Even in Thursday’s sub-freezing temperatures, 70 men and women were at the Divine Lorraine. Carpenters hammered away on the third floor. Sprinklers were being installed on the fourth. Electricians were wiring out the fifth.
“Construction jobs, they start out everybody’s kind of on top of each other and in each other’s way,” developer Eric Blumenfeld said. “Over a two or three month period though, you start to get in a rhythm. We’re really in a groove now.”
Renovations — massive resuscitation? — on the hulking structure on North Broad Street, a $50 million undertaking, started in mid-September, just a day after thousands of people waited hours in line to take a tour through the inside of the building. Blumenfeld, of EB Realty Management, said different projects are happening on different floors of the building, but most of the major demolition that needed to take place inside already has, and renovations are well underway, from replacing windows to plumbing and electric.
The restoration of the Divine Lorraine, which will be a mixed-use structure that includes both retail space and apartments, is the centerpiece of Blumenfeld’s vision for the North Broad Street corridor between Ridge and Girard where he’s bought other properties in the area and plans to update them.
He bought the 10-story, 120-year-old Divine Lorraine in 2012 for $8 million when it was one of the city’s largest symbols of urban blight. It had become a magnet for urban explorers and graffiti artists who were known to frequent the inside of the Lorraine, a national historic landmark, which has sat empty since 1999.
After buying what was once a luxury hotel in Philadelphia — it was actually the second time Blumenfeld had bought it — he got to work securing the $50 million he estimated he needed to turn it into the retail and residential complex he was envisioning. Securing that funding proved to take longer than expected. Construction on the building was stalled so many times it seemed possible hammers and nails would never get to the Lorraine.
Englewood Cliffs, N.J. real estate lender Billy Procida agreed in May 2014 to toss in upwards of $30 million to fund the project. From there, Blumenfeld went about securing other investments and partnerships, grants from the state and buy-in from the city. It helped that former Mayor Michael Nutter said redeveloping the Divine Lorraine was a priority for him to set the restoration of North Broad Street in motion.
Today, construction workers have been in and out of the Divine Lorraine for five months; Blumenfeld estimates that residents will be able to move in as early as November. A new sign was put up. Of the 101 balconies that look out onto Broad Street, at least 50 were completely shot and need to be re-created. Inside, workers are “cleaning it up, lighting it up and making it safe” without really altering the structure itself because the original masonry is solid, Blumenfeld said.
His main focus now is securing tenants for the first two floors which is expected to hold a mixture of stores and restaurants, maybe a salon or a coffee shop. Blumenfeld said, “It’s vital that we have really the right mix of different types of restaurants and retail because the building deserves it and so does the corridor.”
Elsewhere in the area, he’s also reviving the Metropolitan Opera House near Broad and Poplar, a 1,000-seat venue where a “major” concert operator will be announced in the coming months. There’s also the Studebaker Building at Broad and Brown where Philadelphia’s Traffic Court was once housed. Demolition of parts of the exterior of that building will begin soon and in its future is retail and office space.
Still, the Divine Lorraine is the anchor.
“As we start to put in windows and turn lights on and light up the Divine Lorraine hotel sign on the roof, it’s really going to be exciting,” Blumenfeld said. “I go there every day and I love it. This morning, I froze my ass off. But it’s the most exciting and challenging project I’ve ever taken on.”