Deconstructing Bart Blatstein

Understanding Bart Blatstein's impact on Philadelphia is easy: He's the most creative developer this city has seen in a generation. Understanding the man himself? That's a whole different story.

IN RECENT YEARS, it seemed there might be only one Bart Blatstein—a developer the entire city could rally around. The way the narrative went, Blatstein wasn’t just transforming Philadelphia. He had transformed himself.

When Blatstein first appeared in the public eye, in the mid-’80s, he secured a reputation as a canny businessman but an uninspired builder. He purchased properties no one else wanted: great swaths of land on the Delaware, a chunk of Manayunk. Blatstein built windowless theaters and retail shopping centers. One of his most prudent investments turned out to be land he never developed, a parcel of nothing on the Delaware that he acquired for $2 million and sold, around a decade later, for $65 million. By this time, in the mid-’90s, competitors in the development arena had to concede his business acumen. But in terms of crafting buildings that inspire—the way the towering, all-glass Liberty Place suggested Philadelphia could modernize and cleave the sky—Blatstein wasn’t even on the radar.

The rush of liquidity he got from these early business successes, however, bought him freedom to pursue his own path. “I could take more risks, because I had something to show banks and creditors,” he says. “Which is good, because I don’t want to be owned. I like to do what I want to do.”

He kept going. In 2005, he unveiled Liberties Walk, his first real salvo in the battle to make something special out of Northern Liberties. In 2006, he completed Avenue North, an impressive 1,200-bed housing facility for Temple students combined with a massive retail and theater complex. This initial stimulus created momentum for the slow growth of one of Philadelphia’s most impoverished neighborhoods. But the architecture spoke of personal transformation. Unlike his theaters in Manayunk and along the Delaware, this was no windowless box. “I went crazy with the glass,” says Blatstein, “because I wanted to make this an urban theater. The windows connect what’s going on inside with the life on the street.”

Blatstein was growing before our eyes. But Northern Liberties brought his reputation to a crucial tipping point.

In 2000, when Blatstein first acquired the old Schmidt’s brewing site, the entire area north of Poplar Street was urban void—abandoned industrial buildings haunted by squatters, junkies, prostitutes, drug dealers and sneak thieves. “If you walked through there,” remembers Freedman, “you had to be careful not to get pulled into the dark. Because there were, like, zombies.”

Blatstein spent roughly 10 years refashioning Northern Liberties, building a community based on the precepts of the New Urbanism—a push for walkable, dynamic cities, towns and neighborhoods. There are numerous ways to gauge his success: Property values shot up, fivefold. Blatstein even brought the community a shiny new supermarket. But what best signifies his accomplishment is the Piazza, an ambitious creation inspired by a trip he took to Rome.

In rough statistical terms, the Piazza at Schmidts is an 80,000-square-foot public gathering space, balanced by dozens of independent retail shops, residences, restaurants and offices. But getting caught up in tallying the Piazza’s parts would be a mistake. Because the Piazza is all about the spaces between the buildings. Every pillar, wall and edifice has been constructed to let life come flooding in. On a warehouse sealing off the south end, a giant 40-foot-tall LED flat-screen television broadcasts the Phillies and other local sports teams, suffusing the Piazza with cheers. During the day, runners trace serpentine patterns between the tables and lounge chairs. At night, a regular series of movies brings people from age eight to 80 out to sit together under the stars. Weekends often feature live music or a DJ on the main stage, luring passersby to stop and dance. Young marrieds bring their toddlers. Oldsters sip wine and stroll the funky shops. Young singles come here to get laid.

In sum, Philadelphia happens here, in all its permutations. And the space is so welcoming—­the architectural alchemy so right—that the Piazza has forced people to use different words in connection with the once-mediocre Bart Blatstein: words like “magic” and “visionary.”

“It was incredibly brave,” says Brian O’Neill, a leading developer and Blatstein’s friend. “When he showed me his ideas, I thought, ‘Uh. I just don’t see it.’ But he saw it.”
Not even a trio of murders—including a drug-related homicide when the apartments first opened and a recent slaying when a late-night argument erupted into gunfire—have detracted from the Piazza’s success. Such is the evident cost, it seems, of erecting a new neighborhood on the Philly frontier.

So when Blatstein announced the acquisition of two properties on North Broad Street—the old state office building at Spring Garden and the Inquirer headquarters on Callowhill—optimism ran so high that Philadelphians started fitting a new King of Development for his crown. Inquirer business reporter Joe Distefano best captured the Blat-mentum, wondering in his column if Bart Blatstein was “the new Willard Rouse for this generation.”

At first glance, to students of city history, the question might seem too bold: Rouse, the man who erected that skyline-defining tower of Liberty Place, and … Bart Blatstein? But I asked it of numerous sources, and nearly all—including the Inquirer’s deeply influential architecture critic, Inga Saffron—said yes. “He’s in that kind of conversation,” she says. “Bart, more than our mayors or the city planning commission, is determining just what kind of city people will be in when they walk through Philadelphia 50 years from now.”

This is big talk, the kind of chatter that comprises the first rough draft of history. But when Blatstein announced his actual plans for North Broad Street, his own history seemed to repeat itself: A casino?

The very idea seemed like “Bad Bart” all over again, a reversal of the developer’s transformation, the box-maker returned.

When Saffron heard the news, she turned to Twitter and voiced what seemed like a city’s collective groan: “Blatstein,” she wrote, “has lost his mind.”