Feature: Understanding the Man Who Killed Sabina Rose O’Donnell

One night last June, Sabina Rose O’Donnell, a popular young waitress heading home in Northern Liberties, was dragged from her bike, raped, and murdered. An 18-year-old man who lived 10 blocks away, in North Philadelphia, confessed. The media portrayed her killing as random. Given the way the city is changing, it may be anything but.


How exactly the Northern Liberties we now know happened isn’t an easy question to answer. Early ripples of change came in the mid-1970s, with Dankanis and a small group of women acting as community organizers, forming the Northern Liberties Neighbors Association, and obtaining federal funding to renovate several dozen abandoned properties in the neighborhood. Shortly thereafter, artists — graduates of the city’s fine-arts schools seeking large, affordable live-work spaces — moved in. In the past decade, the nationwide housing bubble was amplified locally by the city’s 10-year tax abatement program. There was the realization — at last, 200 years on — of a fully formed Center City, sending residents seeking cheaper housing outward. And then there was Bart Blatstein.

By now, there’s a mythology associated with Blatstein. It begins on an icy winter day 10 years ago, when he showed up on a whim at a Holiday Inn downtown for a sheriff’s auction of the landmark 12-acre Schmidt’s Brewery property. Blatstein had known the neighborhood only from dropping in at Klein’s at 2nd and Brown, where he bought appliances for his projects in other parts of the city; it was a parcel and a neighborhood he’d had no intention of buying into. He nevertheless walked out of the sale with the deed, for what would end up, in hindsight, a swindling: $1.8 million. Next, he began aggressively buying up properties — most of them vacant — to create what he calls a “critical-mass assemblage” of real estate he could use to transform this “netherworld of decrepit structures and homelessness and drug abuse” into something … well, something wholly different.

He doesn’t mention that in his early years as the neighborhood’s largest landowner, he and those who predated him often fought bitterly over concerns, which were not unfounded, that his initial plans would have turned Northern Liberties into a sort of strip-mall-meets-Disneyland. And it was those arguments, ultimately, that led Blatstein to the realization that he had a “special obligation” to the neighborhood. At the same time, Blatstein intuited that marketing and perpetuating cool — providing the neighborhood with a cohesive, overarching identity, even if it was one rooted in eclecticism — could make him very, very rich. Working with local architectural firm Erdy McHenry, Blatstein embraced a loose postmodern aesthetic that would become a signature. He converted crumbling old factories — and an old school — into modern high-rent apartments. He built two giant new apartment buildings that resemble huge, bending glass fish tanks. He signed leases to a neighborhood coffee shop and a designer pet store, an upscale tapas bar, a skateboard shop, an art gallery and, of all things, a place that sells only custom-made corsets (starting at $400). Finally, he returned to the beginning, to the brewery property, the 80,000-square-foot Piazza at Schmidts. The Schmidt’s Brewery site, the former symbol of working-class Philadelphia, opened in 2009 as a 21st-century answer to Rittenhouse Square, despite its kitschy commercialism. Today, Bart Blatstein is said to own one-fifth of all of Northern Liberties, now one of the more expensive neighborhoods in the city.