The legacy of one of Philadelphia's most prominent and controversial developers will ultimately be determined by what happens in Northern Liberties.
Blatstein also scrupulously tries to avoid the trap of discussing his "vision"--the vaunted ability to see what could be where others only see what is. Such self-aggrandizing, he says, provokes resentment. But as he admits, "every developer has an ego" and Blatstein's surfaces with the regularity and heft of a whale seeking air.
The protagonist in Bart Blatstein's stories is Bart Blatstein. And his tales of developmental derring-do tend to revolve around his buying previously worthless properties and casting them anew, rendering them so worthwhile that the value of nearby properties escalates too.
Shortly after calling Roberts to make sure she talked about how awful the Cescaph� catering hall was when he bought it, he arrives in his Cadillac and does the honors himself. He walks over to the garage that sits next door to the catering hall and speaks to George Pohorilenko, a 27-year business owner in Northern Liberties and the longtime owner of Sam's Garage.
"George," he says. "How bad, how awful, was this building next door when I bought it? In comparison to what it is now?"
"Let me put it this way," Pohorilenko replies. "Before Bart got it, it was as bad or worse than mine."
"Worse," says Blatstein. "It was worse."
Pohorilenko, as it turns out, has negotiated the sale of his garage. Blatstein says Pohorilenko's building probably tripled in value after he moved the catering and banquet hall in next door. The interaction is, in many ways, symbolic of everyone's fears: To one side stands Blatstein, the change agent, with his hair neatly coiffed and the constant smile of a man piling up his life's biggest victories. He works out frequently, totes no middle-aged paunch and looks ready to carry on with another 20 years of activity.
Pohorilenko is older, speaks in accented English and moves with less certainty. He's dressed like a laborer, in overalls. Blatstein's arrival made him more comfortable financially, but he's leaving. As guys like Blatstein show up, men like Pohorilenko move out.
It's a tale as old as time. The artists who turned Old City into the place to be moved out when new developers raised the rents. The artists moved, in fact, to Northern Liberties. And now they'll likely pick up and move even further north, past Girard Avenue, because NoLibs is getting Blatsteined!
Vast loft spaces fit for artists and young couples recently rented here for as little as $700. Blatstein's first building at Liberties Walk features one- bedroom apartments for a little more than nine bills and two-bedrooms without the character of those lofts for $1,200.
Breaking off his conversation with Pohorilenko, Blatstein walks into the vast warehouse space of Sam's Garage, where he again casts himself as the agent of change, the bringer of light. The room is windy and the ceiling looks to be in a state of decay. In this space George Pohorilenko once housed dozens of cars in need of repair. But the massive room is basically empty now.
"The building next door was a lot worse," says Blatstein in low tones, pointing at the ceiling. "But this will give you a feel for it. We had rain coming in through the ceiling, big holes. I'm telling you, when we got a hold of it, it was a nightmare."
A Rich Man Enters the Kingdom
Bart Blatstein slides into his Caddy, a sweet ride equipped with XM radio and a GPS monitor. The developer doesn't hide his pleasure--or his surprise--at his own success. "I've gone beyond, beyond any goals I ever set for myself," he says. "Financially, I'm successful beyond anything I ever even imagined imagining."
Sometimes he also performs the kind of charmingly generous and nutty acts that only a rich man can.
Tommy Updegrove, a thirtysomething entrepreneur who co-owns a marketing company, PaperStreet, says Blatstein sent him on an all-expenses-paid trip to Italy to get him excited about the piazza he was building in Northern Liberties. "It was unbelievable," says Updegrove, better known as Tommy Up. "He just wrote us a check. Then he called us every hour. 'Are you in Navona? Are you on the piazza there?' We just drank wine and saw the sights. The check he wrote covered basically everything for me, my partner and my girlfriend."
At the time Tommy Up had no connection to Blatstein. Now he's renting an apartment from him and office space on the new Liberties Walk. Blatstein says now, "This is one of the great things you can do in my position. And it always comes back to you."
Up is also a Blatstein partner these days, doing marketing work for Tower Investments. And he's introduced Blatstein to others in the community.
As he drives by Rustica, a restaurant at 903 N. Second St., Blatstein calls "Hey, Frank" to the owner, who's standing on the sidewalk drinking his morning coffee.