18 February 09: Bart and his Northern Liberties

Someday, someday very soon, this intersection -- the apex of the Bart Blatstein Empire -- will have a stoplight. At this new stoplight, those driving down the de facto 2nd Street Expressway -- the half mile between Girard Avenue and Poplar Street, three city blocks of people racing maniacally past the pedestrians making use of Liberties Walk, cars pulling out of the blind intersection at Wildey, and double parked cars at Cescaphé -- will now encounter the (figurative) speed bump this stretch has needed for a long time.

"It took me five years to get that stoplight," Bart Blatstein sighs. "Five years and a hundred grand of my own money."

Bart -- not Blatstein, but Bart -- is not bragging. This is a very simply a matter of fact in Philadelphia. "If I had my druthers, I'd bury those wires too. It is what it is . . . it's the urban fabric."

It's the urban fabric in Philadelphia, for sure. But it's taken the move of a mountain to get this project just to where it is -- and it's incredible to think that it's now been nine years in the making. That there is a stoplight, scheduled for installation in March, at 2nd & Germantown is as genuine a testimony to his commitment to Northern Liberties as any of the dozens of retail space he's developed, opened and will be opening. In the time it took for me to take that photo above, a girl in a gold Toyota with Jersey plates turned right off of northbound Germantown the wrong way onto 2nd. Fortunately, the oncoming light stayed red long enough for her to turn right at the Hyperion Bank onto Girard without incident.

Bart's story is a famous one within Philadelphia development circles . . . born and raised in Philly, a well-connected father, a developer who cut his teeth on strip malls in South Philly and Manayunk. His involvement in Northern Liberties is equally as famous . . . bought the former Schmidt's Brewery, 17 acres of it, at a sheriff's auction in 2000 for $1.8 million, bought over 100 properties, had tons of zoning hearings and tons of neighborhood meetings and streets stricken from the grid -- including Germantown Avenue east of 2nd Street. It's still there (actually, it's there again) and it's still usable, but it's now technically a private street.

The Schmidt's site itself has its own famous history, from German immigrant Christian Schmidt's rise as a brewer whose brand grew to tenth largest in the US, to its sale to local beer distributor William Pflaumer, whose corruption resulted in the sale of the Schmidt's brand (but not the brewery), to the proposed Phillies ballpark in 1999-2000 as Liberty Yards. . . . to Bart's purchase of it at the sheriff sale . . . to the site preparation going on there right now for the supermarket Northern Liberties and lower Kensington have also needed for a long time.

Given that the Schmidt's property, an irregular pentagon between Girard and Germantown, 2nd and Hancock, was the impetus for Bart's enormous investment in the neighborhood, given the fact that the brewery's demolition was met with such controversy, and given the fact Schmidt's is so large a part of Bart's Tower Investments identity -- a huge stainless steel "Schmidt's" sign welcomes visitors to their offices -- it's a little funny that it's one of the last pieces to come together in Bart's Plan. The former Boone school has been rented out for several years, Liberties Walk has opened piece by piece since 2003, the first phase of Hancock Square opened in 2006, and Philebrity's residence at 1021 Hancock spilled out into the streets as a series of block parties in 2006 and 2007.

And here we are, 2009. To stand at 2nd & Germantown, just below Girard, just above the Walk, in the midst of what's happening, what will be happening and what might happen, is to span quite a bit of time. Just past the rolling el are the stacks of Windrim's Delaware Station, next to Penn Treaty Park. Just that side of the liquor store is LeBrun's St Peter's Church, better known as the shrine of St John Neumann. Just downwind through the neighborhood peeks Dubbeldam's American Loft. Way out past the powerlines drooped over the cabs parked on this weird stretch of Germantown is the Philly Skyline. And right here, between the cars that still fly manically by before the stoplight comes, the dirt on its way to becoming the sought after supermarket and a village already here, lies Erdy McHenry's delivery of Bart's vision.

"The fun thing about this project," Scott Erdy says of the Piazza in particular, "is that Bart came to us with an idea. Not so much an aesthetic, but a compression of function -- of urban vitality," he says like a man whose name has been on the project for going on five years now. In that same timeframe, his Erdy McHenry firm relocated its offices just around the corner on Orianna Street.

As Bart talks of Rome and places on the table a copy of Genius of the European Square, as much an inspiration as being in Rome itself, Patrick Stinger, one of EM's lead architects on the project, says, "to Bart's credit, he travels to other places and understands you can't just import projects, pick them up and drop them here, but you can sense a scale," as though to defend him against his critics.

"We went to Miami," Erdy says recounting an early meeting, "because Bart wanted us to see Española Way in South Beach." This trip inspired Liberties Walk, which now extends from Bar Ferdinand and El Camino Real at 2nd through to the west side of 3rd Street, next to the church -- which Tower also owns. The newer shops are to open later this year.

It's an enormous imprint on the neighborhood. By some accounts, Tower owns as much as a fifth of Northern Liberties. There's the five story building at 201 Spring Garden. (Behind which is L'Eau, which is not Tower-owned, but which is Erdy McHenry-designed.) There's the huge warehouse space of 817 North 3rd. There's the Ortlieb's property and the boutique hotel proposal at 2nd & Poplar. There are many others. But the Piazza is his baby, the one Bart keeps coming back to, the one his offices face out to.

"I had to do this. There is nothing like this in Philadelphia," Bart says, "no public spaces like this. Name one."

"Rittenhouse Square?"

"Not at night," he says with the quickness that suggests he's heard that response before. "It's a nice park, but it's not a community. You can't get a cup of coffee there. This [will be] a community, seven days a week."

Dave Wurtzel is the Piazza Czar, charged with making music, theater and movies happen there. He says assuredly, "this will be the cultural hub that's missing." He says this as we stand on the stage which anchors the southern end of the enormous Piazza, a stage which abuts a large blank wall on which HD LED video will be projected.

It's hard to deny the open space's fluidity, from One Hancock Square to Two and Three Hancock Square (the newer two of which are connected by three footbridges), from pedestrian Wildey Street at 2nd Street to pedestrian Wildey Street at Hancock Street, from the Piazza stage to The Egg, the rounded seven-story office building with a diner on the first floor. There are lights strung overhead. There is a fountain. There are multiple access points, but no 'main entrance'. There are 46 artist spaces facing the Piazza that can be combined and divided as necessary. There are 500 apartments above with balconies facing the Piazza.

"This is it," Bart says of his Piazza. It being The One, not It being The End. "I'm never going to be done," he says of his developments in Northern Liberties, "but this is where I'm going to ride off into the sunset. My contemporaries told me I was off my rocker [in 2000, when he began this (ad)venture], but they'll see."

I guess we'll all see, come May 15 & 16, when The Piazza at Schmidt's holds its grand opening.

The Piazza at Schmidt's opens May 15-16, 2009. The $150M project has 100,000 sq ft of retail & restaurant space and 80,000 sq ft of public space. For more info, see Tower Investments' web site HERE and Erdy McHenry's web site HERE.

Daniel Brook's 2001 story on the early plans on the site and the neighborhood's stark reaction to Bart's plans for City Paper HERE, and Steve Volk's 2004 progress report for the Weekly HERE. Gwen Shaffer's less flattering story on the post-demolition brownfield treatment for the same paper a year later is HERE. Inga Saffron has written several columns on Bart, Erdy McHenry and the Hancock Square in particular, but the Inquirer's online archives are notoriously dismal. Her blog, however, has some examples HERE.

–B Love