The legacy of one of Philadelphia's most prominent and controversial developers will ultimately be determined by what happens in Northern Liberties.
The patriarch, Harry, served a year's probation after a bribery conviction in connection with a gig he had supervising construction at Veterans Stadium. Bart Blatstein's detractors like to think of him as having issued from this same cauldron of politics and financial shell games. But he says he was formed by far gentler currents, citing the close-knit Northeast Philadelphia community he was raised in, complete with old-fashioned things like neighbors, a sense of community and love of family at the center of his life.
He credits his father's political connections with giving him experiences few children can claim. "I got to meet businessmen, mayors, governors at a very young age," says Blatstein. "And from that I learned how to talk to people."
In Blatstein's version of events, he was the luckiest kid in the world, someone who grew up in a close family, fell in love with his hometown and now gets to make his mark. Last November Blatstein sold his South Philadelphia shopping centers, Riverview Plaza and Columbus Crossing, for $75 million. So money, he says, isn't his primary motivator now.
"I grew up in an environment that offered a lot of places to hang out," he says. "And I like the idea of creating those kinds of places. I remember a place [in Society Hill] called Lilly's, where people would congregate. I'm not trying to recreate that exactly, but I am trying to get something that offers the same kind of dynamic--a place to hang out. A place where I want to hang out."
Blatstein now lives on the Main Line with his wife and two children--not a terribly cool place to hang out--but we are edging closer to his conversion experience. It takes a village to raise a child, and a similarly large number of people turned Bart Blatstein toward his dynamic plan for Northern Liberties.
Inquirer architecture critic Inga Saffron suggested he read a book called Suburban Nation, which calls for walkable streets and inviting public spaces. Blatstein did, and understood that the so-called "new urbanism" the book espouses was the kind of neighborhood he grew up in. He now keeps the book on a shelf in his office.
"I do think he's evolved," says Saffron. "And it's been interesting to watch."
Most conversations about Bart Blatstein conclude with someone saying, "He's a developer," as if developers were a separate species.
Saffron knows people think of developers as inherently evil. But she believes they really want to be loved.
"I think a lot of what Bart's looking for, in spite of all his financial success," she says, "is respect. He wants to be loved for what he's doing. And there probably is a little bit of a savior thing too. But right now all he's built, basically, are strip malls and movie theaters. So he hasn't saved anyone yet."
While not pulling any punches, Saffron's heartened by Blatstein's new direction. "He went from these really hack architects," she says, "who basically just enabled him, to Erdy and McHenry, a really cool pair of architects. Now we just need to see it get built."
Blatstein Gets Religion
Bart Blatstein's introduction to the architects at Erdy-McHenry came through Tim McDonald, a member of the NLNA urban design committee.
Blatstein speaks candidly about how his ego almost prevented him from meeting them at all. He was at "some neighborhood meeting," as he remembers it. McDonald was sitting next to him. "I wasn't too fond of him," says Blatstein. "To be honest, I really didn't like him. We'd already been tangling at this point for years."
It was August 2003, and Blatstein had already turned away from the shopping centers. But the designs he'd commissioned were, he admits, "Disneyesque."
McDonald suggested Blatstein consider a different look. He handed him a sketch of a more contemporary-looking building that would still fit his vision. Blatstein glanced at the drawing, folded the paper, stuck it in his pocket and said, "Thanks, Tim."
McDonald is an architect and builder himself, but Blatstein showed him no respect. "I didn't want him to think I'd even thought about it," says Blatstein.
Blatstein went home and emptied his pockets: wallet, keys--and the drawing. Telling the story now, he smiles. "I tossed it down," he says. "I said, 'ach!' and tossed it on the table and walked away."
But Blatstein couldn't help himself. He returned to the sketch, looked at it and liked what he saw--which made him angry because he didn't like McDonald and didn't want to like his idea. But there it was.