Somewhere between turning South Columbus Boulevard into an extension of South Jersey and turning Northern Liberties into a newer Old City, developer Bart Blatstein figured out that he wasn’t the brand name.
In doing so, he has managed to pull off a trick few high-profile megadevelopers have successfully managed to do: Raise his personal profile without sabotaging his own business.
Most large successful developers are faceless. Can you name any of the members of the Brandywine Realty Trust? (They might include you, if you own shares either directly or through a mutual fund.) The few whose names have become household words eventually succumb to their own publicity machines and, like Donald Trump, become caricatures of themselves.
Blatstein appears intent on avoiding that fate. In fact, when he sat down with Philadelphia editor Tom McGrath at yesterday’s ThinkFest Salon Series conversation at the Barnes, he went to some length to throw some cold water on his white-hot reputation.
He told McGrath that developers “step over a line by selling themselves too much. They start believing their own press and soon forget what they’re really selling.”
Blatstein hasn’t forgotten his most important product: fantasy, made real through artful mixing of stone, brick, glass, steel and imagination. After discovering the joys of recreating the European town square in Philly with the Piazza at Schmidt’s, he has gone on from transformation to transformation, plunking eye-catching buildings in unloved locations skeptics often said weren’t ready for them, and turning those locations into places where people live out dreams. Or, in the case of his most recent project, Tower Place, taking an unloved building and turning it into something someone might want to actually live in.
McGrath trotted out in the course of the conversation a saying that describes a real estate developer as “part visionary, part salesman and part con man.” Blatstein took exception to the first and last of those terms, saying he preferred “experience” to “vision” and that since he puts his own money at risk when he builds, he’d be conning himself if he were a con man. But there’s no disputing that the man knows how to sell an idea. (Though not always: He noted that he tried repeatedly and failed to garner front-page publicity for the Piazza, but once a sensational double murder took place in one of its buildings, sales took off.)
The most appealing aspect of the fantasies Blatstein sells is that they’re youthful, vigorous and oh, so urbane. Now, even when he does a strip mall, it doesn’t look like one: The shopping center just above the Piazza hearkens back to the early Auto Age shopping centers with its parking tucked behind the stores and upstairs, out of public view—and putting its anchor store one floor up also allowed him to preserve sidewalk vitality.
Blatstein is now engaged in selling his biggest fantasy to date: an adult playground just a few blocks from City Hall. In what it combines in one place, Blatstein’s Provence casino proposal is the most ambitious of the six proposals for the city’s second casino license—a license, it turns out, he fought to keep the state from yanking from the city. Without it, he said, his shopping/dining/entertainment/hotel project just wouldn’t work. He described it much as one might a strip mall, in fact: “A grocery store-anchored shopping center drives 20,000 shoppers a week through its doors; those shoppers make it possible for the small businesses around the store to survive. Conversely, a casino drives people to the restaurants, the concert venues and the shopping around it. I view the casino in a Vegas way, as a total entertainment complex.”
But think about that for a minute. Conceptually, there’s no difference between a casino resort and a strip mall. In other words, with the Provence, Blatstein has gone back to his roots. But once again, he’s done it with an urban fillip: Like his supermarket at 2nd and Girard, the Provence’s anchor tenant will be one floor off the street. “It’ll be the only casino in the world where you don’t have to go through the casino to get to the restaurants,” he said.
And he has done so after first having passed through nearly 40 years of experimentation—and, he says, he’s still making mistakes all the time: “You do that when you’re constantly trying out new ideas.”
That’s a great message to put out, and it’s consistent with the reputation he’s built as a developer interested in more than just building apartments, shops and offices. I just struggled mightily to avoid using the word “transformative” one more time in that sentence, so often is it applied to Blatstein projects. His own career trajectory is an example of the term in action as well: He started out doing small-bore residential conversions, then graduated to strip malls, then moved on to actual placemaking.
It’s led some, including Patrick Kerkstra in Philly Mag, to suggest he should run for mayor. He demurred when McGrath put the question to him. Besides, he said, Gaming Control Board rules make it illegal for him to do so.
Still, it’s a nice fantasy—the kind Blatstein might be able to dress up Erdy McHenry-style and sell to thousands of willing buyers.