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labs) plus buy the outdated school structures, and use historic tax credits to rehab them into cool apartment buildings.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.
As I hang out with Blumenfeld this summer, he is constantly noting what an unbelievably small town Philadelphia is. “It’s like only five people live in Philadelphia,” he jokes one night over dinner. “Everything is connected. When you tell your college roommates from New York about this, they don’t believe you.”
How does he know restaurateur Marc Vetri? Well, years before the two men ever played basketball together at the Sporting Club or struck the deal that led to Osteria—a huge turning point in both of their careers—Vetri’s mom knew Blumenfeld’s dad for a very special reason: Marc stuttered, and Jack Blumenfeld was the most successful person she had ever heard of who also stuttered.
How does he know developer Carl Dranoff? Dranoff’s first job after college was managing the construction of Jack Blumenfeld’s 40-story apartment complex at 1500 Locust, which, when it was built in the early ’70s, was on what was considered the “outskirts” of Center City.
How does he know Bart Blatstein? Neither remembers exactly how they met, but their lives and careers have more crazy intersections than Passyunk Avenue. Blumenfeld recalls walking out of an important meeting in the early 1990s—he convinced some skeptical lenders to buy the mortgage on his dad’s old Executive House for $15 million—and calling Blatstein to ask if he had ever heard of one of the lawyers running the meeting, Jack Weiner.
“Oh yeah,” Bart said, “his father was the photographer at my bar mitzvah.”
And in the fewer-than-six-degrees-of-separation world of Philly, I’ve known Blumenfeld, casually, for more than 20 years, mostly from the gyms at Center City’s Gershman Y and then the Sporting Club at the Bellevue, where he played basketball for many years.
But while Blumenfeld and I have grown up in this town in proximity to each other’s orbits, I don’t really know him, and a lot of people don’t. Or they know him mostly from the period after he graduated from college in the mid-’80s, when he was aggressively single, living in one of the few inhabited apartments in struggling Abbotts Square, and trying very hard to pretend that his father’s empire, and his birthright, hadn’t imploded.
Blumenfeld has moved on from much of that: He’s been married to wife Jackie since 1999 and dotes on their 12-year-old daughter and eight-year-old son; he long ago gave up Center City for Gladwyne, plays more tennis than basketball now. But he’s the kind of person for whom the past is always present. I realize this the moment I walk into his office at Abbotts and see it decorated with stuff that can’t possibly be his. There are lots of framed, largely unremarkable oil paintings, decorative statues, coffee-table and étagère tchotchkes—the kind of stuff a decorator would have helped someone overpay for in the ’60s and ’70s.
In fact, this is all left over from his parents’ old apartment on the Parkway, not far from where Blumenfeld went to school at Friends Select. When Jack was forced into bankruptcy, he and his wife gave up the apartment and moved to the family Shore house in Ventnor (which was protected in a trust for the children). But Eric couldn’t part with the things he’d grown up around. So he keeps them in his office, making it look as if he’s working in a high-end South Street thrift shop.
He tells me stories of growing up in Center City during the ’70s, about graduating from Tulane in 1985, hoping to become a journalist, and then being told at graduation that his dad needed him in the company. His oldest sibling, Robin Blumenfeld Switzenbaum, had already tried working for her dad but wanted a law practice (she’s now a litigator at Berger & Montague), and the middle sibling, David, was in law school.
“I said, ‘Dad, you’re the king, I’m a fuckup, how am I gonna help you?’” he recalls. “But my father was very charismatic, he starts crying, he says, ‘I need you.’ I still thought he was full of shit, but he had me crying, too, so I worked with him. I think at that time he was already insolvent, but he was always a fighter, and he never gave up.”
