Philadelphia developer Bart Blatstein may be waiting to hear the outcome of his bid for a gaming license for his North Broad casino-complex The Provence or to start work on the Rittenhouse area’s McIlhenny Mansion he bought out of its nearly four-decades vacancy for $4.2 million last year.
The one thing Blatstein isn’t waiting on is his return to South Philly — the area where he made his bones — with 2015 plans for recent acquisitions at Broad and Washington, as well as Philly’s largest, undeveloped slice of land along the Delaware Riverfront at Columbus Boulevard, between Tasker and Reed streets, the latter a property he previously owned 21 years ago.
“I’m home,” says Blatstein, noting his career’s start in the late 70s “rehabbing small shells in Queen Village,” before moving to his first major acquisition in 1986: a 36,000+ square foot property at Columbus and Washington he turned into a group of service stores.
“There were plans for a residential high-rise at the time, and there was nothing there to service them or the existing neighbors,” says Blatstein. “OK, the high-rise didn’t happen, but that area needed stores. It was a wasteland.”
Blatstein eventually moved onto purchasing and/or developing Columbus Avenue shopping areas such as those housing Staples, Home Depot and the Riverview movie theater, but not before 1993, and his $8.5 million purchase of the aforementioned Tasker and Reed, a street-length block of 16+ acres where a sugar refinery once stood. “I was going to do another shopping center there, then my life changed.”
Blatstein is talking about riverboat gambling and casino companies such as Bally’s who gave him $64+ million for the privilege of that property, turning Blatstein and his Tower Investments into a major player in the development world with the now-legendary Piazza at Schmidts in the then-dilapidated Northern Liberties area.
Riverboat gambling never happened there — neither did Foxwoods Casino, a 2006 development from Philadelphia Entertainment and Development Partners in that location. Fast-forward to March 2014, when Blatstein bought back the same parcel of land from Citizens Bank, reportedly for $13 million (a figure Blatstein would neither confirm nor deny), the same land he first snagged for $8.5, then flipped for $64+ million. “It was easy to jump back in because I knew the property – I owned it, demo-ed, did its environmental cleanup. It was if I never left, despite the fact that the waterfront and the city itself is a different animal than it was 30 years ago.”
Blatstein is hoping to break ground on what’s known as 1449 Columbus in 2015, with what he sees as “the highest, best, and most proper use of such an area: residential with commercial, a mix of single-family properties, multi-family properties, and retail space.”
While there are no restaurateurs or retailers whose names he is ready to discuss, Blatstein is proud that he’s ceded an acre-length strip of land to Natural Lands Trust, a Philadelphia conservation organization, for a 100-foot-wide, river’s edge trail, “perfect for bikers and hikers.” This dovetails nicely into the newly-reported plans for the Spruce Street Harbor Park along the still-underdeveloped Penn’s Landing.
Combine his Columbus Avenue developments with grand plans for Broad and Washington – a 30-story complex with 800+ residential units, retail/restaurant options, and luxury amenities like pools and dog parks –and a portrait of Blatstein emerges, one as sentimental as it is dedicated to enriching the area where he began. “That property was vacant for 30 years. I know because I tried to buy it – and its lumber – but couldn’t afford it then,” he says with a laugh. “That’s an important intersection. So is that area of Columbus. South Philly is the heart of the city.”