Billy Procida, a real estate lender from Englewood Cliffs, N.J., is coming to the rescue of the stalled Divine Lorraine project on North Broad Street, agreeing to lend $31.5 million to kick-start a conversion of the graffiti-scarred historic building.
And just how that came about starts with a story.
As Procida tells it, he was checking out another real estate venture near Temple University earlier this year.
Driving south on Broad Street, on his way back to the Benjamin Franklin Bridge and home via the New Jersey Turnpike, he spied the Divine Lorraine, the beacon of blight on North Broad Street.
Procida pulled over.
He looked at the vacant, abused building and wanted it.
"That's a building I'd love to do," he thought.
A week or so later, Procida said he got a cold call from an investment adviser asking if he would be interested in looking at a property in Philadelphia - the Divine Lorraine.
Procida said it was meant to be.
"If that's not a sign from God, I don't know what is," Procida said Friday.
On Wednesday, his company, Procida Funding & Advisors, reached an agreement with EB Realty Management Corp., run by developer Eric Blumenfeld.
The financing will allow EB Realty to move forward with a plan to restore the Divine Lorraine and add 126 rental apartments and 21,000 square feet of commercial space.
Blumenfeld acquired the Divine Lorraine for $8 million in October 2012, after a previous developer was unable to move forward with an ambitious plan for luxury housing.
At the time, Blumenfeld anticipated borrowing $44 million for the renovation. The financing, however, proved to be "challenging," he said.
The project can move forward with the current commitment from Procida Funding, Blumenfeld said. But he said he is also seeking a state grant of $5 million through the Redevelopment Assistance Capital Program (RACP).
"We've figured out a way to make the project happen and don't need the city to do anything special," Blumenfeld said. "But if we're able to get a RACP grant, it makes the project that much better and would allow us to increase the commercial space."
Procida started his investment company in 1995. Since then, Procida Funding has financed or developed projects worth about $2 billion, mostly in New York City and North Jersey. He said he took an early interest in turnaround neighborhoods such as Tribeca, Harlem, and the South Bronx.
Lately, Procida has turned his sights on Philadelphia.
So far this year, he's done three deals in Philadelphia, including a $13 million bridge loan to Kirkbride Realty for a medical facility.
"New York compared to Philly, I'll take Philly any time," Procida said.
He said he has become such a booster, he wants to launch an ad campaign in the Big Apple with the pitch: "Hey New York, come see Philly. We're just as hip and half the price."
Standing empty since 1999, the historic, 10-story hotel continues to deteriorate. Graffiti covers the building like garish tattoos.
Mayor Nutter has made a priority of redeveloping the 120-year-old Divine Lorraine, located on Broad Street at Ridge Avenue. The North Broad Street corridor is seeing signs of renewal, but has been held back by the lack of progress with the Divine Lorraine.
Procida said his company could close on the deal in 45 to 60 days, allowing construction to begin immediately.
Blumenfeld, who developed nearby 640 N. Broad St. into loft apartments, has an agreement with Domus Construction to handle the project.
He said they were "flirting" with the idea of adding hotel units to the project. The apartments, meanwhile, would rent for an average of $1,400 and be "charming . . . with nooks and crannies and balconies."
Procida sees the North Broad Street corridor as a turnaround waiting to happen. "If there was ever a great real estate investment opportunity since Tribeca, the Meatpacking District, South Bronx and Harlem," he said, "it's definitely Philly."