Divine Lorraine developer Eric Blumenfeld is still hustling to save North Broad

The developer envisions doubling the number of upscale eateries in the area; his flagship property is a third full and reeks of weed.

Eric Blumenfeld standing in an area of the Divine Lorraine he wants to be a restaurant next year.

Eric Blumenfeld standing in an area of the Divine Lorraine he wants to be a restaurant next year.

Mark Dent/Billy Penn
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One day, visitors walking through the grand entrance of the Divine Lorraine will see chandeliers floating from the ceiling. To the left, right and straight ahead they will find pathways to restaurants operated by the “next Marc Vetri,” a coffee house, a speakeasy with a door opening directly to the Fairmount Broad Street Line stop, an ice cream shop and a lavish courtyard. A concierge will be on hand to take care of the needs of 200-plus residents.

Today is not that day. Behold the current grand entrance of the Divine Lorraine: The lobby is barren and not yet the replica of the past it intends to be. Pieces of molding, albeit beautiful molding, are scattered in the side rooms. Then there’s the front door. It is heavy and gray; the entryway to a construction site at best, a nuclear fallout shelter at worst. A torn-up magazine is posted above it and a vague notice from the city hangs to the left.

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Mark Dent/Billy Penn

People have actually been using this door. This is because people have actually been paying thousands of dollars to live here, some for as long as the last six months.

“I have these hippy artists, plasterers. It’s not normal,” said Eric Blumenfeld, the Divine Lorraine’s developer. “I mean they’re all like long-haired pot-smoking dudes. Does it smell like pot in here?”

It kind of does. The Divine Lorraine, in all of its incomplete glory, looks like the building where Kevin McAllister fooled the Sticky Bandits in “Home Alone: 2”  and smells like weed. In other words, the old hotel is in 30,000 times better condition than it was a decade ago. The exterior doors are supposed to arrive this week — no more fallout shelter look — and the lobby furniture has been ordered. But the place is still several months, if not years, away from the ambitious finished product Blumenfeld wants it to be and Philly needs it to be.

A few years ago, city leaders began seriously examining the future of North Broad Street. They realized the distance from City Hall to Temple University was roughly the same as from City Hall to University City, but the lack of development made it feel at least twice as far. They wanted this stretch of North Broad to have the same experience as Market, Chestnut and Walnut streets have going west to the river and beyond.

The Divine Lorraine is the center of this vision both geographically and symbolically. The apartment complex is located at Broad and Fairmount, about half the distance of the 1.8 miles between City Hall and Temple. Given its height, appearance and history, it is an anchor for the area.

“Nothing good would happen for blocks at at time,” Alan Greenberger, former deputy mayor for economic development, said of a North Broad with a blighted Divine Lorraine. “We’d never get the seamless walking environment from City Hall all the way to Temple.”

Thus a successful Divine Lorraine is necessary for the future of North Broad. But will the present state of North Broad be enough to lure people to the Divine Lorraine for that future to come to fruition?

Blumenfeld expects the restaurants and everything else in his vision by next year. In this early stage, however, the Divine Lorraine has proven a tough sell. It’s a luxury apartment complex with one elevator and gritty, unfinished floors in the incomplete lobby. The elevator broke down the day I visited; the lobby overhaul has cost $700,000 — way more than the $150,000 Blumenfeld anticipated.

About half of the 101 available units have been leased and a third are occupied. Many people don’t realize it’s open. The construction fences and dirt obscure the signs telling people they can live there. And then there’s the fact that prices are Center City-high, a mile away from Center City.

To Blumenfeld, the progress is less a nuisance than an attraction, like “walking through a live museum.” For a recent tour, he’s dressed like he just got back from the Shore. Conversations are quick. He jumps from one topic to another, peppering curse words and, mostly, superlatives throughout. The leasing pace is “fucking great.” The Divine Lorraine is one of the “top three most important buildings” in Philly, next to the Art Museum and City Hall.

“We got to do it right, man,” he said. “This, this is going to come to life. This is really going to come to life.”

Father, son and an expanding Center City

When Blumenfeld was growing up, “too far from Center City” had a whole different meaning. In 1973, as Philadelphia’s population was shrinking, his father, Jack Blumenfeld, proposed an apartment tower at 1500 Locust. He may as well have been planning to build in Lansdale.

