After a dozen years of convincing Northern Liberties residents that he was, as a Philly mag profile last year described it, “one of us” (that is, “his offices, his work and much of his soul are in Northern Liberties”), developer Bart Blatstein is moving on. The one-man brand behind Tower Investments, seen as a driving force in the rapid gentrification of the neighborhood, sold off a majority stake in his Piazza and Liberties Walk developments. And, he told Logan Square residents last fall, he’s moving offices, too — to be closer to where his soul seems to be now: at his much-hyped proposed casino site on North Broad Street. The Piazza, he told them, just isn’t his demographic anymore, filled as it is with “all these pretty girls [who] call me ‘sir’ and ‘mister.’”
While most eyes are, like Blatstein’s, locked on his destination, it’s worth looking at what’s left behind: A series of mixed-use developments with mixed degrees of success — and some gaping holes.
Not part of the estimated $130 million deal: Shops at Schmidts, a partly vacant commercial development at Second and Girard that brought a needed supermarket to the area, but abuts acres of unpaved dirt that serve as a parking lot lined with tangles of chain link. Development of 600 housing units there, proposed in 2010, hasn’t materialized; meanwhile, the Northern Liberties Neighbors Association (NLNA) is fighting Blatstein and the city zoning board over his plans to slash parking on site from 500 spaces to 105. This land could see its fate decided in court — for now it shows no signs of being anything but a sprawling parking lot. (Tower didn’t respond to requests for comment.)
Matt Ruben, who heads the NLNA, says those residential units remain vital: “Increasing the population density is the only way to ensure that the businesses in that area can be sustained.” Meanwhile, several other Blatstein properties, like the old Ortlieb’s brewery, are “empty and rotting,” Ruben says. “It causes blight in that part of the neighborhood.” Still, Ruben says, as far as developers go, “I can’t really fault him for leaving midstream, because he’s stayed so much longer than anybody else.”