Over the past 10 years, the style of the Philadelphia developer has changed. The old cliché of the builder who vests his power and pocketbook in erecting individual structures, and does so purely as a commercial gamble — like the iconic Willard Rouse, with his long struggle for Liberty Place — seems as quaint as the height limit Rouse overturned. The developers who dominate today's landscape buy up vacant or under-used property by the acre in a single neighborhood; then they trumpet vision statements to prove their business is more than idle speculation. Bart Blatstein in Northern Liberties, Carl Dranoff in Camden, John Westrum in Brewerytown … they and four other developers have become Philadelphia's latest heroes, risking it all to save neighborhoods, putatively not as grandiose narcissists, but as benevolent creators of small-scale utopias.
Redeeming good places gone bad used to be the bailiwick of mayors and city planners. Our classic story of neighborhood rescue, the mid-century turnaround of Society Hill, has one hero, legendary city planning commission director Ed Bacon, a bulldog whose bite was secured by the full, centralized authority of big-city government and federal money. The new developers — who have become de facto mayors of their little corners of Philadelphia — are on their own. (One doesn't, however, have to look far to see the hand of government in the encouraging tax incentives, nor to see the campaign contributions that get developers noticed by the duly elected mayors.) The first of this generation was Dan Neducsin, who single-handedly revived Manayunk in the late 1980s, as its largest property owner, developer of its marquee restaurants, and indefatigable promoter. These roles were inextricably fused — so much so that when Neducsin, who must have feared that Manayunk was becoming too nightlife-centric, helped institute a moratorium on new restaurants on Main Street, he was accused of using his local clout to edge out competitors.
For most developers, salesmanship is about a vision of the future. For the neighborhood mayors, though, it's essential to dramatically talk down past conditions (crime, blight, prostitution, drugs), an attention-getting mechanism more common to UNICEF reports than for-sale ads. In doing so, the developer preys on a distinctly Philadelphian narrative of historical greatness and recent failure. Some developers nod at the past — in East Falls, Mark Sherman tries to sell live/work space to throwback old-fashioned artisans — and some give themselves over entirely to it. When, a few years ago, Brian O'Neill was developing riverside office spaces in Conshohocken and ran out of old mills to convert, he erected a new building in the form of an old mill so that he could sell the “loft-style” space to high-tech firms. In Philadelphia, the past never really is past; it just becomes a sales pitch. Tethering their business models to romantic redemption tales can make these developers, depending on how one sees it, urban saviors or hucksters of gentrification. Either way, if you don't like where a place is heading, you don't have to blame historical forces or “the market.” Send your letter to the guy whose name is on the neighborhood.
Bart Blatstein , 50, Northern Liberties
What he imagines it will be: A “creative class” paradise with live/work spaces for artists, all centered on a piazza.
What it is now: A block called Liberties Walk with a spa, a pet boutique, and apartments that price out nearly everyone except creative lawyers and creative doctors.
Historical fetish: Liberties Walk is a pedestrian-only alleyway.
Developer's embarrassing past: Delaware Avenue strip malls.
Soft spot: Blatstein brags about slashing rent for tenants with proper bohemian credentials.
How bad it used to be: Just across from the abandoned Schmidt's brewery, Blatstein found prostitution, drugs and homelessness.
Crisis of conscience: Blatstein reportedly had bought up NoLibs properties with the plan of developing a Kmart before having a midlife New Urbanist epiphany.
Takes inspiration from: Trendy social-science manifesto The Rise of the Creative Class , by demographer Richard Florida.
Opposition: Hipsters who haven't been co-opted by Blatstein and are afraid he's built Old City North.
Brian O'Neill , 45, Conshohocken, Norristown
What he imagines it will be: A resurgent corridor of old industrial river towns along the Schuylkill, including the jewel in any third-tier city's crown: a minor-league ballpark for Norristown.
What it is now: Conshohocken hosts a booming office market, particularly for companies fleeing city taxes. Norristown is a brownfield-ridden county seat.
Historical fetish: Faux-stucco facades featuring prominent clocks. (People now carry these on their wrists.)
How bad it used to be: Unused smokestacks, cyanide oozing from the ground, soaring unemployment.
Eureka moment: In the late 1980s, O'Neill saw the values of industrial properties tanking and offices soaring. Conversion gave him an opportunity to buy low and sell high.
