Real estate developers tend to have a funny relationship to politics. On the one hand, they often flood local elections with campaign donations and relentlessly lobby for policies that will make their work easier and more profitable. On the other hand, they need friends in government in order to make deals and get important approvals, so their public political statements are usually diplomatic, calculated to achieve a certain result without offending anyone powerful.
President-elect Donald Trump, who started his career as a real estate developer, fits that mold in some ways and smashes it in others. While his pronouncements are calculated for advantage, they are also routinely offensive, though more often to the powerless than the powerful. And in some respects—his bombast, his ego, his unembarrassed pursuit of profit and tacky opulence—he provides the world with a cartoon picture of the stereotypical real estate man.
I was curious how some of Philadelphia’s more prominent developers felt about having one of their own in the White House, so I asked a few. Philadelphia is, of course, a Democratic Party town, and for the most part, these developers’ comments echoed the sort of restrained, cautious acceptance we’ve seen from prominent Democratic officials in the wake of the election. But in many instances, I detected an undercurrent of despair.
“The public perception of real estate developers, as a result of Trump’s ascension to the Presidency, has already changed,” said Ken Weinstein, a Germantown developer and owner of the Trolley Car Diner. “More than a few people, upon learning that I am a developer, have already asked if I pay taxes, if I stiff my subcontractors and how many times I have filed for bankruptcy (yes, no and zero). Most developers are ethical business people so using Trump as an example of a typical real estate developer is not accurate.”
“I think he has developed many abysmal projects with little thought given to the value of community impact or design,” said Lindsey Scannapieco, who owns the former Bok Technical High School, one of the biggest buildings in South Philadelphia, which not been free of controversy. “However, I hope that his push on infrastructure investment provides momentum for thoughtful and important re-investments that create a more equitable landscape across the country.”
Eric Blumenfeld, who is rebuilding the beloved Divine Lorraine on North Broad Street, said he has faith that people will note the distinctions between someone like Trump and someone like himself.
“Did Ronald Reagan have a big impact on the way people view movie stars?” he said. “That’s a fair analogy, right? Real estate developers run the gamut from brilliant visionaries to asshole-ish thieves, so, that we’re all going to be described one way I don’t think is realistic.”
Point Breeze developer Ori Feibush tried to make the transition from real estate to politics with a campaign for City Council in 2015, and had to answer a lot of questions about conflicts of interest along the way. Trump mostly made it through the campaign without addressing those issues, but there’s been a flurry of stories about his potential conflicts since the election. Feibush said that Trump is so far removed from the on-the-ground work of development that it’s impossible to know how many conflicts he may have.
“He has no problem hiring and firing at will,” Feibush said. “He has no problem filing for bankruptcy for any company and sticking it to any number of people. … There’s a level of callousness with which he does things that is purely driven by selfish greed.”
Feibush said that Trump is only a developer in the sense that Feibush, who owns a small chain of coffee shops along with his real estate company, is a barista. Trump isn’t in the development business so much as the brand business, he said. He’s just selling an image.
But to Carl Dranoff, who has built a number of high-profile projects on South Broad Street and in Fitler Square, that may not be such a bad thing. Developers understand how to manage long-term projects, Dranoff said, and he’s been encouraged to see Trump putting a team together quickly.
“The other thing that he brings is a brand,” he said. “And America has a brand, and wouldn’t it be great if we focused on our brand across the world and our homeland, to really stand for something?”
It’s good to see someone other than a lawyer in the White House, said Ahsan Nasratullah of JNA Capital, which is currently at work on the Eastern Tower in Chinatown. But Trump doesn’t seem to stand for much other than making money, and even that hasn’t been done with an eye on “economic fundamentals,” he said. If you charge higher rent for a bigger apartment, at least the tenant is getting something tangible, Nasratullah said. But if you charge higher rent because your brand is associated with a notion of exclusivity, the tenant doesn’t get anything real in return. He said he has been alarmed to read about Trump’s tendency toward bankruptcy and exploiting tax laws.
“That is a dangerous thing because that only has private benefit for himself, and the presidency is about public good,” Nasratullah said. “I’m afraid that the line is blurred in the way has conducted himself in the last weeks.”
Fishtown developer Roland Kassis told me he tries to stay out of politics and would have no further comment on the matter, but when I asked John Longacre, who opened South Philly Tap Room and the Point Breeze Pop-Up Garden, whether he’d like to weigh in, he texted me back, “Fuck yeah.”
“I think it’s terrifying,” he said when I reached him on the phone. Why? “Because he’s bankrupted every business that he’s ever owned, and he’s proven not to be an effective business man over the years.”
It might be a different story if somebody like Warren Buffet had been elected, he said, but instead it’s “this big fraud that makes his money from TV and not from developing.” Longacre, who interned at the Commerce Department during the Ed Rendell administration and later ran for City Council, is a committed Democrat, and says that Republican policies are bad for cities like Philadelphia.
“It’s just a fact that under Democratic economic policy, where the middle and lower half of the population is stimulated, the economy functions better,” he said. “It’s just empirically proven time and time again.”
Trump doesn’t have the “intellectual capacity” to be president, he said. “It’s not a national embarrassment, it’s a global embarrassment.”
Only one developer I talked to copped to voting for Trump. That developer was Bart Blatstein.
“It’s intriguing,” Blatstein said of Trump’s presidency. “Whether you voted for him or not, it’s somewhat fascinating.”
Blatstein said he was an undecided, “confused” voter until deep into the election season. Ultimately, he based his decision on two things. One, he couldn’t figure out what Hillary Clinton stood for, he said. Two, he has met Trump—Blatstein sold the Piazza in Northern Liberties to Trump’s son-in-law, Jared Kushner—and knows him to be a man of strong family values. He said the country would improve if Trump brings to the presidency a developer’s discipline with respect to budgets and timelines and knowledge of how government works. I asked him whether he thought Trump exhibited that sort of discipline during the campaign.
“He did what he had to do to win, and so he won,” Blatstein said. “It worked. You and I would not have thought to act in that way, but it worked, so it got him elected.”
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