Abbotts Square - one of Philadelphia's most confusing buildings - wants to add 'Escape the Room' to the mix

All over the city, new apartments and condominiums are being built as mixed-use buildings — retail goes on the ground floor so the street is lively, and upper levels are set aside for living.

But what happens when a building owner decides to mix the commercial space with the residential space? And what if the business is a room-escape –  a trendy form of entertainment where groups, sometimes noisy with shrieking and laughing, have to solve puzzles to release them from certain situations?

For the condo owners and apartment dwellers at Abbotts Square on South Street near Second, it’s a situation they’d like to escape.

Developer Eric Blumenfeld, known for bringing the Divine Lorraine and other once-abandoned buildings back to life, is planning to lease space on Abbotts Square’s third floor, its mezzanine level, to the owner of Escape the Room Philly. That means patrons would enter through a shared common area — between the condos, the apartments, and the basement garage — a setup that residents, who already deal with a host of problems, from errant smoke alarms to human feces in the garage, say is not safe or quiet.

Room-escape events “are notoriously loud,” said Sherri Tiller, a board member of the Abbotts Square Condominium Association, which plans to fight the project’s request for a zoning variance at a Nov. 29 hearing.

The condo owners envision people coming in for birthday or bachelor parties, bringing their own booze, and wandering through the building to the living spaces of the fourth-floor apartments and the condo units on the fifth through eighth floors.

“The fact that you need special permission already implies that it’s not a good idea,” Tiller said. “It’s not conducive to a residential property.”

Tiller wonders why Blumenfeld, who owns the commercial part of Abbotts Square as Stobba Associates, plans to wedge Escape the Room Philly on the third floor when there is a row of empty spaces on South near Third. Blumenfeld has said some of those stores are vacant to allow for a new Bfresh market announced in 2016 for the corner of Second and South, although construction has not started.

“I’m not against Blumenfeld having a business,” Tiller said. “But I want him to fill those spaces that are empty on South Street.

Blumenfeld, who believes the condo association is speaking for only a few residents, called Escape the Room Philly a “futuristic, great company that would make things happen in the city.”

“If you want to live downtown, you want a vibrant community,” he said. “You want all different types of uses.”

If it sounds like a complicated situation, it is. Abbotts Square is an L-shape building that takes up a city block from Third to Second along South and then turns north up Second to Lombard. In addition, there are townhouses inside a courtyard facing Lombard.

Abbotts Square Condominium Association owns half the building, from the fifth through the eighth floors. Stobba Associates owns the remaining half, which comprises the basement public garage up through the fourth floor, which is now 47 apartments he calls Headhouse Flats. Adding to the confusion, of the 171 condo units that sell for between $200,000 to $500,000, 11 are owned by Blumenfeld, but they also fall under the condo association’s control. (Not to mention, city notices of any violations go to 200 Lombard St., the address listed on the building’s deed, which is actually a garage ramp, according to the condo association manager. The condo owners get mail at 530 S. Second St.)

There also is a history of conflict at the building, built around 1984, between commercial and residential interests. Last year, Blumenfeld padlocked a fire-exit stairwell while converting what used to be the private, fourth-floor parking garage for condo owners into the Headhouse Flats apartments. (Condo owners worry the room-escape people would be entering and exiting the building through the stairway now being used as a fire exit.)

Blumenfeld also got rid of a trash compactor that commercial businesses on both South and Second used, which means businesses must now put out toters, or large plastic trash bins, on the street for trash removal.

Camera icon Courtesy of the Abbotts Square Condo Association
Blumenfeld got rid of a trash compactor that commercial businesses on both South and Second Streets used, which means businesses must now put toters on the street for trash removal.

Then on Monday, while workers were expanding the space for the Wawa store on Second, one worker inadvertently drilled through the living room wall of one of the townhouse units. Its owner was holding her baby in the room when it happened.

Camera icon Courtesy of the Abbotts Square Condo Association
A worker for an expansion project at the Wawa at Abbotts Square drilled a hole through a family’s living room.

“Eric’s whole history is to go in and redevelop and renovate empty buildings,” said Bill Rose, an Abbotts Square resident who is retired from the construction business.

“These contractors that [Blumenfeld] has hired or subcontracted to, they are not used to working in buildings that are occupied.”

The South Street Headhouse District, which manages the commercial interests of that area, supports the project because it activates a vacant space, said executive director Michael Harris.

Lawyers for the condo association and Blumenfeld are discussing ways to address everyone’s concerns: a special security lock, a key fob at the entrance, plus a rule that Escape the Room Philly couldn’t sell food, beverages, or alcohol. Mind Escape on Fourth Street follows a similar set of conditions, although nobody lives in that building.

Does that mean patrons could bring their own food and booze, Tiller wondered. Some of the room-escapes allow that.

Victor Blake, owner of Escape the Room Philly, said that if necessary, he would ban anyone from bringing food or liquor into the building.

“If you’re drunk, you won’t be able to solve the puzzles,” Blake said, noting the original room-escape concept has evolved to include themed environments where movie-like sets depict a submarine you have to surface or a nuclear power plant that’s about to explode. One, called Three Mile Island, debuted at his Walnut Street location.

Michael Zborowski, who has lived in an Abbotts Square condo for about three years, said the list of conditions that lawyers are discussing is things “that [Blumenfeld] promised to us six months to a year ago and should have been done already.”

“Now he’s using this as a bartering tool to get his business in here.”