Eric Blumenfeld Is Crazy Enough to Revitalize North Broad Street
Over several weeks, Blumenfeld takes me on various grand tours of his work and life. On the day we climb to the top of the Divine Lorraine, he suggests we “walk the property”—something real estate guys love to do, because it gives them a chance to wear down whoever is with them. So we schlep all over the North Broad Street corridor, walking first on the east side of the street, along the borders of what he hopes will be his school campus. We trudge through the empty Thaddeus Stevens School building, which Blumenfeld will soon begin to retrofit as lofts, and the Stutz Building, which until recently housed a homeless shelter and is now the brand-new central commissary and cooking facility for Stephen Starr’s growing catering empire. Everywhere we walk, we meet people who have worked for Blumenfeld “forever,” some of them friends from as far back as high school. Like the world’s youngest old businessman, Blumenfeld asks each of them to give me a little report on what he or she does.
Then we cross Broad, to where he has already finished two major projects. As we walk down one of the grungier blocks, a homeless guy approaches, asking for money. When I politely turn him down, he goes off on me, yelling in my face. I keep walking, but Blumenfeld stops and confronts him. He fishes his billfold out of his pocket, hands the guy a $5 bill, shakes his hand, but then insists the guy apologize to me. Which he does. I’m not sure how to interpret this whole scene—part grandstanding for a reporter, but also part taking care of “his” neighborhood.
We walk through the old Wilkie Buick building at 600 North Broad, which has been turned into the Vie catering hall, Starr’s new seafood restaurant Route 6, and Marc Vetri’s gastropub Alla Spina. We wander in through the back door of Alla Spina and emerge directly in front of the kitchen, where Vetri is getting his hands saucy testing new hamburger preparations, and talking with his partner and front man, Jeff Benjamin.
It’s unclear whether or not Blumenfeld has prepped them that he’s coming with a reporter and expects them to stop whatever they’re doing to give me a presentation. But they play along and sit down with us, order everything good off their menu, and brief me on the Vetri Foundation for Children, a culinary charity (funded by five percent of the profits from Vetri’s restaurants) with programs to improve both the quality of school dining and the experience. In Blumenfeld’s dream, Vetri and Starr would oversee the food preparation at the shared kitchen and commissary on the new school campus.
The first germ of this whole NoBro Edu-Hood came in 2006 during the rehab of 640 North Broad. From the top of his building, Blumenfeld sometimes watched workers putting a new roof on the nearby Franklin Learning Center and thought, “They are spending way too much money, and they’re never really going to fix the problem”—which, as he saw it, was that their building no longer made sense as a school, but wanted to be a great apartment building.
Then last year, a meeting was arranged between Blumenfeld and the parents’ board at Masterman, as part of the board’s endless quest for solutions to epic overcrowding. The Masterman moms and dads were looking for out-of-the-box ways to use their building and land. But at their second meeting, Blumenfeld floated the concept of actually building them a new school somewhere nearby with the money that could be made selling the old school building to a rehabber (say, him)—and doing the same with several other nearby schools, so some facilities could be shared. Masterman is still the school most interested in the plan, and would probably try it alone. But Blumenfeld believes he can do the shuttle hypnosis necessary to get all the stakeholders on board. (Already there is Fattah, who later tells me, “We are going to get this done.”)
After eating with Vetri and Benjamin, Blumenfeld and I wander up the street to the Metropolitan Opera House. Blumenfeld has, very quietly, just negotiated a joint partnership agreement with the church that owns it, even though he isn’t sure what he wants to do with it. He knows he wants the Sixers to let him build them a new practice facility on the other side of the street, so even though he’s talked to Larry Magid about whether the Metropolitan could be a music venue, Blumenfeld is also free-associating some kind of indoor neighborhood basketball facility.
At the end of an outing I thought might take an hour or so but has extended into a four-hour-plus walkabout, Blumenfeld offers to give me a ride home. We walk back to the 640 North Broad parking lot, where he unlocks a cherry red 2010 Ferrari 458 Italia with an exposed engine, which probably cost more than my first house.
“I do like my cars,” he says.