Saturday, February 6, 2016

Why are we still talking about Bart Blatstein?

At the height of the building boom, Bart Blatstein, the developer behind the Piazza at Schmidt's, was lauded by locals as a pioneering visionary. His quasi-public plaza in the not-quite-there-yet Northern Liberties was seen as a daring and risky move, and Erdy-McHenry's architecture cradled that. Philadelphia's press and bloggers couldn't get enough of Blatstein.

He was the man that was going to reinvent the city, the Goose that Laid the Golden Egg.

His company, Tower Investments, has managed to make a name for itself. The former State Office Building on North Broad was renovated and rebranded Tower Place, and several of Tower's other projects handsomely compliment the Piazza. 

For years, Blatstein taunted the press with his next move. He got his hands on the Inquirer Building and proposed the Provence Casino. He snagged the long vacant corner of Broad and Washington where he pitched twin towers and a shopping complex. He partnered in a deal for the Delaware Station to convert the industrial relic into a massive event space. 

Then he set his sights on Atlantic City, began renovating the Pier Shops at Caesars, and it seemed he had abandoned Philadelphia and anyone who gave a shit about his portfolio of unused properties. 

But the truth is, he never left. Whenever we thought he was gone, he'd find himself an unintended voice in a story involving local development. Just two weeks ago he told BizJournal's Natalie Kostelni, "It's time" for North Broad Street, yet half of his vested interest in the Avenue sits vacant. Maria Panaritis dedicated an entire article to the man dubbing him a risk taker, opening exclusively with a love letter to the man's private Rittenhouse mansion.

Meanwhile, developers like National Real Estate Advisors are moving mountains on East Market. Brandywine is redefining the University City skyline with a renowned architecture firm's skyscraper. Liberty Property Trust is partnered in building the tallest building between New York and Chicago. 

While NREA, Brandywine, and Liberty are faceless entities, perhaps it's a man the press is enamored with. Eric Bumenfeld is a similar developer who garners similar attention, but he's hardly a celebrity in the local press. Carl Dranoff, though he's never done anything exceptionally daring or reinvented the wheel, is consistently building and clearly loves working more than attention. 

As someone who made one good move and a few decent ones over the past decade, why do we still care so much about Bart Blatstein? Like someone who just won the lottery, Bart Blatstein can't seem to focus his attention on one purchase, project, or investment. He sprays a sense of capitalistic ADHD across the Jerseyvania Triangle in disordered chaos, that is until he wants to grab a headline. 

Unlike Blumenfeld or Dranoff, and certainly straying from the formality of NREA, Brandywine, and Liberty; Blatstein has become Philadelphia's Donald Trump. Wherever there's a reporter, he's there to tell us what we want to hear: Broad and Washington will be amazing, the Inquirer Building will reinvent North Broad, and that abandoned power station on the Delaware River will be the East Coast's Coachella. 

He's a showman through and through, and it's beginning to look like the one thing he did smashingly perfect - the Piazza - was nothing but a fluke. 

But it wasn't a fluke nor was it that risky. There are a few pieces of Blatstein's portfolio that strategically lack a photograph on his company's website, namely River View and Columbus Crossing, that prove he isn't the urban trailblazer that brought feet back to the sidewalks of Philadelphia.

Neither an indie developer who rewrote urbanism nor one who altruistically saved a piece of North Broad modernism, Blatstein is a calculated businessman who bankrolled projects like the Piazza by first solidifying Columbus Boulevard as a piss-poor suburban wasteland by making strip-malls the new South Philly normal. 

With Blumenfeld bringing the Divine Lorraine back to life and Dranoff keeping urbanism tight, why is Blatstein still the press's Man of the Hour?

Like so many other charismatic moneymen, years of reveals for "the next Piazza" have been nothing more than a dog and pony show. Flashy renderings of towers flanking Broad and Washington and defunct plans for a casino atop the Inquirer Building serve to both distract and divide the public while the media, knowing how easy it is to jingle a set of keys in front of its readers, is his worthy partner. 

Past the pomp and soundbites, he's up to his old tricks. It was recently announced that Blatstein has proposed another strip-mall at Columbus Boulevard and Washington Avenue, a car-centric project that will put the kibosh on the Delaware River Waterfront Corporation's plans to replicate the success of the Schuylkill Banks on the eastern shores of the city. 

Unfortunately for Blatstein, his proposal was almost universally panned. Drexel University's Harris Steinberg called it "a regression." Jason Bock, who helped Blatstein plan the damn thing, even said, "it's going to be an urban development that's going to look like a suburban development."

These aren't words many Philadelphians this side of the New Millennium really want to hear. Given Bock's comments and Blatstein's vision, it would seem that the man who invented the American Piazza doesn't necessarily get urbanism or the New Philadelphians who largely make up his market. Inga Saffron was even more blunt on Facebook, posting, "Guess Bart Blatstein has given up on that new urbanist stuff."

While it's true that the Piazza may never have happened without Columbus Crossing or River View, that doesn't mean either had to happen, and certainly doesn't mean either should happen again. The success of the Piazza and Tower Place have proven that urbanism isn't risky. In fact, it's exactly what Philadelphia wants right now. 

But old habits die hard.

Strip-malls are cheap cash cows, at least for now. If another one on Columbus Boulevard can fund the transformation of Broad and Washington, I'll take it. But with so many other developers truly embracing Philadelphia's urban roots, why is the man who built one good thing once upon a time still the public's go-to guy when the latest thing he's released is so uninspired and architecturally irresponsible? 

We don't need to make any assumptions when it comes to Bart Blatstein and his attitude towards the better city we'd all like to have. Take his own words on the Delaware River Trail, 
"In spirit, I am for the river trail. In reality, it would be sold for a fraction of the market value of the property."

That's no architectural superhero, and not a Philadelphian we should be idolizing. 

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