Economic Development

In Philly, And Beyond, Two Different Visions for Urban Development

Plans showing space for apartments and a high school campus on North Broad Street. Credit: EB Realty

When the Barclays Center opened in Brooklyn earlier this month, its developer, Bruce C. Ratner, was the subject of enough hagiography that you would think he were an urban visionary on par with Frederick Law Olmstead or Daniel Burnham.

Long forgotten was the cold, placeless Metro Tech Center, which Ratner developed in the 1990s and eats up 16 acres of Downtown Brooklyn. Or the shopping malls and parking garages located across the country that have littered his decades-long career. Almost forgotten were the bitter legal battles, aesthetic disputes and traffic concerns about his development of Atlantic Yards — the largest development site in New York’s history.

Ratner and the Barclays Center were feted not only by opening acts like Jay-Z, but Mayor Michael Bloomberg, who went so far as to say that New Yorkers should thank the developer.

That Ratner is adored rather than reviled says something: We respect developers who are ambitious in terms of scale, not in terms of ideas. We assume successful megaprojects require millions in tax credits and eminent domain to get things done, but don’t press them to move beyond this economic model. This kind of relationship with powerful developers has led many cities to encourage any development they can find, at any cost.

But this is a short-sighted approach, and as cities rebound, they deserve better developers who can not only envision new forms of urban real estate, but new methods of financing those projects and new styles of execution. As an issue of Architectural Record recently demonstrated, a series of projects in Cleveland, Kansas City and Pittsburgh have all enhanced the local built environment by reimagining familiar typologies of housing, museums and even a mall. These projects show that you don’t have to cater to the lowest common denominator and the biggest budget to create an impact.

A rendering of The Provence on North Broad.

But in a precarious economy, many cities are still swayed by economic development deals that promise jobs and economic churn in the short term, but do little to further the city’s social or economic aspirations.

Witness North Broad Street in Philadelphia, a wide boulevard that sits at the midpoint between the Schuylkill and Delaware Rivers. Its location suggests it could be the city’s Oxford Street or Broadway; instead, most of North Broad suffers from a high rate of vacancy and little street life. Here two major real estate developers, Bart Blatstein and Eric Blumenfeld, suggest two distinct paths for real estate development in Philadelphia, and other cities like it. Blatstein wants to build a casino and entertainment complex here; Blumenfeld wants to leverage his investment in an apartment building to build a first-of-its-kind high school campus.

Their approaches to development, and the rationale that underpins them, couldn’t be further apart. Whatever happens on North Broad Street, however, is bound to have an impact not only on Philadelphia, but on peer cities struggling to encourage the best possible kind of development.

Bart Blatstein is best known as the developer of a massive mixed-used New Urbanist project in Philly’s Northern Liberties neighborhood that includes a pedestrian retail commons; an AIA-award-winning, glass-and-steel residential project with commercial space facing an enormous interior courtyard; and major commercial space including a supermarket and other large-scale retail. It would be hard to argue against the value of the Piazza (as the whole complex is widely known), or to overstate how much it has spurred investment in Northern Liberties.

Given the bold vision of the Piazza, the public was excited to hear that Blatstein had purchased several major buildings on North Broad, including one that housed the Philadelphia Inquirer and Daily News. But the Blatstein aesthetic of the housing boom days — fun, young and liberated from Philadelphia’s historical context — seems to have been replaced by a dark vision of how development will work in more austere times. Last week, Blatstein unveiled his plan for much of his property in the area, and his plan calls for a casino, hotel and entertainment complex that spans several blocks. Called The Provence, the $700 million project will include a jazz club, spa, comedy club and theater, as well as parking garages and private park with a shopping allée.

If the Piazza was a smart interpretation of Italian public spaces, Blatstein’s new project looks about as French as Euro Disney. But despite the corny name and looks, what’s most disheartening is Blatstein’s approach to development. Much like Atlantic Yards, The Provence ignores the neighborhood’s innate style and emergent culture. It relies upon projected job creation and consumer spending to justify its existence. It uses the unpardonable tactic of gambling to generate tax revenue. And instead of cultivating public space, it privatizes its amenities and shuns the streetscape.

The Divine Lorraine, targeted for redevelopment by Eric Blumenfeld. Credit: Matt Bevilacqua

Just a few blocks north on Broad Street, Eric Blumenfeld is developing a very different kind of project. This fall Blumenfeld purchased the Divine Lorraine, an 150,000-square-foot building built in 1894, plus several adjacent vacant lots. His development plan calls for turning the vacant hotel into rental housing plus two 20,000-square-foot restaurants by local favorites Steven Starr and Marc Vetri. But Blumenfeld is literally thinking outside the box: He is working with the Mural Arts Program to document and potentially save some of the famous pieces of graffiti that cover many walls inside and out of the vacant building, and is engaging nearby institutions, like the Francisville Neighborhood Development Corporation and Project H.O.M.E., in shaping the plan for the site’s vacant lots.

But the ambitious part of Blumenfeld’s plan involves turning his vacant parcels into an educational campus that would combine four nearby high schools into one green campus. Combining the schools would save millions in maintenance fees and operational capacity; it would also create a new vocational focus on hospitality, culinary arts and technology, in partnership with restaurateurs Starr and Vetri, who both already have outposts on North Broad. In exchange for developing this new educational campus, Blumenfeld would purchase the former high school buildings and turn them into housing.

At the same time that Blatstein’s project has caught the ire of nearby schools that don’t want a casino near their students, and local civic associations that are organizing against The Provence, Blumenfeld, by contrast, is courting any and all ideas about how to make his ideas a reality and success. If Blumenfeld’s campus project materializes, he’ll not only have revitalized a neighborhood in need of stronger anchor institutions, but he’ll have created a new model for development. Eschewing the paradigm of government incentives and credits, this approach proves that developers can be social entrepreneurs, too.

Ultimately, these are two different visions of what the city should be and what role development has in it. Blatstein, it seems, would rather have an artificial elevated park surrounded by shopping than, say, invest in the nearby Reading Viaduct, an abandoned elevated railway that many hope can be turned into the next High Line. He would prefer to create an inauthentic comedy club and jazz cabaret than find ways to partner with emerging cultural institutions nearby, like art gallery Vox Populi or event space PhilaMOCA. He would rather foist a project on a community for his own profit, than work with the public to find out what it really wants and needs.

Of course, it’s up to the public to voice what those needs and wants are. When Blatstein first proposed the Piazza, it looked little like its current state; rather it was shaped through conversations with the Northern Liberties Neighborhood Association. North Broad Street belongs not just to North Philadelphia, but really to all the city’s residents, and these projects have consequences that extend beyond the buildings but to the state of our education system and workforce.

If we really want to move beyond the old models of real estate development, though, we can’t rely just upon smart developers like Blumenfeld, but a new kind of civic engagement that will steer the city toward better projects and refuse unacceptable proposals like The Provence.

Tags: philadelphia, economic development, casinos, reading viaduct, bruce ratner, bart blatstein, north broad street, divine lorraine hotel, eric blumenfeld, school district