Features: Extreme Makeover (Neighborhood Edition)

Heroes or hucksters, a new wave of developers have become Philadelphia’s mini-mayors

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.