I had a front row seat the day the Piazza died.
It was two years ago, the first weekend of May, the always-magical time of year when the sun finally feels hot on your skin, and Broad Street morphs from major thoroughfare to the 10-mile street party that is the Broad Street Run. Chvrches was playing a free concert as part of the Radio 104.5 summer series.
Several friends and I arrived early for brunch at King’s Oak, the restaurant in the Piazza’s northwestern corner. (Like many establishments there in 2014, it no longer exists; nothing replaced it.) From our table, we spotted concertgoers streaming in. Hipsters, teens, tons of people in sunglasses, even the co-lead singer of Chvrches, Martin Doherty. Everybody who entered the concert passed an older-looking gentleman seated at a foldup table who might as well have been a statue. The lone point during which he acted like a security guard was when a group of people came in with a cooler full of beers; he rose from his seat and stopped them. But the brief conversation apparently marked the end of his obligations. The group stepped a few feet outside the Piazza’s confines, cracked open their cooler and started chugging their beers. The man went back to sitting.
Later that afternoon, I wasn’t too surprised when the Piazza turned into a public restroom and brothel. Drunk people peed on basically every apartment within a square mile. Teens had sex behind bushes and in front yards, apparently for 40 minutes in one case.
Tommy Up, owner of PYT, which left the Piazza in fall 2015, saw the reports on TV a couple days later. His thoughts turned to Donald Trump’s son-in-law, Jared Kushner. Kushner’s group had bought the Piazza from developer Bart Blatstein in 2013 and managed it. Up says Piazza management eliminated some of the security usually on hand for big events before the Chvrches concert. Without a strong security team for the free show, the partiers ran amok.
“They blamed everyone,” Up says, “but themselves.”
Two years later, the wild teens are fortunately gone. The problem is everyone else left with them. The Piazza barely exists, the Chvrches concert a prime example of mismanagement alleged by former business owners and community leaders that has led to Northern Liberties’ most prominent piece of real estate falling behind the neighborhood it helped transform.
When the Piazza opened in 2009, 37 stores, offices and restaurants filled its confines. Only four of them are still around: Euphoria Cafe, Pink Dolphin, Creep Records and Sedso. On the lower level of the complex, home to the shops and restaurants, I count 10 that appear to be in business. Three are restaurants and only two serve alcohol. I count nine empty storefronts. Big events like 104.5’s concerts are gone, and in 2015 so were many of the smaller-scale events that used to bring people to the area.
These problems aren’t entirely new. The Piazza faced challenges even in its early days. Developer Bart Blatstein leased to dozens of independent, art-related businesses and, according to owners, made event and management choices that didn’t fit the vibe. Then he got out of the Piazza altogether, selling it to Kushner, whose leadership turned off commercial tenants and the Northern Liberties Neighborhood Association.
“(Blatstein) sold us into the Trump family,” Up says, “like Joseph’s family sold him to the traders.”
Inconsistency from the beginning
You wouldn’t recognize the Northern Liberties Blatstein gambled on in 2000. Most of its expensive homes and trendy restaurants were hollowed out townhouses or empty lots. Blatstein bought the former site of the Schmidt’s Brewery, closed since 1987, at sheriff’s sale for $1.8 million. Looking back, it seems like a no-brainer; even at the time the cost was considered low. But this was before Philadelphia’s population had started growing, and nobody had attempted a project of this scale in the neighborhood.
“There was really nothing there,” Blatstein says. “There were short dump blocks and abandoned buildings.”
His first idea was to turn the site of the old brewery into a strip mall, complete with a big parking lot. The Northern Liberties Neighbors Association and local architecture firm Erdy McHenry helped convince Blatstein otherwise, collaborating with him on a Piazza Navona theme. Blatstein had always wanted to add a Roman touch to Philadelphia and once pitched developing a replica of the Spanish Steps at Penn’s Landing.
For the Piazza, he would end up pouring nine years and $100 million into the project. It lived up to the hype. Inquirer architecture critic Inga Saffron in 2009 called the mish-mash of 37 businesses, 400-plus apartments and the one-acre public courtyard “pretty wonderful” and “authentic.”
Jinous Kazemi thought the same of Blatstein’s plan. She’s a world traveler (just got back from Milan) and decided a Roman Holiday atmosphere would be an ideal place for her to display and sell her contemporary home decor. When the Piazza opened, Kazemi’s showroom, Millésimé, was located in the southwestern corner, next to Swift Half Pub, vintage store Moxie Jane and Bambi Gallery arts and crafts. A picture framing and art supply store called Ryan John Art Salon was directly across the courtyard. These establishments and many others fit the vision Blatstein had described for his European-influenced plaza. So much else didn’t jibe.
Kazemi was bothered when she said a tattoo shop opened near Millésimé. Prominent events, aside from a farmers market, rarely attracted people who desired to patronize the galleries and salons.
