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