The legacy of one of Philadelphia's most prominent and controversial developers will ultimately be determined by what happens in Northern Liberties.
In the Beginning
Bart Blatstein is, of course, already famous in Philadelphia development circles. He's the guy who bought an unwanted parcel of land along the Delaware in 1986 and spun it (transformed it!) into millions. He did it by building a series of ugly pink concrete boxes, strip malls and cineplexes, but in building the now famous Riverview Plaza he also created a vibrant commercial district along Delaware Avenue when all anyone else saw was a dead zone. (He pulled a similar maneuver with similarly ugly but profitable results in Manayunk.)
Then came Northern Liberties. Blatstein says buying that first vast parcel of land changed him. Blatstein never set foot in the Schmidt's site until he owned it. But once it was his, he drove over, parked his Caddy on Second Street and ducked through a hole in the fence. What he found was an urban netherworld. All the windows were broken. Huge steel vats had been dragged out of the front doors, and support beams had been torn away.
Some of the buildings sagged or tilted to the side. Black Hawk Down, thought Blatstein. Somalia.
Wherever he went, there were ghosts--pipers, prostitutes, the homeless. Sometimes they came out of the old buildings; other times they just appeared. He felt like Alice tripping through the looking glass.
"Over time," he says, "I saw an opportunity to do something different--to do something special. I've already made enough money. I could have retired a long time ago. But there were some things I'd been thinking about, some things I'd seen--piazzas in Italy, in Rome--and I saw an opportunity to do that here. So the shopping center fell by the wayside, and I started looking at doing something a lot more ambitious."
Blatstein was headed in a new direction.
"I'm proud of the things I accomplished," he says, "the shopping centers in places where no one thought they could work. But I changed. I want to do things now that have more meaning, to create welcoming public spaces and contribute something special to the community."
It's a hell of a story, this transformation of a shopping center mogul into an urban artist.
Blatstein received fulsome praise for his conversion.
Liberties Walk, featuring apartment buildings that face inward toward a common area with shops on the ground floor, promises a community with neighbors who will know each other's names. And his proposal for the Schmidt's site includes his beloved piazza concept: a central public space surrounded by first-floor retail businesses and apartments above that interlock in irregular patterns rather than rising like towers.
There are, of course, doubters. The developer's version of events, they say, leaves out significant details. "There are people in the community," says City Councilman Frank DiCicco, "who worry Bart will wind up building a shopping center there."
DiCicco, among others, says Blatstein adopted his more ambitious tack only after he couldn't get any major retailers to buy into his initial shopping-center plan. "He has said on more than one occasion that he was having trouble getting tenants," says Matt Ruben, president of the Northern Liberties Neighborhood Association.
In this version of events, the only reason Blatstein started planning a neighborhood was to give retailers a wider customer base. That's it. No conversion--just capitalism.
But Ruben, who spoke to PW as a resident and not in his role as president of the NLNA, says the media's incessant focus on Blatstein is fair to neither him nor Northern Liberties. "It distracts from the real issues facing our community," he says. "This isn't a soap opera. A civic association naturally has different priorities and objectives than a development company or a real estate agency. Written agreements and strong accountability mechanisms are more important than personalities."
Sins of the Father
Bart Blatstein grew up in Northeast Philadelphia, where his father Harry was a prominent figure in local political circles during the Tate and Rizzo administrations. The elder Blatstein ran a catering business and started HB's, a now-defunct nightclub that made an entrepreneur out of Blatstein's younger brother Ricky.
At the height of his success in the '80s, Ricky Blatstein owned Niteworks, the Empire Rock Club, the Trocadero, the Phoenix and Walnut Federal. But Ricky's career nose-dived, and by 1989 he declared bankruptcy. He now owns nine airport bars, and an Inquirer investigation recently revealed that several of those bars are co-owned by the wife of Ron White, the man at the center of the FBI's City Hall corruption investigation. (Bart Blatstein dismissed White from the team working on his Penn's Landing proposal shortly after some of Tower Investments' records were subpoenaed in connection with the probe.)
But this was hardly the first time the Blatsteins faced public scrutiny.