Brickstone: Mercantile Library to Become Coworking Space

The realty company is the Tony Goldman of Market East.

The Mercantile Library at 1021 Chestnut, as seen in 1964. Photo courtesy MSC.

The Mercantile Library at 1021 Chestnut, as seen in 1964. Brickstone aims to make it a coworking space. Photo courtesy MSC.

This morning’s membership meeting of the Central Philadelphia Development Corporation (CPDC) at the Union League was standing room only, and it wasn’t for the coffee and danish. The numerous guests in attendance were there for “New Center City Demographics: The Upside for Retail Leasing & Development,” a panel moderated by Center City District’s Paul Levy that included Larry Steinberg, Senior VP of CBRE|FAMECO; John Connors, VP of Brickstone Realty; and Eddie Gindi, VP of Century 21 Department Stores.

Despite interesting overall updates on the Center City residential market (Levy) and its retail market (Steinberg), the crowd was perhaps most interested in the presentations by the two who got specific about the projects they’re bringing to Market East — projects that will radically alter the shape of the neighborhood, or at least that’s what everyone is hoping.

First of all, let’s talk about Brickstone Realty and its (benign, we assume) takeover agenda for what it calls Midtown Village but is actually a bit beyond those borders.

There’s a reason John Connors invoked Midtown Village, and that reason is the late developer Tony Goldman, who famously looked at South 13th Street and said, “Now here’s a shit hole corridor I can really turn into a thriving center of retail and restaurant goodness.” (I’m paraphrasing.) Few people believed he could actually do it, but he did, and not only in Philadelphia. This guy never saw a disaster he didn’t want to rehabilitate (sadly, he never got a chance to meet my neurotic rescue dog).

Say “Tony Goldman” to a frowning civic cynic, and it’s like making the Wicked Witch melt.

So don’t tell John Connors that the list of properties and the city blocks he’s going to transform are a challenge, because man, he knows that. And he also has a pretty good sense of the fact that their development needs to be a mix of strategies.

Wretched image of Brickstone's property acquisition map, taken with iPhone

Wretched image of Brickstone’s property acquisition map, taken with iPhone

Let’s take the Mercantile Library, for instance. You might expect a big time developer to want to turn that into luxury apartments or office space or retail. And Brickstone will do all those things elsewhere. But Connors spoke to the crowd about the Mercantile in terms of its historic import, referring to those in the audience who, like him, might remember the world before the Internet. He talked about the Mercantile Library as one of the first co-working spots, and along with historic certification, he’d like to recreate the space as a co-working environment. To which I say, YES.

That being said, Brickstone has an “always a retail play with apartments attached” approach, but the apartments they will do will be luxury-style — coffered ceilings, floor-to-ceiling windows, etc.

Other plans include creative office space at 15-21 S. 11th Street and 1108 Chestnut Street (the latter will likely have its rear cut off). Then there’s the massive projectile that’ll grow out of Lit Bros., but Connors will talk about that at a later date.

“We’re trying to knit a neighborhood together,” said Connors. “Midtown Village will be the heart and soul of Center City.”

Century 21’s Eddie Gindi had to dole out fewer specifics. In fact, he was more like a standup comedian — a very, very sweet one. The highlights:

– “It’s good to hear retail is doing so great in Philadelphia. Whew!”
– In the first days of the store, “we started out selling garbage, really.”
– We want our shoppers “to feel better about themselves, value themselves and build self-esteem”
– “It is really exciting to venture out of the New York tristate area, and Philadelphia was a very logical step.”
– When PREIT approached, “I saw with my own eyes the development, the massive money and time being spent to make Philadelphia a retail center.”
– Philadelphians are “fashion-savvy,” “artistic,” “creative” and “on top of relevant fashion looks.”
– “[Philadelphians] get it. At the same time, they want affordable prices.”
– “We don’t just want to come in and open the doors and leave. We want to be part of the fabric of the city.”
– “PREIT was very collaborative and cooperative. They made it a no-brainer. It wasn’t a tedious negotiation.”

The store will open in fall 2014, be two stories and 100,000 square feet, and offer 250 jobs.

As for other retail news, Macy’s is looking to expand by about 50,000 feet, but of course can’t do it in its current building; Larry Steinberg’s dream retail would be food markets; and John Connors wants to see a Philadelphia Bloomingdales.