Bart Blatstein’s Atlantic City

Philly developer Bart Blatstein has been playing real-life Monopoly, cobbling together parcels of property in Atlantic City — everyone’s favorite resort-town-slash-urban-metaphor. His snagging of the Pier Shops and Showboat made big headlines. And a recent set of acquisitions shows the beginnings of a plan to do, well, something in the city’s perpetually transitional South Inlet neighborhood. Blatstein is holding his cards close, so we asked Temple prof Bryant Simon, author of Boardwalk of Dreams: Atlantic City and the Fate of Urban America, to evaluate Bart’s moves. “He’s buying stuff for 10 cents on the dollar,” notes Simon. “I think in the short term it might work, and in the long term it might be great. He clearly has something big in his back pocket.” Whether that something is geared toward tourism (beach houses? A water park?) or permanent housing (a Philly telecommuter suburb?) is the question for Simon, who’s cautiously optimistic that the urbanism-minded Blatstein could get something meaningful done. Read more »

Philly Developers ‘Terrified,’ ‘Intrigued’ to Have One of Their Own As President

AP Photo/John Minchillo URN:23754236

AP Photo/John Minchillo

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.” Read more »

Developers Are Still Ignoring Philly’s Vision for the Waterfront

Waterfrontcollage

L: A photo of vacant waterfront land in South Philly today. (Photo by Jared Brey) R: A rendering from the city’s master plan for the Central Delaware.

I once had the chance to tour Waterfront Square, the condominium complex on the Delaware River in Northern Liberties, between Sugarhouse Casino and the Festival Pier at Spring Garden Street. It was for a story I never ended up writing.

The three 25-story towers there are some of the tallest buildings on the waterfront, and the views near the top are, as realtors like to say, spectacular, but not just in the real-estate-listing sense. They also provide a better vantage of Philadelphia’s place in the region than most other big vistas you can find around the city. At that height, that close to the river, it becomes very plain why Philadelphia is where it is: There’s all this fresh water flowing down from the Catskills in an ever-widening channel that eventually dumps into the Delaware Bay. And at the wide mouth, boats coming from the Atlantic Ocean can enter the river and float upstream as far as the river is deep enough to carry them. Philadelphia is well-positioned to take advantage of all of that. There are good views of Old City and broad swaths of New Jersey, and the city appears related to its surroundings in a way that it rarely does from other viewpoints.

Unfortunately, the experience on the ground is the opposite of that. The complex feels disconnected from the rest of the city, and to get back into the flow you have to leave through a mechanical gate. A few years after Waterfront Square was built, the city adopted a plan with the input of hundreds of Philadelphians that was meant to guide the development of the waterfront and improve its connections to the rest of the city. The Central Delaware Master Plan encouraged a mix of residential and commercial buildings, greater walkability, and public access to the riverfront. It discouraged parking lots and excessively tall buildings. It was hailed as forward-thinking and consensus-based, and it was codified into law with a special set of zoning standards crafted specifically for the waterfront.

Of course, even now, developers don’t always feel compelled by things like master plans or zoning laws. And there’s evidence that the waterfront is still seen as a blank canvas, despite the very clear, very earnest guidelines written right there in the law.

Earlier this month, the Inquirer reported that a developer is hoping to build a property on Columbus Boulevard with up to 2,000 apartments in 10 residential towers, most of which would exceed the height limit for the waterfront. The plans would require City Council to approve a bill easing the height limits on that site, which is between Washington Avenue and Reed Street. Jeffrey Kozero of K4 Associates, the group that is planning to build the project, said over the phone last week that he is hoping to create a self-contained community, attractive and amenity-rich enough to draw a critical mass of people to live on the waterfront. K4 doesn’t need the extra height to make the project work financially, but Kozero said it will make the project much more liveable than if the developers put all the square footage they believe they need into shorter buildings. With taller towers, there’s more open space. Read more »

Sources: Police Are Considering Moving Headquarters to Old Inquirer Building

Left: 400 N. Broad Street Right: Police Administration Building (Wikimedia Commons)

L: 400 N. Broad Street R: Police Administration Building | Photo via Wikimedia Commons

In a move that would be rich with real estate-related irony, the Philadelphia Police Department is considering relocating its headquarters to the former home of the Inquirer and Daily News.

Wait, what?

