment Add Comment | Comments: 3 | Posted Oct. 13, 2004

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As business breakfasts go, this late September presentation by the Urban Land Institute is flavorless. Cream of wheat without brown sugar. Oatmeal without raisins. An oat bran muffin without butter.

In short order Herb Wetzel of the Redevelopment Authority delivers a long overview of new housing developments across the city. Paul Levy of the Center City District talks about the increasing number of new college graduates who choose to stay in Philadelphia. And developer John Westrum tells the audience of real estate professionals about the difficulties he faces with entrenched neighborhood interests and environmental concerns in building new Brewerytown housing.

When it's finally his turn to speak, developer Bart Blatstein sighs theatrically into his microphone and does what no one else has tried to do: He tells a story.

"Four and a half years ago," he says, "I attended a sheriff's sale of the old Schmidt's brewery--bad beer, great brew house--on a whim. I wore jeans. I sat in the back. And I brought, because I knew if I did make a bid I'd need 10 percent of the sale price, $600,000 in checks with me."

At the mention of the checks, Blatstein has the room. The Union League audience suddenly seems more attentive, as if the developer, with his slow, playful tones, has made their coffee more potent.

"I thought the bidding--if you've ever been to a sheriff's sale, it's very exciting--would just kind of take off," says Blatstein. "But after a woman there met the opening bid of $1 million, there was silence."

Blatstein tells how he sat in the back and stared, dumbfounded, as everyone's hands remained at their sides.

In the silence, he saw opportunity.

Raising his hand, he upped the bid to $1.1 million. He and the woman went back and forth, and when she finally upped the price to $1.6 million he heard hesitancy in her voice. He struck--raising the bid to $1.8 million and forcing his competitor to accept the inevitable. But the property wasn't his just yet.

Sheriff's sales are often marked by fits and starts. As one bidder drops out, another arises to take their place. With his immediate foe vanquished, Blatstein expected a new bidder to join the fray. But again, no one spoke.

"Going once," said the auctioneer.

Blatstein figured someone would definitely jump in.

"Going twice."

Blatstein held his breath.

"Gone!" cried the auctioneer.

The crowd burst into applause.

The then-executive director of the Northern Liberties Neighborhood Association (NLNA) brought him a bottle of champagne on behalf of the neighborhood.

Blatstein exulted in his victory.

On a whim, he'd just spent $1.8 million--a bargain! He also had a bottle of booze, an extra $420,000 in checks and a big, new property that would send his profile soaring, like a gambler's flipping coin, into a realm where only two outcomes seem possible: Heads, he becomes one of the most important developers in modern Philadelphia history. Tails, he goes down as just another guy who tells stories.

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1. Tim lancaster said... on May 15, 2009 at 12:01PM

“For a fifty year old guy with a great love of architecture and real estate. I,m inspired by Mr.Baltstein vision. Working for a competitor in a centre city property mgmt. co. and once having the opportunity to purchase a walk up trinity there in the early nineties. I was shot down by my wife at the time who could not see my vision.Kudos to the modern day Albert Greenfield.”

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2. Daniel Chow said... on Jun 8, 2009 at 10:17AM

“enjoyable reading and very insightful.

i came across this discussion at http://www.italkcash.com/forum/news-feeds/97523-video-wasik-sees-rise-modular-portable-energy-efficient-housing.html

it's a very interesting discussion at italktrash titled "Wasik Sees Rise of Modular, Portable, Energy-Efficient Housing" that i think compliments this article.

May 20, 2007 (Bloomberg) -- Bloomberg News columnist John F. Wasik talks with Tom Keene about his forthcoming book from Bloomberg Press, ``The Cul-De-Sac Syndrome, Turning Around the Unsustainable Dream,'' energy-efficient housing and personal finance.

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3. Anonymous said... on Dec 29, 2011 at 12:58AM

“i find it utterly funny that he would have tenants on his properties whose brothers are known child abusers let alone they are known in the national socialist movement. Seems as though Mr. Baltstein should do background checks on prospective clients before leasing anything to them. In my opinion who really wants to eat food or anything else served by jewish haters?”

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