Eric Blumenfeld Is Crazy Enough to Revitalize North Broad Street
The smooth-talking, fast-car-driving real estate man has absurdly ambitious dreams for the development of North Broad Street. If can just keep enough influential people “hypnotized” — and avoid what happened to his equally exuberant dad.
As I hang out with Blumenfeld this summer, he is constantly noting what an unbelievably small town Philadelphia is. “It’s like only five people live in Philadelphia,” he jokes one night over dinner. “Everything is connected. When you tell your college roommates from New York about this, they don’t believe you.”
How does he know restaurateur Marc Vetri? Well, years before the two men ever played basketball together at the Sporting Club or struck the deal that led to Osteria—a huge turning point in both of their careers—Vetri’s mom knew Blumenfeld’s dad for a very special reason: Marc stuttered, and Jack Blumenfeld was the most successful person she had ever heard of who also stuttered.
How does he know developer Carl Dranoff? Dranoff’s first job after college was managing the construction of Jack Blumenfeld’s 40-story apartment complex at 1500 Locust, which, when it was built in the early ’70s, was on what was considered the “outskirts” of Center City.
How does he know Bart Blatstein? Neither remembers exactly how they met, but their lives and careers have more crazy intersections than Passyunk Avenue. Blumenfeld recalls walking out of an important meeting in the early 1990s—he convinced some skeptical lenders to buy the mortgage on his dad’s old Executive House for $15 million—and calling Blatstein to ask if he had ever heard of one of the lawyers running the meeting, Jack Weiner.
“Oh yeah,” Bart said, “his father was the photographer at my bar mitzvah.”
And in the fewer-than-six-degrees-of-separation world of Philly, I’ve known Blumenfeld, casually, for more than 20 years, mostly from the gyms at Center City’s Gershman Y and then the Sporting Club at the Bellevue, where he played basketball for many years.
But while Blumenfeld and I have grown up in this town in proximity to each other’s orbits, I don’t really know him, and a lot of people don’t. Or they know him mostly from the period after he graduated from college in the mid-’80s, when he was aggressively single, living in one of the few inhabited apartments in struggling Abbotts Square, and trying very hard to pretend that his father’s empire, and his birthright, hadn’t imploded.
Blumenfeld has moved on from much of that: He’s been married to wife Jackie since 1999 and dotes on their 12-year-old daughter and eight-year-old son; he long ago gave up Center City for Gladwyne, plays more tennis than basketball now. But he’s the kind of person for whom the past is always present. I realize this the moment I walk into his office at Abbotts and see it decorated with stuff that can’t possibly be his. There are lots of framed, largely unremarkable oil paintings, decorative statues, coffee-table and étagère tchotchkes—the kind of stuff a decorator would have helped someone overpay for in the ’60s and ’70s.
In fact, this is all left over from his parents’ old apartment on the Parkway, not far from where Blumenfeld went to school at Friends Select. When Jack was forced into bankruptcy, he and his wife gave up the apartment and moved to the family Shore house in Ventnor (which was protected in a trust for the children). But Eric couldn’t part with the things he’d grown up around. So he keeps them in his office, making it look as if he’s working in a high-end South Street thrift shop.
He tells me stories of growing up in Center City during the ’70s, about graduating from Tulane in 1985, hoping to become a journalist, and then being told at graduation that his dad needed him in the company. His oldest sibling, Robin Blumenfeld Switzenbaum, had already tried working for her dad but wanted a law practice (she’s now a litigator at Berger & Montague), and the middle sibling, David, was in law school.
“I said, ‘Dad, you’re the king, I’m a fuckup, how am I gonna help you?’” he recalls. “But my father was very charismatic, he starts crying, he says, ‘I need you.’ I still thought he was full of shit, but he had me crying, too, so I worked with him. I think at that time he was already insolvent, but he was always a fighter, and he never gave up.”
Over the next few years, Jack Blumenfeld, then nearly 60, stepped from tightrope to tightrope. The initial construction of Abbotts Square—the L-shaped condo, parking garage and retail complex from 3rd to 2nd and 2nd to Lombard—finally got finished, but nobody would buy the units, and the neighborhood successfully opposed a plan to build a massive sports bar on the rest of the land at 3rd and Lombard. 1500 Locust got refinanced again and again, as Jack quixotically tried to turn a property he’d bought in Atlantic City in 1984—the site of the Shelburne Hotel—into a casino. (The site is now the home of Bally’s Wild Wild West Casino.)
While this was going on, Eric’s brother David, 15 months his elder, came into the business after finishing law school. This eventually led Jack’s cousin and longtime partner, Alan Feingold, to leave the business, and Feingold had to be bought out of his ownership positions on projects that were, by then, deeply underwater. Jack lost 1500 Locust to foreclosure in 1989, and as Abbotts Square floundered, Executive House went bankrupt. By 1991, Jack Blumenfeld was forced to declare personal bankruptcy as well. And his sons—still in their 20s—had to resort to a series of complex legal maneuvers to buy Abbotts Square and Executive House out of the bankruptcy (at what Eric insists was “fair market value,” but others have always wondered). They also had to agree to take care of their formerly rich parents.
Eric was living alone in Abbotts Square, largely, he says, “off the cash flow from the vending machines in the properties.” He was trying to make a go of a comedy club in the Abbotts complex, a local franchise of Catch a Rising Star, through which he met most of the Seinfeld generation of comics, who stayed overnight in what became known as “the Elvis Suite,” the empty apartment next to his. The Blumenfeld brothers opened a T.G.I. Friday’s location at the end of their building at 2nd and Lombard. Eric says he considered the successful Friday’s as a possible buffer for his real estate business, and was arranging to open a second outpost at the corner of Germantown Pike and Route 202, along with more locations in Florida and at the airport, thus becoming “Mr. T.G.I. Friday’s.” But that didn’t work out.
Meanwhile his relationship with his brother also went bad. Around 1995, David announced he wanted to leave the family business, and the negotiations ended with the two brothers pitted against each other in court.
“He actually filed a lawsuit against me,” Eric says, incredulous. “After two hours, the judge says, ‘Stop, I get it. … I suggest you two go in the hallway and make an arrangement, because you’re not gonna like how I rule.’ I didn’t want my brother to leave in the first place. It was all very weird to me.” The duo finally agreed David would give up ownership rights to Executive House and they’d split Abbotts (which Eric later bought outright). But the situation led to a severe strain between David and his parents.
“We were so close. He was a great brother, and he always looked after me,” Eric says. “I was always a troublemaker; he was straight-and-narrow. He left me in a really tough time. But that time really changed him. It changed me, too. After he left, I felt like I had nothing to lose. I started to develop a work ethic. … It forced me to do every single job. And that’s when I started to prosper.”