Sam Rappaport's empire of blight once extended clear across Center City's midsection, from the Schuylkill to the Delaware, and beyond. But since his death in 1994, his heirs have shed his holdings, shrinking his domain to an archipelago of surface parking lots and shuttered stores. Some of Rappaport's most notorious architectural victims, such as the Victory and PSFS buildings, have even gone on to lead productive lives again.
Much of what does remain of Rappaport's kingdom is now controlled by Richard Basciano, a close friend and business associate who served for a time as executor of his estate. Dubbed "the undisputed king of Times Square porn" by the New York Times - back in those ancient days when Times Square and porn were synonymous - Basciano has hewed faithfully to Rappaport's recipe on real estate: Hold tight onto properties. Invest nothing, even as your buildings crumble in full public view. And wait patiently for the big payday to come along.
But Basciano is now 87. As a practitioner of the sweet science of boxing, he likes to boast that he is in tip-top shape. Yet even he must realize that, in this matchup, odds are that his blighted properties will outlast him, just as they did Rappaport.
Basciano says he is "fed up with the adult business" and now wants to clean up his act, particularly on two blocks at the western end of Market Street, where he helped maintain a red-light district for the better part of two decades. In an interview last week with Inquirer reporter Miriam Hill and myself, Basciano outlined plans to seek a developer for his holdings, starting with the 2100 block. The slumlord, it seems, wants to be a contender.
Of course, he needs the city's help.
Basciano doesn't own everything on those two blocks. Smack in the middle of the 2100 block is a city firehouse. An even bigger impediment to his dreams of real estate gold is that some parcels on the two blocks are owned by other people. Following the Rappaport script, they're holding out for big bucks.
"They should be embarrassed for playing hardball," Basciano sniffed, straight-faced, forgetting that he has turned down repeated offers for the 2100 block. The guy can act, as well as box.
Basciano wants City Hall's help in acquiring the remainder of the 2100 block, so it will be more appealing to a buyer. He has already gone to see Deputy Mayor Alan Greenberger about doing a deal on the firehouse. Greenberger has told him the firehouse stays on the block.
The city may want to reconsider that position.
Of all the blighted stretches left in Center City, Basciano's two blocks between 21st and 23d Streets may be the most crucial to Philadelphia's future success. Those blocks should have been a proud gateway to downtown, but were instead distorted by the XXX greetings of the Forum Theater and Les Gals peep-shows. Hollowed-out commercial buildings completed the skid-row tableau.
Basciano abruptly shut down the porn operation last month, over a rent issue. He now says he will level everything he owns on the two blocks in January to create surface parking and to make the sites more appealing to developers. But who knows how long this new blight will serve as Center City's gateway?
Every city has its embarrassing rough edges, and these two idle blocks are Philadelphia's. They're a black hole that keeps Center City from completing the last, crucial step in its revival: the fusing of downtown with West Philadelphia's universities.
What's remarkable is how much development has occurred on the seedy stretch already. In the last decade, Basciano's porn blocks have been ringed by upscale residential development, from the Murano condos to apartment conversions in Market Street's After Six and AAA buildings. A Trader Joe's store at 2121 Market has been so successful, it's planning to expand into the western half of the building. A block south, at 22d and Chestnut, a new, glassy apartment tower is rising.
Not that the city has done much to help the transformation. Basciano was never pressured by code officials to improve his blighted buildings. When Trader Joe's first opened, no one at City Hall thought to demand a pedestrian entrance on Market Street. If that wasn't bad enough, the Zoning Board of Adjustment granted the Forum permission in 2009 to expand its operation, with a bar and live dance shows. The permit was overturned only after neighborhood groups waged a costly court appeal.
So, rather than let Basciano figure out how to develop these blocks himself, the city needs to intervene with a strong hand.
The city has plenty of tools at its disposal to convince Basciano it's time to deal. Who says it must grant him a permit for parking? At the same time, the city shouldn't be so quick to reject the idea of moving the firehouse, especially if the relocation makes it easier to attract a developer. Just require Basciano to build a new firehouse nearby.
While we're at it, the city can also insist on other compensation from Basciano. It's time he was encouraged to sell his portfolio of blighted properties, like the unfortunate surface lot at 13th and Market - practically next door to City Hall - and his rundown garage at Sixth and Market. There are developers out there eager to put these blighted sites back into use.
Basciano's change of heart is the sound of opportunity knocking at Center City's gateway. Someone, please answer.
Contact Inga Saffron at 215-854-2213, firstname.lastname@example.org, or on Twitter @ingasaffron.