The final project featured about 600 apartments and enough parking spaces for twice as many cars. It was the tallest residential building at the time, measuring about 390 feet and 44 stories, nearly breaking the unwritten rule to stay below William Penn’s hat.

“I think 1500 goes up to Billy’s belly button,” Blumenfeld said.

A view from one of the upper floor apartments of the Divine Lorraine.

A view from one of the upper floor apartments of the Divine Lorraine.

Mark Dent/Billy Penn

Soon, many wealthy Philadelphians were moving in. Pete Rose even had an apartment there. He parked his Porsche 911 Carrera in the first spot. A teenage Blumenfeld would ride with Rose’s wife to Phillies games and wait around afterward for Rose to give him a ride back.

But the success of 1500 Locust came as a surprise. Established Philadelphians were betting against Jack Blumenfeld, who died in 2012, and son was learning from father.

“He showed me an article in the Inquirer because the quote was this building was just too far out of Center City,” Blumenfeld said. “Dude! Fast forward to me.”

How Blumenfeld won, lost and re-won the Divine Lorraine

On rides down Broad Street, Blumenfeld spotted beautiful, old buildings in one of the most heavily vehicular-trafficked areas of the city and decided he needed to do something about what he thought was “like a godforsaken stretch of Philadelphia.” He was still relatively early in his career as a developer, having spent his first few years out of college as the go-to-guy for T.G.I. Friday’s in the Philadelphia area (Allen Iverson would’ve loved him).

Blumenfeld bought two properties in the early 2000s. One was an old factory just below Spring Garden. The other was the Divine Lorraine. The factory became 640 N. Broad, a luxury apartment complex with spacious rooms, and Vetri teamed up with him to open Osteria and Alla Spina nearby.

The Divine Lorraine became somebody else’s. Blumenfeld’s brokers had told him he could afford to redevelop only one building, and the 640 project was much more straightforward. He said he sold it for more than the $6 million he paid for it and should have left it alone. But while working on 640, he couldn’t help looking north to the Divine Lorraine and what he saw as the wrong way to rehab it.

“Their plan was to cut in new elevators in the front of the building,” Blumenfeld said. “It was the stupidest fucking plan I ever saw. What I learned from old buildings is if they’ve been here like 130 years, don’t fuck with them. Don’t start cutting them. They figured out a way to survive. Don’t mess with them.”

After the previous owners defaulted on their construction loan and went bankrupt, the city assisted in a search for new developers to take over. Blumenfeld was the lone bidder at auction.

‘Sometimes it’s two steps forward and one step back’

Top city officials and business people gathered earlier this year for a Preservation Alliance for Greater Philadelphia awards banquet at 600 N. Broad St. The group titled the occasion “North Broad Rising.” The name and the brochures hinted that development around these parts was a done deal, like they could hang up a “Mission Accomplished” banner and call it a day.

The reality is North Broad has a long way to go and that’s if this area of the city ever transforms into something resembling the western parts of Center City. Paul Steinke, executive director of the Preservation Alliance, admits as much.

“The neighborhood around it is still not very dense,” Steinke said. “It has suffered a fair amount of depopulation and abandonment. It’s now filling back in. If I were a restaurant looking at the space I would have to look long and hard at foot traffic and car traffic to determine if it’s a viable location. But I admire Eric’s company for creating space for that. The trend lines point to it being able to sustain something, if not now then pretty soon.”

The basement room Blumenfeld envisions as a speakeasy.

The basement room Blumenfeld envisions as a speakeasy.

Mark Dent/Billy Penn

Blumenfeld needs now. He wants the restaurants, coffee shop and speakeasy open next year. The Met, which has a contract with Live Nation, is scheduled for an opening date in October 2018 and is considered by Blumenfeld to be the area’s “secret weapon.” He’s talking about using some of the Divine Lorraine penthouses to house the Met’s acts, who he assumes could be Madonna or Lenny Kravitz.

The drawbacks are apparent. The North Broad Renaissance commissioned a study finding that in the census tracts adjacent to North Broad from City Hall to Erie the per capita income was about $14,000. About 10 years ago, Avenue of the Arts launched a plan to inject $50 million for the corridor. Ultimately, it led to the $14 million North Poles boondoggle and little else.

Shalimar Thomas, executive director of North Broad Renaissance, is energized by Blumenfeld’s plans and said that most residents are, too. But she would like more communication from Blumenfeld’s camp. She didn’t even realize people were living there until I told her.