Opposition: Chemical half-lifes.
Tony Goldman, 60, 13th Street
What he imagines it will be: Philadelphia's SoHo, with a less -snappy, geographically abstruse name. (Goldman calls it B3 — for “Blocks Below Broad”.)
What it is now: One-and-a-half blocks of bourgeois heaven: a Stephen Starr restaurant, an overpriced gelateria, some housewares and clothes stores, a handful of converted lofts, and a holdout porn theater.
Historical fetish: Goldman loves small streets.
Where he did this before: SoHo, Miami Beach.
How bad it used to be: Check-cashing stores, prostitutes, and a burgeoning porn sector.
Eureka moment: According to his resume, Goldman “discovered Center City” in 1998, when former Preservation Alliance president Don Meginley convinced him to go property-hunting here.
Opposition: Goldman talked up his grandiose vision early — and absentee landowners took his bluster seriously and held out for more money.
Carl Dranoff, 57, Camden
What he imagines it will be: Philadelphia's Hoboken, with pricey lofts for commuters.
What it is now: Still poor, unsafe and jobless — with one Dranoff condo and another to come.
Historical fetish: Dranoff's first Camden building, the Victor, is a restored RCA Victor factory.
Where he did it before: Old City, renovating factories into lofts.
How bad it used to be: Camden was America's violent-crime capital.
When it was that bad: Two years ago.
Eureka moment: In 1999, Dranoff was drawn to visit what is now the Victor and exulted, “Look at the bones! This building has great bones!”
Takes inspiration from: Ayn Rand's novel The Fountainhead , favored by frustrated capitalists and self-pitying teens.
Opposition: Even among buyers who like rough edges, a Camden zip code might be a bit much.
Mark Sherman, 46, East Falls
What he imagines it will be: An artist's colony that “feels like an Early American village.”
What it is now: Sherman's development, the Mills, is barely half-occupied with residents; a new restaurant, Verge, is getting good reviews.
Historical fetish: He converted a Civil War blanket factory.
Street cred: Raised in the nearby Schuylkill Falls projects.
How bad it used to be: In the heart of the suburban-style city neighborhood was a dead business district on Ridge Avenue.
Takes inspiration from: Website features pretentious quote from Marc Chagall about “the dignity of the artist.”
Style: Self-consciously artsy.
Opposition: Falls residents afraid they're living in the new Manayunk.
Dan Neducsin, 62, Manayunk
What he imagined it would be: In the late 1980s, Neducsin began converting the hillside neighborhood into an energetic retail strip.
What it is now: Despite a stable post-frat-bar scene, big-name stores and an annual arts festival, the allure of Neducsin's Manayunk has faded. Ambitious restaurants he developed with chef Derek Davis have shuttered.
Historical fetish: Keeping attention on a no-longer-navigable canal.
Developer's embarrassing past: A chain of discount stores called Mr. Goodbuys.
How bad it used to be: Up from a grubby canal sat a jumble of rowhouses and empty storefronts.
Eureka moment: When he went into real estate, Neducsin (with then-partner Steven Erlbaum) settled on inexpensive office space in Manayunk — and then started buying up everything nearby.
Style: The type of yuppiedom that karmically belongs midway between Rittenhouse Square and Bryn Mawr.
Opposition: Changing ideas of cool and ongoing parking woes.
John Westrum, 41, Brewerytown
What he imagines it will be: The next Fairmount, a townhouse neighborhood along Girard Avenue with easy access to both Center City and the park.
What it is now: A construction site, a dilapidated Red Bell Brewery, and an empty warehouse with broken windows.
Historical fetish: Westrum will turn the last of what were once 11 neighborhood breweries into condos, but he's reviving the place name “Brewerytown.”
Developer's embarrassing past: Suburban tract houses.
How bad it used to be: In the blight, someone hid an illegally operating horse stable.
Eureka moment: Westrum began to sense an anti-sprawl movement in the late 1990s and looked to take his business into the city.
Takes inspiration from: Mayor Street's Neighborhood Transformation Initiative, which galvanized development in Brewerytown.
Opposition: All the usual problems you don't find in the suburbs: anti-gentrification activists who fear that Westrum will drive out lower-class black residents, and building-trades unions demanding high wages.