Would You Trust This Man With Your Neighborhood?

One morning in late June, real estate developer Bart Blatstein drove his black Cadillac to a mammoth vacant lot on 2nd Street just south of Girard, at the very edge of Northern Liberties. This was the site of the former Schmidt's Brewery, which Blatstein purchased for $1.8 million at a sheriff's sale in January 2000. The property had consisted of 26 buildings. Blatstein has since torn down all but one.

“It's a huge parcel,” he told me.

A young man was waiting for us in the lot with three metal folding chairs and a large leather briefcase of the sort used to hold architectural plans. Blatstein introduced him as his nephew, Andrew, and later referred to him as his “slave.” He sat me in one of the chairs and faced me east, toward Front Street.

“So we're standing right here,” Blatstein said. “Look around. I want you to really look, closely, carefully, around. What do you see?”

“Well,” I said, “there's some houses, and the Ben Franklin Bridge, and some cars. … “

“Yeah,” he said. “But what do you really see? That's here and now?”

“Not much,” I admitted.

“It's horrible,” he said. “And that's the problem. But to put this in perspective, here we are looking east, and you can almost see the Delaware River. There's I-95 right there. You can see the size of the holdings. It's enormous.”

When he first acquired the property, Blatstein said, it was a shambling, stripped-down ruin that had long been a refuge for prostitutes, drug addicts and the homeless. Blatstein saw possibilities, but his clients — potential retailers — did not. “I've been talking to retailers the last year and a half,” he said. “They come down here and they go, 'Bart, you're crazy.' I can't get them to buy into the vision. They can't seem to understand that this area is on its way up, in a big way. And I realize that I've gotta do something to make it more attractive.”

Blatstein had me stand up, and had his slave turn the chairs around. I sat down again, this time looking west, into an abandoned parking lot that, Blatstein informed me, he also owned. With a flourish, he reached into the briefcase.

He pulled out an architect's rendering of a lovely, carless, tree-shaded plaza. People were strolling among cafés and artists' studios, eating ice cream and having drinks on terraces. At the entrance was an archway that read …

“'Liberties Walk,'” Blatstein said. “It's an artists' walk. Can you believe it? There's nothing like this in the country. This is the only time where something like this has been done, where a whole expanse has been dedicated to artists.”

Blatstein's proposed development would start on the west side of 2nd Street and extend past 3rd to Orianna — a total of four blocks. It would contain 65 loft apartments, 35 spaces for artists' studios, cafés and restaurants, and 21 rental townhouses. The buildings would all be three-story brick, with the option to bolt on metal ornaments, which Blatstein said the tenants would be allowed to design themselves. The development would culminate at St. John's Methodist Church, an abandoned structure from 1850 that miraculously still has all its stained glass intact. St. John's would be converted, Blatstein said, into art galleries. In the former sanctuary, he would build a performing arts and rehearsal space.

“Just imagine this time next year,” said Blatstein, walking me forward. “You're looking. Not straight ahead, because you're looking into the windows of each of these stores. Great artwork and crafts from the neighborhood. You're not walking fast. You're stopped, and you're looking. Your wife's there, and she's pulling on you because she wants to go into this store or that store. You sit down and have an ice-cream cone. This is what we do as developers.

“When you get here, you'll know that you're here,” he continued. “You'll know that there's only one place on the planet that looks like this. That's Northern Liberties, in Philadelphia.”

We stopped in the middle of a lot. The weeds were up to my waist.

“Isn't this the coolest thing you ever saw?” he said.

NORTHERN LIBERTIES was written into William Penn's original plan for Philadelphia. At the city's founding, if you purchased a lot within the city limits, you automatically got a free piece of property in the “liberty lands,” the wilderness to the north. The population of the wilderness grew to more than 20,000, and by the time Northern Liberties was incorporated into Philadelphia, in 1854, its boundaries had been set at Vine Street on the south, Girard Avenue on the north, Delaware Avenue to the east and 6th Street to the west. Northern Liberties has lived through many incarnations: a genteel farming community, a middle-class suburb, an industrial boomtown with breweries and lumberyards, a thriving commercial and wholesale produce center, a sprawling public marketplace, and a forgotten wasteland.

