Bart Blatstein On His Past And Future In Northern Liberties, And His Ambitions Elsewhere
For any longtime resident of Philadelphia, the transformation of Northern Liberties over the past 20 years has been striking. And for the one man most responsible for that change, it is no different.
“It’s just, wow,” Bart Blatstein said of his emotions regarding Northern Liberties. “It’s one thing to dream, and it’s another thing to see the vision come to be. I walk around the neighborhood, and I remember what was in each lot before, and I just go ‘Wow, it worked.’”
Blatstein does not walk the neighborhood as much as he used to, since he moved his business from North Third Street to Rittenhouse Square, a block from his lavish new home in Philly’s ritziest neighborhood. But Blatstein dismisses anyone looking to draw symbolic meaning from the move to Center City for one of the city’s most central figures in development.
“Come on,” Blatstein said. “It’s a three-minute walk from my house. I get a half hour more to sleep in the morning.”
The Tower Investments founder is not quite done with NoLibs, having recently announced his intention to build a new mixed-use development between his signature project, Schmidt’s Commons (still known to most as The Piazza at Schmidt’s) and the grocery-anchored Shops at Schmidt’s retail development. Blatstein is now planning to construct the largest development in the neighborhood in terms of residential units between two neighborhood institutions he built and sold.
The as-yet-unnamed complex will house 1,197 one-bedroom and studio apartments split between six buildings that will also include a total of 45K SF of ground-floor retail. Like the Piazza, the buildings will be centered around a public space, but this one will be a grassy parklet rather than the paved gathering place of its predecessor.
“While the Piazza is hardscape, we’re going to come back and create some softscape. And the infrastructure is already there, so it’s plug-and-play,” Blatstein said, referring to the retail mix he curated to make Northern Liberties walkable. “After building in the infrastructure, this is the easy part, even though it’s the largest.”
Though some might question the wisdom of adding a similar development while Schmidt’s Commons struggles with below-average occupancy numbers for its two- and three-bedroom units and constant turnover from its retail portion, Blatstein was unequivocal in his assessment of the struggles the development, owned by Kushner Cos. and Oaktree Capital Management, has had.
“When we sold the Piazza and Liberties Walk, the retail portion was completely filled and the residential portion had been 97% leased,” Blatstein said. “If I owned it again, the entire place would be filled in two months. It’s out-of-town management that doesn’t understand the neighborhood.”
Blatstein’s longtime association with Northern Liberties has found him still on good terms with community leaders, but being a Philly native has not always meant agreeable relationships with neighbors of his developments. On the southern part of the Delaware River waterfront, near where he built several retail establishments such as the Riverview Plaza, he has applied for a zoning variance to build a Wawa with gas pumps — a proposal met with vehement opposition from Pennsport residents.
Opponents to the pumps, which are part of a project with more retail properties next to an incoming residential development on a plot of land Blatstein recently sold, see the conflict as a dramatic example of the conflict between car-oriented development and a walkable community, with one going so far as to tell the Philadelphia Inquirer that he would fight the gas pumps “to my dying breath.”
After the contentious community hearing, Blatstein will take his proposal to the Zoning Board of Adjustment April 18. If the ZBA approves the pumps, then Tower Investments will move forward despite the outcry. To Blatstein, having such meetings and disagreements is preferable to proceeding in secret.
“Very rarely in my 40 years of doing this have I run into an unreasonable community group,” Blatstein said. “It’s only about an open line of communication. You don’t want to blindside anybody, and I wouldn’t want it done to me.”
Blatstein has played a major role in building up the Delaware waterfront with his retail developments, but the area is still more car-oriented than walkable. Creating a true mixed-use area there is “the last frontier” of Philadelphia, he said. But his focus is no longer solely on reviving weakened areas.
Blatstein owns the building that formerly was the headquarters of the Philadelphia Inquirer, which he is redeveloping to house the Philadelphia Police Department. The $260M renovation started this year.
Though the search for a police headquarters has seen its share of drama, Blatstein’s largest — and most embattled — development on the docket is his mixed-use tower planned for the corner of Broad Street and Washington Avenue, at the southern end of Center City.
On what Blatstein calls the largest parcel of land in Center City, he plans for a $300M building with apartments above two floors of retail, with the ground floor containing street-facing stores and the second containing an open-air “retail village” enclosed and off the street. The idea has been met with criticism, but is not the reason the project has not broken ground yet.
Blatstein first initiated the project five years ago, but was not able to officially buy the land until six months ago due to a lawsuit with the previous owner that took years to settle. The delay had a pleasantly unforeseen consequence.
“I started that project five years ago, and it was sidetracked by litigation, but the area around there has boomed since,” Blatstein said. “The difference there now is that we’re not the pioneer.”
Blatstein hopes to announce a groundbreaking date soon.
His most recently completed project splits the difference between pioneering a blighted area and developing within an established downtown.
Blatstein purchased the Showboat Casino in Atlantic City for $23M in 2016, near the nadir of the beach city's reputation. Since that purchase, while Blatstein has assembled 20 lots surrounding the property on the South Inlet, the two neighbors on either side have begun a second life.
On one side, the former Revel casino has been sold and is being converted into the Ocean Walk Resort, while on the other side the Trump Taj Mahal is in the midst of an overhaul to turn it into a Hard Rock Hotel and casino. Although Blatstein followed his model of buying into an area on hard times, a good portion of the work to revive the area is being done for him.
“This is the first time in a very long time that there’s new investment in Atlantic City outside of the marina district, and there’s only one beach and boardwalk," Blatstein said. "So you have a grouping of entertainment properties that spans thousands of feet along the boardwalk and the beach, and it will create its own new area. So the boardwalk will come back alive there.”
Atlantic City is attempting to follow in Las Vegas' footsteps by becoming a more holistic entertainment destination, rather than one purely focused on gambling, according to Blatstein. The Showboat already has 50 events booked for 2018, when last year it had none at this point.
“[Atlantic City is] becoming more authentic than before," Blatstein said. "Lots of these buildings were built decades ago and they were very insular, they didn’t want you to leave the building. And now there are a lot of outdoor uses like beer gardens, outdoor concerts, so Atlantic City is starting to embrace its greatest asset — that it’s on the ocean.”
With around $1B in planned developments in Philadelphia plus his holdings in Atlantic City, Blatstein has an understandably full plate at the moment. Blatstein has declined to lighten his load by taking on partners; in all of the developments mentioned here, Tower Investments is going it alone.
But even once all those projects finish, he does not see a finish line for his long and storied career.
“I love what I do, and I’ll rest when I die," Blatstein said. "It’s a hobby, and every day is exciting and a challenge. It’s not a job, it’s a journey. I love it, and I always will.”