The legacy of one of Philadelphia's most prominent and controversial developers will ultimately be determined by what happens in Northern Liberties.
Lost in the Flood
The meeting runs longer than The Godfather and features almost as much drama.
It's Oct. 6, and the Northern Liberties Neighborhood Association is watching a presentation by Scott Erdy and David McHenry, the young architects designing the 50-year-old Blatstein's two major developments in Northern Liberties. Blatstein isn't here, but of course he's ever-present: Bart, some call him; others, Blatstein, pronounced with evident distaste.
Some refer to him merely as the developer, uttering the word as if dislodging a peach pit from their throats. It's a fitting moniker, because Blatstein is positioning himself to be the developer in Philadelphia, with a long list of high-profile projects in North Philadelphia and suburban Coatesville, and a major proposal for Penn's Landing. (See "Bart's Bids," p. 31.)
But Northern Liberties looks set to define Blatstein. He buttressed his Schmidt's site investment by accumulating still more property here, doubling his holdings in the neighborhood to 24 acres.
His plans once called for a vast field of parking and an ugly, boxy shopping center, including a Kmart that would have sorely compromised NoLibs' rough-hewn spirit. But now he proposes an estimated $150 million project, featuring "Liberties Walk"--70 rental units and some 25 first-floor commercial spaces--just across the street from the old Schmidt's site.
As for the Schmidt's site, which begins at the corner of Second and Girard and spreads over about 12 acres, Blatstein is laying out what he calls "a community within the community": 538 apartments, 124 townhouses, a 700-car parking garage and more than 200,000 square feet of commercial space.
It's an ambitious plan and the single most challenging project of his career, not least because of the controversy it's whipped up within the community.
In the Oct. 6 meeting, about a half dozen people stand up to blame the initial phases of Blatstein's construction projects for flooding their basements after the major late- summer rainstorms. Washers, dryers, water heaters, even cars, they say, were destroyed.
There's distrust of Blatstein in Northern Liberties, in part because longtime resident and artist Ray King filed suit against him for damage he says Blatstein's contractor did to his building. At the meeting Tina Roberts, the woman Blatstein calls his "right-hand man," tries to settle everyone down. She says Blatstein's company, Tower Investments, will approach the city as the neighborhood's partners to petition for more capacity in the drainage systems.
The company's lawyer, Carl Primavera, sporting a handsome suit, stands up to point out that people suffered flooding all over the city. "The summer's storms were the worst rains in a thousand years," he says.
"That's bullshit," hisses one woman in the crowd.
"They've screwed up our lives!" shouts someone else.
The drainage problem is so bad, they say, they may not back Blatstein's construction plans until it's resolved.
Blatstein still needs a zoning variance on the north side of the Schmidt's site, but Roberts says Tower Investments can't face any more delays. "We don't have three months," she tells the audience.
The next day Blatstein himself calls PW to say, "The community may leave me no choice but to go back to the plan for a shopping center--because that's what the site is zoned for."
Though the Schmidt's site received zoning approval for a shopping center more than a decade ago, some say the revival of the much-hated idea is an empty threat. The developer, they say, is merely playing poker: Approve these plans or I'll go back to the shopping center you hated.
But it's a threat that cuts both ways. Because if Bart Blatstein winds up erecting a shopping center in Northern Liberties, he'll travel backward into his own past. And Bart Blatstein's past explains why some would blame him for rains and floods.