The construction of I-95 in the late '60s destroyed several hundred buildings, effectively severing Northern Liberties from Center City and ending whatever prosperity it once enjoyed. This isolation helped preserve its current landscape, a strange mix of abandoned factories and Federal-period rowhouses, narrow residential streets with three-story brick homes abutting wide boulevards built for truck traffic, taverns from the 1830s, a public school building from 1825, several churches nearing their 200th birthdays, and all other manner of architectural oddity.

In the mid-1970s, newspaper articles were touting Northern Liberties as the new “artists' neighborhood.” But the real boom happened in the early '80s. “Following the recession, there was so much pent-up demand, it was crazy,” says Bob Murphy, a longtime real estate agent in the neighborhood. “It was almost like opening the gates at a racetrack.” But when the economy went south again in 1988, speculators fled back to Center City. Those who stayed found themselves in a crime-ridden zone without any basic services, where the major social activity, Murphy jokes, was the communal Saturday morning trash cleanup.

Still, for people with imagination, Northern Liberties was a place to find a dream house cheap. There were also a lot of weird old bars and restaurants. Property remained undervalued. There was a gradual trickle of buyers, and a community began to form. In 1996, ground was broken on Liberty Lands, a park on the site of a sprawling empty lot that had once housed a tannery. Young and old, black and white, the neighborhood came together in a near-fantasy of community spirit to build the park, a pleasant, serene meadow in the middle of a very urban setting. The event birthed the way Northern Liberties imagines itself today: a funky, diverse, striving place where more than 4,000 people of all races and classes can get along.

By the time Blatstein arrived, in January 2000, the neighborhood was well into its revival period, but he wasn't, by his own admission, particularly aware of that. “I went to my first neighborhood meeting, and I was astonished by who was there,” he says. “Hundreds of people. It could have been a Queen Village meeting. Yuppies, artists, all kinds of people. I realized that I didn't understand this area.”

Blatstein, who's 47, married, with a teenage son and daughter and living in the suburbs, describes himself as a “neighborhood guy” with city roots. He grew up in the Northeast, son of a caterer and political fixer, went to Temple, and lived near South Street in the 1970s — not exactly the biography of the typical suburban developer swooping down on a city neighborhood.

Jesse Gardner, a designer who had moved from New York City in 1995 and established a studio in Northern Liberties, had been in charge of the Liberty Lands park project, on the recommendation of Dennis Haugh, a longtime resident who admired his design work. Gardner saw Blatstein's arrival as a kind of test. “Northern Liberties is funny,” he says. “There are streets that look like Society Hill, and streets that look like Camden. Some people like it that way, which is why they're frightened. Development happens in little pieces, and then all of the sudden, you wake up and you're living on South Street. We don't want that. The change is coming, and it's gonna be monumental.”

In August 2000, Blatstein began informing neighborhood leaders about an initial plan that had nothing to do with artists. Gardner described it as “scary.” It included a one-block-deep and four-block-long parking lot, extending along the east side of 2nd Street from Laurel to Girard Avenue, and a shopping center set away from the street. It was a suburban-style complex, with no concessions to the scale or character of the neighborhood.

Residents already knew that Blatstein's company, Tower Investments, had two prominent developments in the city, the Riverview mall along south Delaware Avenue and the United Artists complex in Manayunk. The complexes are financially successful architectural horrors — pink concrete messes of cheesy restaurants, plastic movie theaters, ticky-tack game arcades and badly designed parking lots. Gardner wrote in a letter to the Inquirer that Blatstein's plan repeated the “mistakes of the past,” and instead proposed a “human-scale” development with sidewalk cafes, landscaping, and parking set away from the street.

Blatstein said that he'd been talking to Kmart about putting a store at the site. At a neighborhood meeting, he said, “I have brought light to people that haven't seen light in a generation.”

ON ANY DAY in Northern Liberties, on any block, you can hear buzz saws. The air is full of construction dust. From blown-out buildings with orange liquor-license applications on their windows, people emerge clutching papers, talking on cell phones. Workers load big chunks of cement into pickup trucks, and at 5 p.m., the taverns fill with carpenters and painters.

