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.

About a week later, Blumenfeld invites me to his house in Gladwyne for dinner. Before we go inside, he wants me to see something hidden in the trees behind the house. It’s a vintage milk wagon that was discovered in the early ’80s, during the dismantling of Abbotts Dairy, the future site of Abbotts Square. His dad has spent more than $20,000 laboriously restoring it, along with a guy named Tim Mitchell, whom Eric hired to help and keep an eye on his parents. They finished the cart several weeks ago and had it delivered to Eric’s house. But out of nowhere, just last week, Mitchell dropped dead, at the age of 47.

Eric’s dad, especially, is devastated. While 85-year-old Jack’s health had been fragile for some time, it’s gotten worse. Three days ago, Eric had him ambulanced to Bryn Mawr Hospital, where he had a tumor removed from his stomach and then insisted on checking himself out early and going home.

It’s a time of family turmoil for Eric, and he doesn’t pretend it’s easy. On top of Mitchell’s death and his dad’s illness, he has just announced a massive lawsuit against developer Ron Caplan—who had been one of his mentors. Caplan partnered with him in 2010 when the banks asked for additional financial backing on two Blumenfeld projects in trouble: the rehab of the Marine Club at Broad and Washington, and the development of 600 North Broad.

Blumenfeld has been instructed by his lawyers not to talk about the suit—which is like asking a brook not to babble—and he’s doing his best not to, suggesting that everything anyone needs to know is in the legal papers. But he’s clearly troubled by the fact that it has come to this, and also upset that the media coverage of the case makes it sound like two rich guys fighting over lunch money. In fact, tens of millions hang in the balance of the 33-count, 79-page suit, which claims all manner of fraud, misappropriation and breach of contract. Caplan wouldn’t comment on any of the allegations. But there’s some talk in the business community that this is the kind of really personal dispute that’s better solved without thermonuclear litigation—because even being right may not mean all that much. (One close associate of Blumenfeld and his dad describes them as “visionaries, but part of the problem is they never see the downside of anything.”) While the dispute is mostly over lucrative 600 North Broad, it could result in Caplan trying to foreclose on Blumenfeld at the chronically challenged Marine Club. It’s unclear if the suit will cause or reveal some economic weakness in Blumenfeld’s other holdings, but it could suck time, energy and money that might be better spent on his ambitious school proposal.

We go into the house and head down the gorgeous oval staircase to the lower level, where Blumenfeld has his own kitchen, wine cellar and workout room—which is dominated by a life-size statue of Muhammad Ali given to him by Blatstein. Blumenfeld chooses a wine, and takes it to one of the many standing decanters on one of the house’s many bars. While decanting the wine, he tells a story about the first time his father saw the mansion. It made him cry, Blumenfeld says, for a very specific reason: He couldn’t believe his son owned a house that had six different ice makers.

We move to the downstairs kitchen, where Blumenfeld confides that something quite amazing happened. He bumped into his brother at the Barnes opening, and they decided to have lunch for the first time in years—years during which David and his wife raised two kids, whom Eric says his parents barely know. The brothers are going to meet the next day at Parc.

I don’t hear from Blumenfeld for five days, and then on a Sunday at 3:35 p.m., I get a text: “My Dad passed away.”

The next time I see him is at his father’s funeral. It’s held at Rodeph Shalom and draws a pretty good crowd, especially for a hot weekday in early August. (In the Inquirer obituary, Bart Blatstein memorialized Jack as “transformational.”) The funeral is awkward, because even though Eric and David did actually have that lunch—and their dad knew about it before he succumbed to a post-operative infection—it was at best a baby step toward reconciliation. The three eulogies for Jack Blumenfeld warmly describe his relationship with his daughter and Eric and their families, but never mention the other son. Harsh.

During his emotional eulogy, Eric also makes a passing mention of a project he was working on with his dad, one that nobody else knew about. Last summer he quietly spent tens of millions to buy out troubled Allentown developer Mark Mendelson’s majority share in a large property on the southern end of Penn’s Landing, below Washington Avenue—the huge, ugly Sheet Metal Workers building and the 17 acres from Columbus Boulevard to the river that surround it. In a generational do-over for a failed deal Jack had in the ’70s to develop at Penn’s Landing, father and son were hatching a plan for a “futuristic com­munity” there—residences, workplaces, as well as a Stephen Starr hotel. It was, sometimes, all Eric and Jack talked about—that and the grandkids.

But in the end, Jack Blumenfeld actually did a pretty job of eulogizing himself. When I see Eric several days after the funeral, he shows me something that was found among his father’s belongings. Jack had been working on an autobiography, and he had fairly recently printed out a nine-page, single-spaced list of 138 things he still hadn’t figured out how to get in there. The document was titled “Book—List of Things to Add.”

Entry 122, which he copied from a Washington Post column about Steve Jobs, could have been a message to himself, or to Eric. It read:

“The truth is, you usually have to fail to succeed. No one emerges at the top. Even those born lucky eventually get a turn on the wheel of misfortune. Anyone with a résumé of accomplishments also has a résumé of failures, humiliations and setbacks.”