Power: Sherman’s Last Stand

Developer Mark Sherman has poured millions into reviving troubled East Falls. So why do the Fallsers just want him to go away?

Mark Sherman, the Savior of East Falls, wants to show me his horses. Really. He’s got steeds. Five of them. This is an eyebrow-raiser for a couple reasons. For starters, we’re standing on the 13-acre lot between two 19th-century textile mills he’s converting into loft apartments and artist studios and a plaza — in East Falls, where there’s not much room along Ridge Avenue to play Roy Rogers. But Sherman, still in touch with his inner cowboy, wanted horses for his two young daughters, and his wife doesn’t want livestock in the yard of their Mount Airy spread. So here at the Mills at East Falls, the $30 million gamble that could make or break Sherman and potentially leave the neighborhood with a DisneyQuest-sized hole, the developer built a stable. And not just any stable. “This is considered a five-star hotel for horses,” he says, peering through the fence at his unusual city pets. “I love the environment — smelling the hay, the manure … ”

That’s the other weird thing. Just gazing at his equine Ritz-Carlton and its tenants isn’t enough. So Sherman opens the gate, waves me in, and without so much as rolling up the pant legs of his tailored suit charges into the landscape of mud and manure. Fifteen minutes later, his brown leather Bachrachs are caked in slime, and his cuffs are speckled. Take one look at Sherman the businessman, with his trim, spiky buzz cut and Porsche keychain, and you’re thinking Slickster. Snake-oil salesman. Used-car dealer. But then he goes charging off somewhere he probably has no place being, and you’re thinking, Maybe I’ve got this guy all wrong.

Stroking the long jaw of Smoke, his oldest Appaloosa, the 46-year-old Sherman looks like a kid in a playground, though in this case a playground he built, at one hell of an expense and personal risk. Three years after groundbreaking, the Mills is a little more than half occupied. Sherman hopes that in another year’s time, this “creative community” where artists live, work and teach will be finished and filled to capacity. He expects to draw a million visitors a year to shop its boutiques and galleries, learn to watercolor, indulge in some vinyasa yoga, and, yes, ride horses around the complex. Maybe they’ll stay for the afternoon, then wander down to Verge, the hot restaurant along the Schuylkill he co-owns, or Johnny Mañana’s up the street, or the Pour House bar he’s hoping will transform from neighborhood nuisance to the kind of place where Norm and Cliff would claim corner stools and raise a foamy mug when you walk in. And if they don’t, well, that’s a problem. Sherman’s selling off most of his other properties to focus on East Falls, and the Mills in particular, which is fast becoming the only basket for his financial eggs.