Northern Liberties is the very definition of a transitional neighborhood. The zoning committee, therefore, is at the center of matters. To join the zoning committee, you have to live or own property in Northern Liberties. This qualified Bart Blatstein.

“Bart called up the office after he'd been in the neighborhood for six or seven months and asked to be on the committee,” says recording engineer Larry Freedman. “I shuddered a little bit, not because I thought it was a bad idea, but because I knew it would create a number of questions and there would be a lot of issues raised. I thought about conflict of interest, intimidation. I realized the only difference between the rest of us and him was that he has more stuff. We don't have a cutoff point.”

Blatstein is explicit about why he joined: “I felt that was the best way to have my finger on the pulse of the neighborhood.”

Soon, he found himself voting on such mundane business as curb cuts and parking restrictions. Freedman says Blatstein has only missed one meeting, hasn't strong-armed anyone, and has even been “helpful.” He almost always goes out for a beer afterward with the other members. “You go to the Standard Tap with Bart and talk about stuff,” Freedman says. “You say, 'I almost believe him! I almost trust him.' Bart, you can't screw me now! I just had a beer with you!”

But while the zoning committee played neutral with Blatstein, there were doubts elsewhere in the neighborhood. Around the time Blatstein bought the Schmidt's site, the NLNA formed an “urban design and development committee” to try and manage the neighborhood's changing face. Blatstein's project quickly became the priority. “It was the elephant sitting in the room,” says Dennis Haugh, a committee member. “It's hard to consider other projects when Schmidt's just dwarfs them.”

David Gleeson joined the committee and saw an opportunity to turn the Schmidt's site (at the time, half the buildings were still standing) into an arts center, along the lines of Mass moca, or P.S. i in Queens. He proposed to Blatstein an art-themed development that would include galleries, apartments and restaurants. “He basically said it would be impossible,” Gleeson recalls. “It wasn't clear what was going to happen. That created a lot of uncertainty and fear.”

Matters were inflamed when a group of neighborhood activists began campaigning to have the new Phillies stadium built on the site. Blatstein became a target because he owned the site and also sat on the Mayor's stadium committee. He later left the committee and, in a controversial move, sold the city a warehouse property on the site of what will become a stadium parking lot in South Philly. Blatstein says he originally bought that property for $16.5 million, and the city condemned it under eminent domain, essentially forcing him to sell it. He says he doesn't know how much he's going to receive for it. Still, this did nothing to gain him trust in Northern Liberties.

In particular, the Northern Liberties activists wanted to preserve the old Schmidt's brewhouse, an architectural treasure designed by Otto Wolf, as the entrance to their dream ballpark. They developed intricate plans and garnered some press support. In March, Danny McShane, a music promoter, organized several benefit nights at the Philly Bar and Grille, a little tavern on Girard that he had just purchased. A local architect named Tim McDonald wrote a protest song to the tune of Elvis Presley's “That's Alright, Mama.” It referred to Blatstein as “Barty.” McShane got numerous local musicians, including G. Love, to come to the bar and sing the song. It went, in part:

Well I'm leaving Northern Liberties
I'm leaving here for sure
If you throw up a Blockbuster Video
Outside of my front door
It ain't alright
No, it ain't alright
It ain't alright here mama
What Tower's gonna do

The effort made Blatstein very upset. He didn't tear down the brewhouse, but he did strip it of all its ornament. He had his lawyer send cease-and-desist letters to McDonald, Gleeson and McShane, telling them, essentially, to stay out of his business or else.

Jesse Gardner says, “It seemed there was no way to bridge that gulf.”

SHORTLY AFTER HE sent out his cease-and-desist letters last winter, Blatstein called Jesse Gardner to say he wanted to meet with him. Gardner had never talked to Blatstein before. He went to Blatstein's office and saw a book called Suburban Nation on his desk.

“I'm a New Urbanist now,” Blatstein said.

