Wandering through the rusty, funky skeleton of the Divine Lorraine Hotel is a hallucinatory experience, as if someone had unsunk the Titanic, dragged it through Center City, and plopped it nose-first at the corner of Broad and Fairmount. It doesn’t help that it’s almost 100 degrees outside, and since there are no intact windows, outside is now inside. What’s left of the walls and ironwork has eroded to the point where everything looks a little blurry, and the only really flat surfaces on the floor are pieces of distressed plywood you don’t want to stand on, because there’s nothing left underneath.
Eric Blumenfeld, the 49-year-old excitable boy of Philadelphia real estate development, is taking me on the tour I imagine many will get this fall as he tries to, in his words, “hypnotize” all the powerful people he needs to share his ballsy vision for the future of North Broad Street. The idea is for the crusty blocks between Rodeph Shalom synagogue, near Mount Vernon (where he was bar mitzvahed), and Temple University (his dad’s alma mater) to become more than just the next cool comeback neighborhood. That’s already started happening, in large part because of Blumenfeld’s creative reimagining of the hulking shell of 640 North Broad, which he turned into a successful apartment building and the home of Marc Vetri’s watershed restaurant Osteria. Blumenfeld believes the old Divine Lorraine building—for which he now owns the in-arrears mortgage, and which he hopes to have the title to after the sheriff’s sale this month—could not only become another buzzy apartment-and-restaurant complex, but the four acres he owns behind it could one day soon anchor, of all things, a new public-school campus between Broad and 13th. This novel NoBro Edu-Hood would include new facilities for Masterman—the city’s most in-demand public high school—and potentially three other nearby high schools: Ben Franklin, Parkway and the Franklin Learning Center. He wants to build them new schools and whatever else they agree to share (sports fields, food prep, science
labs) plus buy the outdated school structures, and use historic tax credits to rehab them into cool apartment buildings.
If he can pull that off, he might be able to finally join the pantheon of the “transformational”—and as he knows, being viewed as a transformer is the highest achievement for any real estate developer (although vast wealth is very nice, also).
As Blumenfeld energetically pitches his plan, he gestures out a busted window to an audience of empty buildings and overgrown fields, pulls out his iPhone to play me a message from Chaka Fattah to prove that the Congressman is “championing this cause,” and does everything short of breaking into song. His enthusiasm isn’t so much contagious as relentless, a flurry of punched good ideas. That matches his overall vibe as a combination of a smart rich-guy’s son and a retired athlete of some kind. He drives around in outrageously expensive and handsome cars—more of them than can fit comfortably in the four-car garage of his Gladwyne mansion—and dresses in casual but snug-fitting pants and a button-down shirt. He keeps sunglasses perennially perched in his close-cropped hair, almost never pulling them down to cover the kind of puffy slits that Ball Four writer Jim Bouton referred to as “ass eyes.”
When he finishes his pitch, we walk into a gymnasium-sized room with a massive vaulted ceiling and pass an enclosed staircase that leads all the way to the roof. Graffiti artists, who’ve had their way with so many surfaces on the inside of the Divine Lorraine, chose this spot for their most ambitious creation: a 20-foot-high bright orange and blue rendering of Bart Simpson smoking a joint. Blumenfeld looks up at it looming over his shoulder.
“What’s Bart doing here?” he asks.
It’s a funny question for two very personal reasons. One is that anybody who knows Blumenfeld knows that his close friend, surrogate older brother (because he barely speaks to his actual older brother), idol and sometimes-competitor is Bart Blatstein, the 57-year-old developer who is also godfather to Blumenfeld’s first child. The only person in his life Blumenfeld has looked up to more than Blatstein is his dad, Jack W. Blumenfeld, whose career arc is somewhat less enviable. A stocky, high-energy character with a stutter he simply ignored, Jack created landmark developments in Center City (1500 Locust), Society Hill/Queen Village (Abbotts Square) and City Line (Executive House) during the 1970s, but fell into bankruptcy after the tumultuous late ’80s.
The other reason is that Eric Blumenfeld, by his own admission, has a good bit of Bart Simpson in him. He describes himself as the “fuckup” kid in his family, a classic third and last child. In fact, he didn’t even take the undergrad business classes his dad wanted him to at Tulane because, he says, the line for accounting was too long at freshman sign-up (so he got a degree in English Lit, with a minor in partying). He was in no way the boy-most-likely to salvage and rehab his dad’s company.
And even now among his growing group of admirers, there’s a sense of some shock that Blumenfeld grew up at all, let alone that he might be turning into a businessman of substance and vision. There are those who still see him, in the words of someone who likes him, “as Daddy’s little rich kid who got set up in the business, and if it weren’t for Daddy, he’d be lifeguarding somewhere.”
Blumenfeld doesn’t apologize for making a lot of money from the projects he bought from his dad’s bankruptcy, or the ones he created with partners of his own, like 640 North Broad. “I can’t live any better than I already live,” he says. “The net, just on 640 North Broad, is over a couple million dollars a year. I’m successful enough to have the ability to do the things I want to do. … But I’m not happy with that. It’s not about making money. This neighborhood needs to be transformed … and I’m telling you, I am crazy enough to make this happen.”
The history of cities is written by the obsessions of crazy rich people—especially those who get their hands dirty and get in people’s faces, while also listening and learning from their mistakes. While Eric Blumenfeld may be in way over his head, even his detractors will admit that right now, his learning curve is becoming a force to be reckoned with.
And his story seems to be getting more dramatic, emotional and intriguing by the day. In just the past few months, he has broken up with and sued his major business partner, attempted to reconcile his most painful family relationship, and lost the most important person in his life.