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.

IT’S A WARM AFTERNOON in early May, and Bart Blatstein is dressed in his summer uniform—dress pants, a short-sleeve polo, and a pair of sunglasses that hide his eyes. Blatstein is about six feet tall, slim, with a speaking voice of great range: He can hit everything from a low, droll baritone to a high nasal exclamation. And his face is equally animated, betraying his every emotion—from glee to anger to the cold You’re dead to me stare of the Godfather. Today, as he walks and talks, skirting the corner of Broad and Callowhill, on the site of his proposed new project, it’s with the comfortable, self-assured air of a man at home. That fits, because he owns the place—all 18 legendary floors of the Inquirer building, and the signature clock face at the top. He has invited me here to explain why his casino will be special.

“I want you to see what I saw,” says Blatstein, “and hear what I thought as I saw it.”

He is aware of Saffron’s tweet. But he tells me he has yet to speak with her about it. “This is not about Inga,” he says. “I like her. But it’s not about her or anyone else. If I think something will work, I’m going to find a way to do it, no matter what anyone thinks.”

In many respects, this is the truest Blatstein. The developer. The guy with a vision and the will to pursue it. But Inga Saffron remembers things differently. “Bart called me within an hour after I sent that tweet,” she says. “And he just said to me, ‘Inga, wait till you see it. Wait till I show you the plans.’”

This contradiction between his version of events and Saffron’s also reveals a facet of the real guy: He tightly manages the flow of information surrounding him. As story subjects go, Blatstein can be maddening. The list of topics he put “off the record” or implored me not to write about is too long to list. Highlights include his father’s early-’70s bribery conviction, his family, and many of his political views. Some of this is understandable. Blatstein’s friends all report he is a deeply committed family man and intensely private. But much of the material he deems too hot to touch is innocuous.

Consider: At 57, Blatstein is terrifically fit—with a youthful face, no discernible paunch, and shoulders that taper down to a slim waist.

“What do you do to stay in shape?” I ask.

“I exercise,” he says.

“What kind of exercise, specifically?”

Exercise-exercise,” he says.
“Do you run?”

“I exercise,” he repeats. Then, as if to throw me a bone. “I don’t run.”

Well, thanks. But the funny thing is, despite the boundary-setting, Blatstein insists upon his own transparency. “I’m not complicated,” he tells me, repeatedly. “I’m just a kid from Northeast Philly who got lucky. You keep trying to discover something more about me. But there’s nothing to find.”

The only time Blatstein is really free, or at least free-ish, is when he’s discussing his projects. A few times, as he parades up and down Callowhill, marking off distances, showing me where he was when revelation struck, passersby stop in their tracks and gawk for a moment at the man who seems to be conducting the streetscape.

A casual point of his right index finger sketches the hotel, 18 stories tall, that will rise up in the old Inquirer building. Two hands, fingers splayed outward like a magician’s in mid-“Presto,” transform the building’s back end into a spa and fitness center, entertainment space, and an enclosed parking garage. A wave of his left hand, toward the 1500 block of Callowhill, replaces the garage there with retail on the first floor and a casino on the second. But it’s with the next phase of his development that Blatstein starts conjuring up some unexpected music—his own personal Fantasia.

“I was standing here,” he says, anchoring himself on the southwest corner of 15th and Callowhill, “when I realized … ”

He lifts his right hand, points an index finger at the back of the Inquirer building, and draws an imaginary line in the sky: The three contiguous blocks of the city that he had just acquired could easily be joined. He quickly imagined sky bridges connecting one structure to the next. “I thought, ‘That’s cool, but what can I do with it?’”

The origin of an idea is difficult to track. As Blatstein puts it, “You take 35 years in this business, a whole lifetime of influences, and something comes together.” In this case, what Blatstein imagined was both ambitious and outlandish: “A rooftop village.”

The concept takes a little explaining. But in short, about 60 feet off the ground, on rooftops extending more than a block and a half—from above the Inquirer’s old printing plant all the way to 16th Street—Blatstein plans to erect a “village reminiscent of old Europe.”

Crooked and meandering streets will weave through a collection of two- and three-story buildings housing small shops, cafes and restaurants. The two sections of the village will be connected by a “sky bridge” traversing North 15th Street. And it will include a retractable glass roof, so the weather will always be hospitable for an “outdoor” espresso, even when it’s not.

The idea will likely strike many as a tad too fantastical, a Disney Euro village in the sky. But just as the Piazza once inspired him, Blatstein is clearly energized by the vision.

“You know how in nature shows, in rain forests, scientists can go up into the canopy of the forest and find a whole different ecosystem?” he asks. “That’s the concept, only what you’ll find here will be like Europe. With the buildings around, you won’t feel like you’re on a roof.”

Blatstein says the casino on the ground floor will only “happen” to be there. Visitors will be able to enter the rooftop village without setting foot in the gambling hall. And the village will be laid out, carefully, to cultivate a “sense of mystery.” Because the streets will run at angles, visitors will have no opportunity to see from one “block” to the next.

Finally, in showman mode, Blatstein takes off his sunglasses—the reveal of his plan leading to a reveal of the man himself. “It’s going to be absolutely fan-tastic,” he says. “This isn’t a casino. This is so much more. This is a one-of-a-kind development. That’s my promise to Philadelphia—that there is nothing else like this in the entire world.”