Gardner was shocked. There had been absolutely no indication that this was coming. “I bet if you said 'New Urbanist' two years ago to Bart,” Gardner says in wonder, “he would have said, 'What's that?'” He's probably right. New Urbanism is a national urban-design and real estate reform movement that began to bloom in the early 1990s as a reaction to out-of-control suburban sprawl. New Urbanist neighborhoods are walkable, with a mix of retail and housing, and are affordable to people of all income levels. This had hardly been a Blatstein calling card in the past.

Blatstein told Gardner that at a certain point, he realized his shopping center alone wasn't going to work. The neighborhood didn't want it, and his retail clients thought Northern Liberties was a slum. So he started buying property immediately to the west of the Schmidt's site.

“I was being criticized at certain points, and I hadn't done anything,” Blatstein says. “All I was doing was removing the blight. I wanted to say, 'Whoa! Hold off! Wait until I show you something before you criticize me!' And the criticism only fueled my desire and interest in learning about the neighborhood and developing blighted urban areas. I had two choices. One was to just put in the shopping center that had been planned for 20 years. Or I could step back and say, 'Let's spend some time here and get to understand what's happening here, and add to it.'”

He says he began reading books on New Urbanist design. He visited, among other places, Miami's South Beach and Quebec City. He measured Elfreth's Alley. During a trip to Las Vegas, he recorded the width of the pedestrian walkway at a casino shopping mall. “I started reaching back in my own mind,” he explains, “and saying, wait a minute, what did I love about Italy? What did I love about Paris? London? What did I see there that I could take pieces of and use here?”

He began interviewing architects. One suggested that he turn St. John's church, which Blatstein loved, into 12 loft apartments. That didn't seem right to him, he says. Instead, he hired the firm of Shapiro Petrauskas Gelber, with whom he'd worked on the Riverview project on Delaware Avenue in the late '80s. More recently, the firm had developed the much-lauded Fresh Fields building on South Street, and Blatstein was impressed. “We were a different firm when we did Delaware Avenue, and he's a different developer,” says Irv Shapiro, the principal architect on Blatstein's project. “We're all a little older, a little more mature, a little more independent. We're clearly a far more mature firm than when we did Riverview, and he's a far more mature developer.”

Blatstein asked Jesse Gardner to serve as his unofficial liaison to the neighborhood. Gardner was too stunned to say no. He'd never seen a developer have a change of heart like this. “I have no idea where it came from,” he says.

The members of the neighborhood's urban development committee were no less shocked when Blatstein dropped in on a meeting at Dennis Haugh's house to announce that he'd hired new architects and retained Gardner as a pro bono consultant. Gardner took the opportunity to suggest a planning session, and everyone got excited, including Blatstein.

The great coming-together never quite came together. Gardner put a notice in the local paper, and lots of people were interested in the meeting, which was to be held at St. Michael's church, at 4th and Fairmount. The press heard about the meeting. Blatstein heard about the press. He called Gardner and said he wanted to limit who would be allowed at the meeting. Gardner said he couldn't do that.

“Make it happen,” Blatstein said, and hung up.

“In hindsight,” Gardner said later, “I don't think Bart realized that we meant to hold it at a public hall. He figured it would turn into a 'smash Bart' event. I was in a very tough spot. We had no choice but to backpedal.”

In early May, a few people from the urban development committee met at Blatstein's architects' office, choosing that over the developer's office on Delaware Avenue as a more neutral site. The assembled group from the neighborhood included architects, designers, artists, an attorney and other professionals. Blatstein's architects didn't show them much, just a bunch of rejected plans for the Schmidt's site, but Gardner says the residents got across that they were serious people with serious intent and “not just a bunch of wackos.”

Dennis Haugh, who attended the meeting, still wasn't sure what Blatstein wanted. He remembers Blatstein saying, “I think through this process you'll see how complicated this site is, and it will give you an opportunity to feel my pain.” He also said, “I own more of the neighborhood than you could possibly imagine.”

“It's like shadowboxing,” Haugh says. “It's hard to throw a punch at Bart, because it's hard to tell what he's really doing. I hope what he does is great. We've been forced to take a leap of faith.”