“You hear mixed reactions from the community,” Thomas said. “They’re exicited but they don’t know what it means for them: ‘Should I be worried? Am I going to be kicked out?’ We have an opportunity to nip that in the bud right now.”

In terms of entertainment directly on North Broad, Vetri’s restaurants are still pretty much the lone options one would associate with Center City tastes (South, a restaurant and jazz bar, did open in 2015). He and Blumenfeld used to play basketball together at the Bellevue — “we were both hacks pretty much,” Vetri recalled — and their friendship turned into a business relationship when he opened Osteria next to 640 Broad and, later, Alla Spina. He said Blumenfeld is a “visionary. He sees things that everyone else seems to discount.”

The first night at Osteria, Vetri remembers a line of Mercedes, limos and Ferraris waiting for valets and having seen nothing like it on North Broad. He expected more restaurateurs and entrepreneurs to follow, but his high expectations haven’t quite been met.

“It hasn’t taken off like we had hoped,” Vetri said. “I was sort of hoping there would be other things there. But sometimes things take a while.”

The unfinished lobby, which Blumenfeld hopes to have done later this summer.

The unfinished lobby, which Blumenfeld hopes to have done later this summer.

Mark Dent/Billy Penn

Development has picked up, particularly between City Hall and Temple, a much wealthier stretch than what lies farther north. But many of the projects are within the first two or three blocks north of City Hall. The major projects farther north, closer to Temple, are all Blumenfeld’s. To some extent he’s on his own.

He is essentially trying to double the number of upscale eateries along this strip of North Broad (from three to six), while kicking in a coffee house, ice cream shop and bar — all in one fell swoop. To entice a business partner or business partners to follow through on those plans, he’s had to start leasing his incomplete apartment building to a bunch of hippies.

“I had to get it to this point for these conversations to become real,” Blumenfeld said. “This couldn’t have happened six months ago.”

He said he’s engaged with seven or eight young restaurateurs for the entertainment plans and has “honed in” on three. He declines to give names because the talks are ongoing but wants to get a deal done in the next several weeks.

When Steinke hears of the planned three restaurants and other components of the Divine Lorraine, he is reminded of the early days of Midtown Village, particularly Trust, a restaurant at 13th and Sansom now occupied by El Vez. Everyone expected the area to be a hotspot at some point, but Trust didn’t last long. It paved the way for a bright future (El Vez is one of the busiest restaurants in Center City) that it didn’t get to experience.

“But it did make a splash,” Steinke said. “Sometimes it’s two steps forward and one step back.”

Blumenfeld’s craziest idea yet

Blumenfeld is driving his Aston Martin south on Broad from the Met, slowing down and even stopping at times to point out buildings of interest on his favorite street, when he thinks of a story about soccer.

It was back when he was a student at Friends Select. For a game against The Haverford School, Friends had just 10 players, one short of a full lineup.

“Haverford has 33 guys,” Blumenfeld recalled. “I said, ‘Can’t we borrow one?’”

The answer from Haverford’s sideline was a firm no. It was a regulation game and they were taking it very seriously. Friends played shorthanded and after the first half the game was tied 0-0. Haverford, which had been using its reserves, inserted its starters for the second half. Didn’t matter. Somehow, Blumenfeld said, Friends Select outplayed a team three times the size and won 1-0.

“And it was the greatest sports moment of my life,” he said, “because these fucking kids had everything.”

Nevermind that Friends Select is also a private school or that it has a rooftop soccer field,  Blumenfeld saw himself as an outsider. He does now, too, nevermind that he was born into a developer’s family and has run with an in-crowd most of his adult life.

“Everybody, my whole career on North Broad Street,” Blumenfeld said, “has thought I was crazy.”

And this is his craziest idea yet. Early during our tour of the Divine Lorraine, he takes me outside of the main building to the annex, which will feature several more floors of apartments and one of the restaurants.

“Promise me you’re not going to die,” he says, and we ascend a wobbly ladder to the roof. He points to the Studebaker building, also under renovation by his company. He notes it features the same seagreen touches of paint as the Divine Lorraine, signaling consistency for the North Broad district. Then he talks about the Met, rooftop pools, gyms, country clubs and other touches of luxury for the area’s future.

A mile south, downtown looks surprisingly close.

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Mark Dent/Billy Penn