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.

THE UNOFFICIAL TOUR is a thing of Philadelphia legend. Maybe he runs into you at a board meeting. Or he sees you out for lunch. Or he just calls. “You got a minute?” he asks.

Say yes, and the next thing you know, Bart Blatstein is taking you on a drive into “Bart World”—a trip through the city with him acting as narrator and questioner.

As he drives, Blatstein instructs, explaining how the sidewalks on the Piazza are wider, inviting people to stop and talk, to create life on the street, and how the lights over Liberties Walk act to cocoon people in a dynamic open space.

Some riders also get a glimpse of Blatstein’s office. “It was filled with charts and maps and drawings and photographs,” says PennPraxis founder Harris Steinberg, “showing all of his properties in Northern Liberties and the connections between them.”

In 2006, Steinberg was working on a plan for the Delaware riverfront, trying to persuade landowners, developers and politicians to create a street grid of shops, restaurants and trails along the water. He was drowning in bureaucracy. Entering Blatstein’s office, by comparison, felt like stumbling into a wizard’s shop. There Blatstein was, doing it all himself, conjuring an entire neighborhood out of his own money and the drawings on the wall.

This is Blatstein’s creative side, the part of him that mentors young developers. “My son is one of them,” says Steinberg. “I have no doubt Bart can do it faster on his own. But he has been very generous to people this way.”

End up on the wrong side of him, however, and he can close up quickly. Back in the early ’90s, Bill Harvey served as an attorney for a buyer interested in waterfront land. Blatstein, with whom Harvey had done some business, happened to have some. Harvey arranged a meeting, but it came to nothing, and the buyer ultimately went elsewhere.

“Bart was so deeply disappointed,” remembers Harvey, “that he just stopped talking to me.”

Later, Bally’s showed up, paid Blatstein $65 million for the same land, and set his career on a steeper trajectory. But the silence wore on. “I don’t think I heard from him for about five years,” Harvey said. “And we were friends. Then one day, after five years, he called me and said, ‘I can’t afford to be mad at you anymore. I need you.’”

This second working relationship now appears to be permanent. “I treasure my friendship with Bart,” Harvey says. “But I do have to say that he likes to typify himself as ‘just a kid from the Northeast who got lucky.’ He’s more complicated than that.”