Gardner was one of the few people who'd been let in on Blatstein's secret. He said Blatstein appeared genuinely nervous about how the neighborhood would receive the Liberties Walk proposal. “I thoroughly approve of his plans,” Gardner says. “And I can sympathize with him. He wants to do right by the people he's gotten to know in the neighborhoods. But he's a developer, and he has to make a profit.”

For his part, Blatstein hired Ken Snyder, a public relations consultant who had handled communications for Mayor Street's 1999 campaign and was now working with powerful state senator Vince Fumo, to help him sell the project to the public. In a July interview at his office, Blatstein stopped just short of using the word “legacy.”

“I'm not driven as much by economics anymore,” he said. “I'm driven more by doing something special. It's exciting for me to be able to do something so special. I don't want to be corny about it. This might not be nearly the largest — not nearly the largest — but it is the most important thing I'm doing.”

Blatstein continued to hold his cards close throughout the summer. He kept hinting at neighborhood meetings that something was coming, but he wouldn't say what. Finally, at the end of July, he told Larry Freedman about Liberties Walk. Freedman suggested a special zoning committee meeting for August 20th.

“I wanted to jump for joy,” Freedman says. “But I couldn't, because I was with Bart.”

ON THE EVENING of Monday, August 20th, as scheduled, Blatstein officially unveiled Liberties Walk to the neighborhood's zoning committee. The meeting room at St. Michael's church was full, with some 200 people in attendance. His plan was almost exactly what he'd shown me two months earlier, but his rhetoric had changed somewhat. Every other word out of his mouth was “artist” or some variation thereof. “I want this to be a museum of neighborhood artists,” he said. “I don't want it to look contrived. I want it to look artistic, not Disneyesque.” He said that this would be a “neat” development, a “little community within the community,” adding that all the properties would be available at “market rent” to “artists.” Also, he promised to form two separate neighborhood committees — one to help him select the art for the fronts of his buildings, the other to help him choose the artists who would go inside.

“What's most important to me is not the highest rent, but artists that are representative of the finest of their specialty,” he said.

Reaction, even from the members of the urban development committee, was positive. Comments ranged from “impressed” to “bold” to “worth trying.” This was more than they could have dreamed of months ago. Still, there were protests. One woman got up and called the development a “snow job.” “I don't believe that this is for artists at all,” she said.

Outside, after the meeting, Blatstein shook hands with everyone he could. Marie Lederer, the state representative for the district, came up to him.

“I think if this works,” she said, “it'll be a model for the whole country. We have 40,000 abandoned homes. You can't go fixing a house here and a house there. You have to build communities.”

“You do have to build communities,” Blatstein said. “But not me. I'm doing this one right here. After that, I'm done.”

But he wasn't done quite yet. The next day, Blatstein held a press conference at the site of the future Liberties Walk, scheduled to break ground this January. Ken Snyder handed out press releases on CDs, complete with jpegs of architectural renderings. Mayor Street showed up to pay homage, as did Vince Fumo, who said, “This is it. This is the next happening spot in Philadelphia. It will get done.”

No one was going to doubt him.

The NLNA also had more work ahead. After Blatstein left the zoning committee meeting that night, its members called an emergency board meeting. They resolved to get, on paper, Blatstein's promise to create neighborhood advisory boards for the project, and also decided to ask him for extra parking spaces, if those were required. But most importantly, they wanted Blatstein to set aside 20 percent of his units for existing residents of the neighborhood who wouldn't be able to afford his “market” rents. The time had come for them to worry about gentrification.

They had learned that Blatstein preferred the backroom deal to the public shouting match. If they were going to retain some control over their neighborhood, they would have to play the game Blatstein's way. Said Dennis Haugh, “We need to figure out how to have a conversation with him, rather than confront him with a didactic resolution.” Liberties Walk was reality now, and the artists were going to have to deal with the reality of living in an “artist's neighborhood.” Liberties Walk had also temporarily deflected attention from any potential retail development on the adjacent Schmidt's site, which had been the source of controversy all along.

“If Bart's playing chess,” Dave Gleeson said, “it's a great move.”

Neal Pollack last wrote for Philadelphia Magazine on Quizo. He is the author of The Neal Pollack Anthology of American Literature, to be published in paperback by HarperCollins in March 2002.