Over the next few years, Jack Blumenfeld, then nearly 60, stepped from tightrope to tightrope. The initial construction of Abbotts Square—the L-shaped condo, parking garage and retail complex from 3rd to 2nd and 2nd to Lombard—finally got finished, but nobody would buy the units, and the neighborhood successfully opposed a plan to build a massive sports bar on the rest of the land at 3rd and Lombard. 1500 Locust got refinanced again and again, as Jack quixotically tried to turn a property he’d bought in Atlantic City in 1984—the site of the Shelburne Hotel—into a casino. (The site is now the home of Bally’s Wild Wild West Casino.)
While this was going on, Eric’s brother David, 15 months his elder, came into the business after finishing law school. This eventually led Jack’s cousin and longtime partner, Alan Feingold, to leave the business, and Feingold had to be bought out of his ownership positions on projects that were, by then, deeply underwater. Jack lost 1500 Locust to foreclosure in 1989, and as Abbotts Square floundered, Executive House went bankrupt. By 1991, Jack Blumenfeld was forced to declare personal bankruptcy as well. And his sons—still in their 20s—had to resort to a series of complex legal maneuvers to buy Abbotts Square and Executive House out of the bankruptcy (at what Eric insists was “fair market value,” but others have always wondered). They also had to agree to take care of their formerly rich parents.
Eric was living alone in Abbotts Square, largely, he says, “off the cash flow from the vending machines in the properties.” He was trying to make a go of a comedy club in the Abbotts complex, a local franchise of Catch a Rising Star, through which he met most of the Seinfeld generation of comics, who stayed overnight in what became known as “the Elvis Suite,” the empty apartment next to his. The Blumenfeld brothers opened a T.G.I. Friday’s location at the end of their building at 2nd and Lombard. Eric says he considered the successful Friday’s as a possible buffer for his real estate business, and was arranging to open a second outpost at the corner of Germantown Pike and Route 202, along with more locations in Florida and at the airport, thus becoming “Mr. T.G.I. Friday’s.” But that didn’t work out.
Meanwhile his relationship with his brother also went bad. Around 1995, David announced he wanted to leave the family business, and the negotiations ended with the two brothers pitted against each other in court.
“He actually filed a lawsuit against me,” Eric says, incredulous. “After two hours, the judge says, ‘Stop, I get it. … I suggest you two go in the hallway and make an arrangement, because you’re not gonna like how I rule.’ I didn’t want my brother to leave in the first place. It was all very weird to me.” The duo finally agreed David would give up ownership rights to Executive House and they’d split Abbotts (which Eric later bought outright). But the situation led to a severe strain between David and his parents.
“We were so close. He was a great brother, and he always looked after me,” Eric says. “I was always a troublemaker; he was straight-and-narrow. He left me in a really tough time. But that time really changed him. It changed me, too. After he left, I felt like I had nothing to lose. I started to develop a work ethic. … It forced me to do every single job. And that’s when I started to prosper.”
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.
About a week later, Blumenfeld invites me to his house in Gladwyne for dinner. Before we go inside, he wants me to see something hidden in the trees behind the house. It’s a vintage milk wagon that was discovered in the early ’80s, during the dismantling of Abbotts Dairy, the future site of Abbotts Square. His dad has spent more than $20,000 laboriously restoring it, along with a guy named Tim Mitchell, whom Eric hired to help and keep an eye on his parents. They finished the cart several weeks ago and had it delivered to Eric’s house. But out of nowhere, just last week, Mitchell dropped dead, at the age of 47.
Eric’s dad, especially, is devastated. While 85-year-old Jack’s health had been fragile for some time, it’s gotten worse. Three days ago, Eric had him ambulanced to Bryn Mawr Hospital, where he had a tumor removed from his stomach and then insisted on checking himself out early and going home.
It’s a time of family turmoil for Eric, and he doesn’t pretend it’s easy. On top of Mitchell’s death and his dad’s illness, he has just announced a massive lawsuit against developer Ron Caplan—who had been one of his mentors. Caplan partnered with him in 2010 when the banks asked for additional financial backing on two Blumenfeld projects in trouble: the rehab of the Marine Club at Broad and Washington, and the development of 600 North Broad.
