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At 80, Ron Rubin, real estate developer extraordinaire, is still trim, agile and very active. He works out for 90 minutes three times a week and plays golf regularly. Without being specific, he says there have been health challenges, but, he emphasizes, “I’m good.” He doesn’t appear to have slowed down.
Now, dressed in a shirt open at the collar and a blue golf sweater, he is virtually hidden behind several unsteady piles of paper that he is trying to offload from his desk to an industrial-size garbage bin. He doesn’t seem to be having much success.
Which is rare. Because, over the years, Rubin has been fabulously successful buying and developing some of the city’s grandest buildings, including the Bellevue-Stratford at Broad and Walnut Streets, Mellon Bank Center at 18th and Market Streets, the PSFS Building at 12th and Market Streets (which he helped convert into the Loews Hotel), the old Strawbridge and Clothier Building at Eighth and Market Streets, which has been renovated for office space, the nearby Gallery and a lot more.
Indeed, Rubin has long controlled more Center City space than anyone, first as CEO of the Rubin Organization, which his father founded, and more recently as CEO of the Pennsylvania Real Estate Investment Trust, which bought out the Rubin Organization in 1997. PREIT owns around 40 malls, including those in Cherry Hill and Plymouth Meeting, in 13 states. (Rubin will be stepping down from PREIT as of June 7.)
But the building we’re in now — the Bellevue — is the one for which he broke one of the real estate commandments by which he thrives, one that his father handed down to him: “Don’t fall in love with the bricks.”
These bricks were special, though. The Bellevue, the duchess of Broad Street, was slated for destruction after Legionnaire’s Disease there killed 34 and infected 221 American Legion conventioneers in 1976. Frank Rizzo, the mayor then, wanted to tear it down and replace it with a parking lot. Rubin bought it — and saved it — after some challenging years.
The purchase was quite an event for the Rubins, father and son. Richard Rubin, who came here from Ukraine when he was a child, got his first job delivering shoes from a high-end shoe store to guests at the Bellevue. He had to use the service entrance. “So it was quite a thrill” to buy it, says Rubin fils. There is a photograph in his third-floor office of his father kissing him after the Bellevue deal was signed.
Rubin is also the man most responsible for launching the Center City District, which started in 1991 and has helped make Center City immeasurably cleaner, safer and more inviting.
That was no cheap trick. After lobbying City Council and Mayor Wilson Goode to approve the idea, he had to persuade the major property owners to pay the fees and extra taxes for the security and sanitation the CCD would provide. But, he says, he had a lot of credibility: as the largest property owner, he was all in.
Rubin has long been an active leader in the local Jewish community. He was formerly on the board of the United Jewish Appeal and is now co-chair of the National Museum of American Jewish History. Asked if Judaism plays into his business practices, he drops his voice a little.
“I’m certainly a practicing Jew,” he says, one who has been on the board of his synagogue, which he attends mostly on the holidays.
“I don’t want to say I’m holier than thou. I believe in the basics. My business career — my life — is all based on relationships, and ultimately all relationships, if they have any meaning, are based on trust. I try to impart that culture in my business. Building relationships is everything. I don’t know whether that’s a Jewish ethic. But it certainly has driven my life.”