The legacy of one of Philadelphia's most prominent and controversial developers will ultimately be determined by what happens in Northern Liberties.
Paintings adorn the walls. The ceilings are high, and the building's innards--filled, as always these days, with "youthful," "energetic" workspaces--are exposed. The common space between offices is dominated by a series of sculptures, such as a cross between an acorn and a human head and a freestanding metallic, tentacled thing strewn across the floor.
Roberts, who frequently shadows Blatstein as a second set of eyes and ears, first takes her visitor to a nearby catering and banquet hall at 923 N. Second St. The exterior is both too bright and too stucco for its environs, defects typical of old-school Bart Blatstein productions. It's a theme noticed even by Blatstein's biggest fans.
"I think Bart's proven himself a visionary," says Rich Lombardo, a 34-year veteran of the City Planning Commission. "He's the first in. He did it in South Philadelphia along Delaware Avenue, and he did it in Manayunk. He basically opened up the whole lower part of Main Street there by building a movie theater where no one else would have. Northern Liberties, North Philadelphia--those are continuations. He's the guy who takes the risk."
Lombardo believes Blatstein's current slate of projects will, if completed as planned, "establish him as one of the most prominent developers, one of the big names, in Philadelphia history."
But being the visionary has a cost--for everyone. "I think if there's a consistent criticism of Bart," says Lombardo, "it's the architecture or the materials he uses."
Lombardo sees the problem as twofold. First, Blatstein's buildings, including the first outpost of Liberties Walk, which people started moving into this summer, leap out of their surroundings like sequins at a stone mason's convention. Of course Blatstein defends his work, saying he "wants to celebrate Northern Liberties' differences, its diversity."
But Lombardo says, "It's kind of like, 'Look at me! Look what I did.'"
The building, in effect, advertises its own presence to potential tenants. And the stucco? "It's Dryvit," says Lombardo, "a stucco-like material. That's a brand name. I'm not exactly sure what he's using because there are other brands. But it's got an epoxy base. It's not really a masonry product."
Dryvit, counters Blatstein, allows for design and shaping, while stucco doesn't. "Over the last 10 years," he adds, "everyone's using Dryvit."
Either way, Blatstein's buildings carry an amusement-park sheen. Lombardo says this may be how life works for a development pioneer. "When you're the first builder in a community," he says, "you have to compromise on some things because you aren't going to get huge rents. I think if you cut through the layers of development in any community, you'll see the first in during any boom probably did a lot of the same things."
Hugging herself in a jacket against a light rain, Roberts shows the stucco-like exterior of the banquet hall with a sweep of her hand and announces that its tenant, the Cescaph� Ballroom, bought into Blatstein's vision of the building immediately. As she enters the front door, which opens onto a long entryway and a vast, ornate hall, Roberts' cell phone rings.
She nods a few times, says, "I will, I will," then hangs up. "That was Bart," she announces. "He wants to make sure I tell you how awful this building was when we bought it."
The Way, the Truth, the Light
To understand Bart Blatstein, understand this: He loves to tell stories--about neighborhoods, about trips he's taken, about property he bought and developed. All his stories have a central theme too: "transformation."
"When I bought the Schmidt's site," he says, "it was awful, it was horrible, it was blech!"
It's a running gag with Blatstein. Pretty much any property he purchases forces him to resort to sound effects to define the contours of its blech! The impact of these stories is that Blatstein comes off as an adventurer--a gambling, swashbuckling savior--which can be awfully off-putting, especially to the people who lived in these blech! communities long before he ever arrived there.
"I've brought light to people that haven't seen light in a generation," he told a neighborhood gathering in Northern Liberties shortly after he bought the Schmidt's site.
What could mere mortals say in the light of Bart Blatstein's open checkbook other than thank you, Jesus? Well, as it turned out, they could say quite a lot. Some criticized Blatstein's original plans for the Schmidt's site--the cheesy suburban-style shopping center--so roughly and publicly that Blatstein had his lawyer serve cease-and-desist letters.
Just like that the New Testament savior promised litigious wrath. But to Blatstein's credit, he learned. He now talks mostly about the appreciation he's developed for the fabric of Northern Liberties, its collection of streets and people--independent types, pioneers, artists and especially its old-school, second-, third- and fourth-generation families. The people who paved the way for Blatstein and other developers like him.