Blumenfeld has been instructed by his lawyers not to talk about the suit—which is like asking a brook not to babble—and he’s doing his best not to, suggesting that everything anyone needs to know is in the legal papers. But he’s clearly troubled by the fact that it has come to this, and also upset that the media coverage of the case makes it sound like two rich guys fighting over lunch money. In fact, tens of millions hang in the balance of the 33-count, 79-page suit, which claims all manner of fraud, misappropriation and breach of contract. Caplan wouldn’t comment on any of the allegations. But there’s some talk in the business community that this is the kind of really personal dispute that’s better solved without thermonuclear litigation—because even being right may not mean all that much. (One close associate of Blumenfeld and his dad describes them as “visionaries, but part of the problem is they never see the downside of anything.”) While the dispute is mostly over lucrative 600 North Broad, it could result in Caplan trying to foreclose on Blumenfeld at the chronically challenged Marine Club. It’s unclear if the suit will cause or reveal some economic weakness in Blumenfeld’s other holdings, but it could suck time, energy and money that might be better spent on his ambitious school proposal.
We go into the house and head down the gorgeous oval staircase to the lower level, where Blumenfeld has his own kitchen, wine cellar and workout room—which is dominated by a life-size statue of Muhammad Ali given to him by Blatstein. Blumenfeld chooses a wine, and takes it to one of the many standing decanters on one of the house’s many bars. While decanting the wine, he tells a story about the first time his father saw the mansion. It made him cry, Blumenfeld says, for a very specific reason: He couldn’t believe his son owned a house that had six different ice makers.
We move to the downstairs kitchen, where Blumenfeld confides that something quite amazing happened. He bumped into his brother at the Barnes opening, and they decided to have lunch for the first time in years—years during which David and his wife raised two kids, whom Eric says his parents barely know. The brothers are going to meet the next day at Parc.
I don’t hear from Blumenfeld for five days, and then on a Sunday at 3:35 p.m., I get a text: “My Dad passed away.”
The next time I see him is at his father’s funeral. It’s held at Rodeph Shalom and draws a pretty good crowd, especially for a hot weekday in early August. (In the Inquirer obituary, Bart Blatstein memorialized Jack as “transformational.”) The funeral is awkward, because even though Eric and David did actually have that lunch—and their dad knew about it before he succumbed to a post-operative infection—it was at best a baby step toward reconciliation. The three eulogies for Jack Blumenfeld warmly describe his relationship with his daughter and Eric and their families, but never mention the other son. Harsh.
During his emotional eulogy, Eric also makes a passing mention of a project he was working on with his dad, one that nobody else knew about. Last summer he quietly spent tens of millions to buy out troubled Allentown developer Mark Mendelson’s majority share in a large property on the southern end of Penn’s Landing, below Washington Avenue—the huge, ugly Sheet Metal Workers building and the 17 acres from Columbus Boulevard to the river that surround it. In a generational do-over for a failed deal Jack had in the ’70s to develop at Penn’s Landing, father and son were hatching a plan for a “futuristic community” there—residences, workplaces, as well as a Stephen Starr hotel. It was, sometimes, all Eric and Jack talked about—that and the grandkids.
But in the end, Jack Blumenfeld actually did a pretty job of eulogizing himself. When I see Eric several days after the funeral, he shows me something that was found among his father’s belongings. Jack had been working on an autobiography, and he had fairly recently printed out a nine-page, single-spaced list of 138 things he still hadn’t figured out how to get in there. The document was titled “Book—List of Things to Add.”
Entry 122, which he copied from a Washington Post column about Steve Jobs, could have been a message to himself, or to Eric. It read:
“The truth is, you usually have to fail to succeed. No one emerges at the top. Even those born lucky eventually get a turn on the wheel of misfortune. Anyone with a résumé of accomplishments also has a résumé of failures, humiliations and setbacks.”