Rubin, in turn, became a local political player. As the City of Philadelphia teetered on the verge of bankruptcy in the early ’90s, Rubin read how Cleveland corporate leaders got together in the wake of Dennis Kucinich’s disastrous mayoralty to poke into politics. The Rubin Group — Ron says it was named that because when some 40 businesspeople met in the Bellevue, he paid for dinner — vetted candidates for the ’91 mayor’s race: Ed Rendell, Sam Katz, Frank Rizzo. The group would end up generating no real political power, given that it couldn’t agree on who should get their support. But Rubin, a Rendell man, had gained a new entrée: After Rendell was elected, the first-term mayor brought Rubin in to discuss development initiatives like the ever-troubled Penn’s Landing. Rubin had become the go-to business guy in town.
Rubin’s formation of the Center City District — another example of his enlightened self-interest — early in Rendell’s tenure proved crucial to transforming downtown. For his own buildings, Rubin was spending some half a million dollars a year on security and cleaning — wasted money if the city remained utterly uninviting. Rubin, ever practical, bent on getting things done, agreed to go to Council and push for a downtown real estate tax increase to fund CCD if it would focus on just two things: clean and safe. “It was the first inkling of hope to people who lived and worked downtown,” Rendell says.
Rubin’s connections — and his glowing track record as a developer — now made him able to broker deals himself. He would oversee the Comcast-Spectacor agreement between Ed Snider and Ralph and Brian Roberts (pocketing several million bucks in the process). And under Rendell, he was getting picked to jump-start tough projects, even if they didn’t always pan out.
For instance: Rubin wanted to transform the Girard Estates-owned block on Market between 11th and 12th streets into big-time retail. Vince Fumo controlled the Board of City Trusts, which controlled the block; Rubin is close to Fumo, and insiders say Fumo essentially anointed Rubin to develop it. Rubin brought Nordstrom reps to town, introduced them to the mayor and showed them around, hoping the department store would become the block’s anchor tenant. Rendell “worked on,” the Governor says, a young Nordstrom family member behind the scenes.
But Nordstrom “got skittish,” Rendell says, for exactly the reasons everyone desperately wanted to land the store: Market East was too much of a wasteland. That — and the $100 million that might have been necessary for land acquisition and to build an underground parking garage — scuttled the deal.
If the Girard Estates collapse was disappointing, the DisneyQuest failure at 8th and Market — the infamous hole in the ground — was an embarrassment. One hot, humid August night in 1999, Rendell gave Rubin a call and asked him to come to his office. Disney head Michael Eisner and his wife were there, waiting. Rendell had pulled Rubin into the project because the original developer, Ken Goldenberg, was too inexperienced at big downtown, multi-use buildings.