“When you go to Haddonfield or Old City for the galleries or Pine Street for the antiques or to Rittenhouse, there’s some kind of connection,” Kazemi says. “He came up with this idea of being Euorpean feeling, but one by one, you would just lose it.”
Psydde Delicious, owner of the clothing store Delicious Boutiuqe, was never a fan of sports on the Jumbotron: “That destroyed sort of a lot of the artistic vibe and the feeling I thought they were going for.” It also didn’t help that the Piazza launched during the heart of the recession. Delicious closed his shop and another on Liberties Walk and moved to Fishtown. Kazemi moved to Old City. She had some financial success but wanted to expand in an area more conducive to stores like Millésimé.
The atmosphere that didn’t fit their type of businesses worked for many restaurants, bars and stores. They loved the live music and Phillies crowds. They bought into what Blatstein was describing as a place to live, play, eat and shop.
“Bart has a terrific imagination, a rugged, old-time JP Morgan type of drive,” Up says. “He sort of throws everything at the wall and sees what works, and if nothing works he throws something else, sometimes over and over.”
Will Brown opened The Duke Barber Company at the Piazza in 2010. He started with a two-chair shop and a little bar for the waiting area. Two years later, he expanded to five chairs. Soon after, he had nine chairs and a cigar bar. Brown says he was projecting growth given the success of the stores around him, the occupancy level of the apartments above and the steady stream of events. But it didn’t turn out that way.
The events ceased. Businesses closed. A couple months ago, Brown joined them, closing Duke Barber before the lease ended and moving to another location in Northern Liberties.
“Sad to say,” he says, “the declines started as soon as the new ownership took over.”
The problems with Kushner
By 2012, Blatstein’s imagination started turning away from the Piazza entirely. A casino project planned for the old Inquirer building (which would never come to fruition) occupied his time. He sold the Piazza and Liberties Walk to Kushner Companies in February 2013. No figure was released, but the value of the properties was estimated to be in the $130 million range.
The Northern Liberties Neighbors Association, which succeeded in altering some of Blatstein’s wilder ideas, wanted to share its input with Kushner Companies. Larry Freedman, the NLNA’s longtime zoning chair, describes the organization’s relationship with Blatstein as “crazy,” but he longs for those days compared to what they got with Kushner. Blatstein actually responded to their group. Kushner didn’t.
Twice, Freedman says, they approached managment about needing to cancel or rein in the “underage rock and roll parties.” It seemed more like the opposite happened. Freedman says the first property manager hired under Kushner Companies’ ownership was an Orthodox Jew. On Friday nights and Saturdays, when some of the biggest Piazza event were happening, he couldn’t be present because of his religious obligations.
“I remember several times going to the management,” Freedman says, “and saying, ‘you’ve got to get more control here.’”
Up, as mentioned earlier, says security had been reduced ahead of the Chvrches event. “I remember seeing on the news some awesome teenage dirtbags having sex during the show and when I saw that I was like, ‘Oh man, that’s it. These guys are going to completely overreact.’”
Within days, Kushner Companies announced it had severed ties with 104.5, pleasing the NLNA. But the strategy going forward was apparently to cut back on all types of events. In 2014, the year of the Chvrches concert, dozens of events were held. They evaporated in 2015. According to the event listings on the Piazza website, there were four last year aside from games on the big screen TV and free yoga outings. None took place in the summer.
The Piazza’s lone major concert since the Chvrches debacle was for the Forbes Under 30 Summit in fall 2014. Up says management asked him to pay $10,000 for the cost. When he declined, he says they surrounded PYT with an 8-foot fence to keep concertgoers away from his restaurant.
Two other prominent entertainment ideas under Kushner flopped. In summer 2013, he partnered with his friend Jonathan Butler and brought the Brooklyn Flea on weekends to the Piazza. The hope was the Flea would stay on through November and even find a way to last through the Philly winter. Instead it closed in October and never came back. That winter, the Piazza introduced an ice skating rink with no ice. An expert told CBS Local the extra drag of the artificial surface would make skaters feel like runners using ankle weights.
Some of the Piazza’s best-known establishments closed in 2014 and 2015, including King’s Oak, Darling’s Diner and PYT. Brown says in the pre-Kushner days, Duke Barber could make $3,000 a day in revenue. Once the events and other businesses left, the daily haul was closer to $600. He assumes residents have moved out the last couple years, too. He recommended seeing how many windows were empty and dark at nighttime as a guide.
“It’s nothing but windows,” Brown says. “At night it used to be lit up.”
Will the Piazza be saved?
I went on a recent Thursday around 8 p.m. The Flyers’ opening playoff game against the Capitals was playing on the big screen and despite decent weather not one person watched in the courtyard. Plenty of windows were dark. Plenty of porches were devoid of plants and patio furniture. Judging by Brown’s system, the place appeared to be about two-thirds full. Blatstein says the retail and residential spaces were close to 100 percent occupied when he sold.
