Sometimes it seems as if there are two developers named Bart Blatstein. There is the Bad Bart, who wanted to replace the old Schmidt's Brewery in Northern Liberties with a strip mall, and the Good Bart, who ended up building the handsome, mixed-use Piazza instead. The Bad Bart spent years trying to gain control of Penn's Landing so he could turn it into a shopping mall modeled on Rome's Spanish Steps. The Good Bart has made a cottage industry out of rescuing fading factories, warehouses, and schools and giving them new life as apartments.
Say what you will about his penchant for European replicas, but Blatstein has often displayed a sixth sense for projects that work like honey on the city's twentysomethings. But in recent years, as he chased his casino dreams from Center City to Atlantic City, that once-keen radar seems to have broken down.
How else to explain the bloated, auto-centric projects that he is proposing for two enormous sites in the millennial-heavy precincts of South Philadelphia? His plans for Broad and Washington, and for the sprawling Foxwoods parcel on the Delaware River, are throwbacks to an era when superblocks and surface parking were considered progress here.
While the two designs look nothing alike, they are really variations on a theme. Both are excuses for packing a clutch of big-box stores into a generic residential container. One project happens to be vertical (Broad and Washington), while the other is horizontal (Foxwoods). In both cases, he's putting the cart before the horse: When you have sites this big, you need to start with place-making. The retail will follow naturally.
Blatstein declined to release drawings because he says the details are still changing. But his plan for Broad and Washington, which he showed me during an interview this week, is especially worrisome because of the site's prominence.
The empty lot, next to the High School for the Creative and Performing Arts, is the missing link between expanding Center City and revitalizing South Philadelphia. The development will shape the future of Washington Avenue, another broad street that is evolving into a residential boulevard.
Since Blatstein announced in 2014 that he had acquired an option to buy the site, his plans have changed every few months. Initially, he wanted to build an urban power center, populated by big chains like Target or Bed Bath & Beyond. He later added a pair of towers to the retail base. Now he's back to a single, 32-story apartment building on top of a podium. Who knows what will be included when Blatstein presents the project to the Civic Design Review Board on March 15?
In the current incarnation, the lone tower sits on a 50-foot-high podium that spans the four-acre block. The structure can accommodate three large retailers, but its main purpose is to provide space for 650 cars. The plan calls for nearly 1,000 apartments.
Think about those numbers. Stuffing so many units into one tower suggests that Blatstein is creating a dorm for grown-ups. Yet people who live in such micro units tend to have low levels of car ownership. Considering the proximity of Center City, and the presence of the Broad Street Subway, this site should really be treated like a transit-oriented development.
That's certainly what the zoning (CMX-5) calls for. Because above-ground garages are prohibited, Blatstein will need a variance for the podium. He also will need permission to locate the garage's entrance ramp on Washington Avenue, a street already struggling with a chaotic mix of truck, car, and bike traffic.
Blatstein has big plans for the garage. In the plan he showed me, the roof would become the platform of a sky "village" of free-standing houses, arranged to mimic the center of Aix-en-Provence. Like the real French town, those rooftop structures would have shops at the bottom and apartments above. There's plenty of room, Blatstein argues, because the L-shaped tower would occupy only the northeast corner of the podium.
If the village concept sounds familiar, that's because it is recycled from the casino Blatstein proposed on the site of the old Inquirer building. The idea of a rooftop shopping mall disguised as a French village sounds like something you might find on a Florida highway, circa 1980. Not exactly a millennial magnet.
Podiums were once the foundation of every urban high-rise, but that's changing. Across the city, projects like East Market and the Science Center are abandoning the superblock model in favor of free-standing towers.
In both of those examples, the developers are breaking down their large sites by threading them with streets. Shops and apartments are entered at street level. That puts the activity where it's supposed to be: on the ground.
A similarly out-of-date approach informs Blatstein's proposal for Foxwoods, across from the Riverview Theater. There are the same familiar chain retailers, including a Wawa gas station, but there, each one wallows in its own lake of parking.
The site is huge - 18 acres - so Blatstein has thrown in some residential: 600 units of townhouses and mid-rises. In the plan he showed me, laid out by an engineering firm, the houses didn't even take advantage of the spectacular riverfront site. They were lined up like soldiers on a parade ground, looking north and south, rather than facing the water. To reach their homes, residents would travel down a long driveway through the big-box parking lots.
The arrangement is so slapdash, and violates so many zoning rules, that some planners suspect the proposal was cooked up simply to help market the property.
Certainly, his proposal runs counter to the Delaware waterfront master plan and the city's effort to stop the strip-malling of Columbus Boulevard. Blatstein's plan "will result in an isolated enclave stranded in a sea of parking," complained Shawn McCaney, an official at the William Penn Foundation. The site is just two blocks from the Pennsport neighborhood.
Ironically, Blatstein told me a "self-contained community" is exactly what he's after. Despite the city's high-minded talk, he argued, nothing has been done to calm traffic or improve sidewalk conditions on this part of Columbus Boulevard. How can the city expect urban projects when it hasn't made the conditions more urban?
The project may be Bad Bart, but Good Bart has a point.