You might recall that former Mayor Michael Nutter’s administration spent several years mapping out an elaborate plan to move the department’s headquarters to the grand Provident Mutual Insurance Building at 46th and Market streets in West Philadelphia. Read more »

Report: Blatstein Offered $18 Million for Vacant Lot at Broad & Washington

The vacant lot on the northeast corner of Broad and Washington. | Photo via Google Street View.

The vacant lot on the northeast corner of Broad and Washington. | Photo via Google Street View.

Developer Bart Blatstein agreed to pay $18 million for a vacant lot at the corner of Broad & Washington under a contract with the property’s owner that’s now in question, according to a report in the Inquirer this morning.

Blatstein and representatives of N/H Philadelphia Properties, a New York-based real estate investment firm that owns the lot, met in court on Tuesday. The owner is seeking to send Blatstein on his way empty-handed, claiming that the agreement of sale expired on May 15. Blatstein, who got approval from the Zoning Board of Adjustment to build a 32-story apartment tower and rooftop retail village on the site Tuesday, still believes he’ll be able to build his project.

$18 million for a vacant lot, y’all. Though the property is assessed at $5.2 million, the owners say they’ve already received offers that exceed $18 million from other parties. Blatstein’s lawyers said that the owners are trying to cut off Blatstein while exploiting the process he went through to get additional zoning approvals on the property, according to the Inquirer.

Board Finally Approves Blatstein’s Broad & Washington Project, Litigation Still Pending

West elevation

The west elevation of the revised Blatstein mixed-use project. Rendering | Cope Linder Architects

The Zoning Board of Adjustment voted 5-0 to approve developer Bart Blatstein’s proposed apartment tower and rooftop retail village at Broad & Washington in South Philly on Tuesday morning, according to Ron Patterson, Blatstein’s attorney.

The board had previously voted to grant exceptions for the project, then vacated its vote. On Monday, a lawyer for the property’s current owner, N/H Philadelphia Properties, asked the board to delay its vote again, saying Blatstein didn’t have the right to pursue zoning approvals for the property because an agreement of sale had expired. Read more »

Lawyer: Blatstein Doesn’t Own Broad & Washington, Can’t Seek Zoning Approval

The vacant lot on northeast corner of Broad and Washington. | Photo via Google Street View.

The vacant lot on northeast corner of Broad and Washington | Photo via Google Street View

A lawyer for N/H Philadelphia Properties, the New York real estate company that owns the long-vacant lot at the corner of Broad Street and Washington Avenue in South Philly’s Hawthorne section, has sent a letter to the Zoning Board of Adjustment saying that developer Bart Blatstein has no legal right to the property and asking the board to hold its decision on the zoning approvals Blatstein is seeking for 30 more days.

For two years, Blatstein’s development company, Tower Investments, has been pursuing a project at the corner involving a 32-story apartment tower and a rooftop retail village. The zoning board heard his application for special exceptions last month, but opted to hold its decision for two weeks. It later voted to approve the project, then decided to vacate that vote because two weeks hadn’t passed. At a meeting last week, when the board was scheduled to take its final vote, two board members were absent and no vote took place. Read more »

Broad & Washington: Anatomy of an Unvote

Northwest lot of Broad and Washington | Image via Google Street View

This lot at the northwest corner of Broad and Washington will remain empty at least one week longer than it otherwise might have because of the need to observe protocol. | Image via Google Street View

Since we’re sure many of you following the saga of 1001 South Broad, Bart Blatstein’s megaproject at the northeast corner of Broad Street and Washington Avenue, are still scratching your heads wondering how it was that the Zoning Board of Adjustment voted on Blatstein’s request for special exceptions, then undid its action, we have an explanation for you courtesy of Department of Licenses and Inspections press spokesperson Karen Guss.

It seems that the vote-unvote was a byproduct of an admirable effort on the part of the ZBA to get the flow of appeals moving more expeditiously. Read more »

Johnson Calls for Construction Moratorium at Broad & Washington

West elevation

The west elevation of the revised Blatstein mixed-use project. Rendering | Cope Linder Architects

On Wednesday, the Zoning Board of Adjustment voted to approve developer Bart Blatstein’s plans for a 32-story apartment tower and rooftop retail village on a vacant lot at Broad and Washington in South Philly. Then, later, it realized it had jumped the gun by voting just one week after the zoning hearing, at which time it had said it would hold its decision for two weeks. So it vacated its vote and will presumably vote to approve the project next week.

But on Thursday, Councilman Kenyatta Johnson—who opposed the project when it went to the zoning board—introduced a bill that would put a one-year moratorium on construction of any kind on that property. Read more »

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