Larry Freedman remembers it well, because it was one of those sweet, sweet Bart Blatstein nights. As zoning chair for the Northern Liberties Neighbors Association, Freedman has long experienced the vicissitudes of life in what many call “Bart World.” With 30 acres in holdings, Blatstein has attained the status in NoLibs of an old-time landowner. But this being Philadelphia, not medieval France, land ownership doesn’t equal dictatorship. For a decade, in fact, Philadelphia’s fight cards have regularly pitted Blatstein against the people of Northern Liberties in epic Shakespearean hair-pulls over matters like parking, noise, garages and trash pickups. But not that night.
In spring 2011, Blatstein was set to open the Arrow Swim Club, a private pool and lounge facility he founded with publicist Nicole Cashman. The associated squabbles had abated. The weather was right—an evening on which the spring air suggested summer. And Blatstein was at his magnanimous best. In fact, he threw a private party at the club for the very neighborhood association that had, at so many different turns, questioned and impeded him.
Piles of food abounded. And when one pile diminished, another appeared. Freedman even teased Blatstein by standing up and toasting the developer’s second in command, longtime assistant Tina Roberts: “I said, ‘Bart, you’d be nothing without her.’”
Blatstein laughed and agreed.
But even then, Freedman knew this sweet sense of union must yield to some spicy debate. And he proved correct.
Within a month, Daily News columnist Ronnie Polaneczky was writing about the loose trash that had spilled out from Blatstein’s properties into the neighborhood. It also wasn’t long before Freedman and the people of Northern Liberties engaged Blatstein in another uncomfortable negotiation over garages.
“As soon as Bart perceives you to be blocking him,” says Freedman, “something changes. It’s not like you have a normal conversation at that point.”
Now, to some extent, this dynamic has presided ever since the first guy with a few extra rocks and a dream started landscaping too close to his neighbor’s cave. Yet this hoary old tableau seems somehow different when Blatstein is involved. “Bart has such a tremendous capacity for warmth,” says Freedman. “And I like him. There was a time when I never thought I would say that. But I genuinely like Bart Blatstein. He just also has this capacity to be … ”
He trails off there, momentarily at a loss for words. “You’ve probably heard there is a ‘good Bart’ and a ‘bad Bart,’” he says. “I think he is a genuinely decent person. He is not out to hurt anyone. But I’ve never met anyone who can just kind of shut down like Bart. And you don’t want to be on that side of him.”
The idea of “two Barts” comes up a lot around Blatstein. And if he had that reputation only as a person—of being mostly warm with some nasty cold spells, like San Francisco—that would be one thing. The issue is that fairly or unfairly, Blatstein’s reputation as a developer is still being defined. There’s the practical Bart Blatstein, who once built a lot of ugly boxes on Delaware Avenue, enlivening a moribund strip of the city economically while lending it all the charm of an Ohio suburb. Then there is the ambitious, sophisticated Blatstein who built the Piazza—the European-style gathering place that is now Northern Liberties’ public identity, and one of the finest additions to Philadelphia in decades.
Two Barts, and the tension between them is currently playing out on one of this city’s main stages. Because Blatstein, at 57, is talking about building a monstrous development on North Broad Street, just a dice-throw from City Hall—ranging over three city blocks, housing a hotel, an entertainment complex, retail shops, restaurants and a casino. Next door, he’s remaking an 18-story office building and constructing a new one, creating a pair of retail and residence towers. So he isn’t just reinventing a peripheral neighborhood any longer. This time, he’s essentially working in Center City, the heart of Philadelphia. And his latest plan has forced a question on us all: Just who is Bart Blatstein, exactly—and which one of him is about to show up on North Broad Street?