Ron Rubin Was Here

He’s left a bigger mark on Philly than anyone this side of Willard Rouse, and now, at 77, he wants to put a casino in Strawbridge’s. The key to being Ron Rubin? Patience, and knowing how deals here really get done

Still, Rubin waited, not pressing either Rendell or DiCicco, though he also knew the councilman. A decade ago, they had met to discuss Market East development. DiCicco rattled on to Rubin about what he’d seen on the Via Veneto in Rome: restaurants with glass-enclosed extensions onto the sidewalk, happy diners eating alfresco in bad weather. Just the sort of elegant transformation DiCicco envisioned on Market East. “Frank, you should be a city planner,” Rubin complimented him. DiCicco basked in the praise — he’s still basking in it — and in how they were on the same page about making the neighborhood a 24/7 place of action.

Rotwitt grew increasingly frustrated. DiCicco had been reelected but didn’t back off on his opposition to a casino on the river in South Philly. Even Rubin, by last year, was beginning to get impatient. Meanwhile, the Nutter administration was doing everything it could to derail Foxwoods by not issuing necessary permits (even as it included casino revenue in its financial plans). Yet another problem was emerging: Rotwitt had been negotiating $525 million in loans with Merrill Lynch (which, of course, no longer exists) and the World Bank of Scotland (which, now nationalized, barely exists). Credit markets, by last summer, were falling apart.

It was time for Rubin to consider making his move.

Ron Rubin had bought the Gallery and other malls in 2003 when the Rouse company liquidated its holdings. City officials all say the same things about the Gallery: that the two-block blank wall it presents to Market Street creates a dead zone, and that opening it up to the city is the key to remaking the neighborhood. And the Gallery itself — tens of thousands of feet of space! — is rife with such possibility, given its proximity to the Convention Center, with so many out-of-towners showing up with plenty of cash and being forced to take a bus out to King of Prussia to spend it. Which hardly entices them to come back to the city.

Not with a Market Street mall that — viewed, back in 1980, as world-class, state-of-the-art, a great urban idea — caters to working-class people. Basically, only working-class people.

A casino in the Gallery: now, that would change things. It was an idea that had been spitballed around Rubin’s offices for years, even before Vince Fumo and Ed Rendell slipped their bill legalizing slots past the state legislature on the eve of summer recess back in 2004. A casino would keep some of those conventioneers, and their spouses, right in Market East, and bring in restaurants, and then other retailers, and then, suddenly … As hard as it is to get projects going, sometimes a trigger — the cleanup of downtown, the refurbishment of the Bellevue as the anchor to the Avenue of the Arts — jump-starts a whole neighborhood. Which is right up the Rubin m.o. of enlightened self-interest.

Last summer, he got on the phone.

At that point, Rendell and Mayor Nutter were under strong pressure themselves — Rendell from the state legislature, Nutter from Rendell — to get the city’s two slots parlors up and running, given how gambling proceeds were supposed to lard state and city coffers with tens of millions of dollars.