In the last month, I’ve gone twice during the day, on a Sunday and Thursday afternoon. Each time, Liberties Walk on 2nd Street, also owned by Kushner, has been buzzing. But the Piazza was empty, inhabited by a handful of people milling about and an occasional dogwalker or resident passing through. It was so quiet I actually heard birds singing. Inside Gunner’s Run on Sunday, at about 6 p.m., my party was the only one in the restaurant. We wanted to ask the waitress to come hang out with us. She told us multiple times she had nothing to do.
Brown says he tried pitching events ideas but rarely received responses from what he says have been six property managers under Kushner (the NLNA has pegged the count at seven). By the time he moved out, the only thing clear to him was the events model that helped Duke Barber thrive and expand had been scrapped.
“They weren’t very communicative with what their vision was,” Brown says. “They didn’t have any outreach or ‘town hall meeting’ with what their vision was going to be. A lot of businesses were still banking on the original idea of what it was.”
Says Blatstein, “It’s a very hot, expensive neighborhood. The new owners, they care. They care about the vitality of it. They just have a different philosophy than we did. But they’re good owners. And they care.”
Not every commercial tenant dislikes Kushner’s ownership. Crabby’s Cafe & Sports Bar owner Timothy C. Lu was the only current owner of several restaurants and stores still in business at the Piazza who responded to Billy Penn about the conditions. Lu prefers Kushner to Blatstein. He says he’s had a productive relationship with the property managers and more luck communicating with them than he did with anyone under Blatstein. He’s doubling down on the Piazza’s future.
Crabby’s, a hybrid Cajun and Vietnamese restaurant and bar, is going to expand into the building next door, which was most recently occupied by the shoe store Sole Control. Lu has also taken over the area for a restaurant and bar next to the North Shore Beach Club, across the street from the Piazza. It will be called Monarch and is scheduled to open in late April.
“It’s hard to think about the (other) busineses and their inner workings,” Lu says of the establishments that have moved out. “I think the Piazza is a great space.”
The deserted storefronts confound others, too. How could a major establishment in one of Philadelphia’s hottest neighborhoods have no takers for its retail space? One real estate expert, who asked not to be named because of dealings in Northern Liberties, says Kushner Companies is chasing rents local businesses can’t afford. National chains are the only companies who can, and many haven’t wanted to bite because of the Piazza’s struggles.
“Those guys don’t want to be in a place without strong occupancy or a huge residential presence,” the expert says. “In real estate, everything sells. It’s just a matter of what price, and if it’s not being occupied for an extended period of time it’s because the price is too high.”
Amid the emptiness, a few signs of promise have sprouted. The Piazza is scheduled to host far more events this year, according to Kushner’s spokespersons, than it did in 2015. These include Cinco de Mayo and Kentucky Derby parties, as well as a repeat Preakness party and many summer events.
Wahlburgers, the burger franchise owned by Mark Wahlberg, is slated to open in early June (in a building that’s actually still owned and operated by Blatstein’s Tower Investments company). Landmark Americana recently announced it would open a beer hall in the former location of King’s Oak in 2017.
The south end of the complex, the brick building with a Schmidt’s sign plastered on top, will soon house a coworking space called WeWork. It’s expected to be larger than many of the other offerings in Philly’s already-crowded coworking market (last year, the coworking space Impact Hub Philly shut down in nearby Kensington).
These might be the deep-pocketed national tenants Kushner Companies prefers. Whether they’ll form the right mix of entertainment needed to sustain steady business and not alienate neighbors that the Piazza has never quite mastered is another question.
Spokespersons for Kusher declined to make him available. They responded to several specific questions about past and current plans for the Piazza with one statement:
“When we came in, our first priority was listening to residents and using that feedback to help us elevate that part of the property to the great place it’s in today with residential occupancy nearly at full capacity. Now, with the upcoming additions of WeWork and a beer hall from the owners of Landmark Americana, along with a full events schedule, we’re diving into a new chapter focused on creating a more vibrant community experience for those who live here, as well as residents in the surrounding areas.”
The latest property manager, Sean Gavin, has been more approachable with the NLNA. About six months ago, Freedman says, the neighborhood group reached out with the basic message of, “You’re in our neighborhood. What the hell are you doing? Let’s see if we can work together.” Gavin, who did not respond to an interview request, attended an NLNA meeting in December.
Up says a lot of work needs to be done (“Clean the place up. Replace the carpets in the apartment hallways”). His last couple years at the Piazza were painful. He says the dwindling business in part led to some of his publicity-seeking moves, like deep frying beer on a burger. He compares staying there as long as he did to trying to make what he termed “an abusive relationship” work.
Despite all this, despite the lack of respect he has for Kushner’s ownership, Up still wants Northern Liberties’ most prominent property to succeed.
“That neighborhood,” he says, “would be so much better with a vibrant Piazza.”