Eric Blumenfeld, 55, takes pride in having noticed things first.
“Nobody really believed in North Broad Street,” he said, until he and EB Realty Management began to develop the area over a decade ago, beginning with the purchase of the run-down Divine Lorraine hotel and, as of December, culminating with the successful reopening of the Metropolitan Opera House.
“Everybody thought the buildings were beyond salvageable,” he said, “but I knew they weren’t.”
Even journalists can’t escape his eye. The Philadelphia-based writer Bruce Buschel once wrote a memoir of Broad Street called Walking Broad, an effort that Blumenfeld recalls as “the most depressing book.” What he remembers with the most clarity, though, is when
Buschel got to 640 N. Broad St., a building Blumenfeld was then developing into lofts. “Ah, this kid Blumenfeld is gonna be bankrupt by the end of the week,” Blumenfeld recalled the writer saying, smiling as he pondered the conversation. “I would like there to be a sequel.”
As he tells it, predictions of the Friends Select grad’s failures have been appearing in Philadelphia newspapers and magazines for decades, ever since he took over his father’s drowning real estate company in the mid-’80s. And yet, time and time again, Blumenfeld has found a way to take albatrosses like The Met and turn them into something new (not least of all, the tchotchkes and furniture of his parent’s old Center City home, which now fill his office at Abbotts Square, once a struggling development of his father’s).
He lists the predictions in a practiced way.
“I would fail because I couldn’t do the construction. I would fail because I couldn’t get the financing. I would fail because I couldn’t get the tenants there. I’d fail because we didn’t have the parking.” In the end, he believes, it’s his willingness to be a little reckless that gives him his edge.
“Smart developers think about projects,” he said, “and I don’t consider myself a smart developer. I think about whole communities.”
The Met, an 110,000-square-foot building at Broad and Poplar streets near Temple University, was first built by Oscar Hammerstein (grandfather of that Oscar Hammerstein) in 1908. Hammerstein’s love of opera perhaps blinded him to the realities of its sustenance, and the building was only exclusively used for opera for about a decade. It would be used alternately as a venue for silent films, and then talkies; as a ballroom; as a recording space; as a sporting venue; and as a church. From 1988 to 1995, it was completely vacant.
The space as bought by Holy Ghost Headquarters Revival Center, and what was salvageable was used as a prayer space (and continues to be). In 2012, seeing the success of the Divine Lorraine, the church partnered with Blumenfeld to redevelop the building.
There were bumps in the road — the church sued Blumenfeld in 2015 over lack of progress — but today, Blumenfeld is proud to say that his venue is one of the only ones in the world where a rock band will perform Saturday night in a space where church services will be held the next morning.
The opener, on Dec. 3, was Bob Dylan, a dream act for Blumenfeld; he hopes to bring the likes of Billy Joel, Madonna and Bruce Springsteen to The Met as well.
What he’s most excited by, however, is artists like John Legend appearing, as the singer-songwriter did on Dec. 4.
“Bob Dylan has a particular audience,” Blumenfeld said before dropping innuendo. “Let’s face it, Bob Dylan attracts a lot of old white people.”
What he’s interested in is creating a space “without barriers,” bringing in artists that anyone of any race or creed can enjoy. He wants, he said, to recreate the feeling he had seeing Hamilton on Broadway.
It’s all part of a larger plan to take a leading role in redeveloping North Broad. Blumenfeld wants to fill the neighborhood with bars and restaurants, to give people a reason to stop on North Broad, he said. Moreover, he wants that reason to be the neighborhood itself, not national chains. “I said, ‘Look, this is not King of Prussia. I don’t want Starbucks,’” he said, dragging out the final ‘s.’ “I don’t want Shake Shack. … Do you really want to see the same chain everywhere, every neighborhood?”
Critics, Blumenfeld is aware, have noted the potential for redevelopment to push out current residents.
“There’s this whole word of ‘gentrification.’ And I hate that word. It’s thrown around usually dangerously, and meant to be a good word, but what I know and what I understand from working in the community, that there’s a fear of somebody who lives there that it means, ‘I’m getting thrown out,’ and it’s hurtful, so from that perspective it’s a really bad word.”
He didn’t say much more on the subject, but he noted that he’s received nothing but support and gratitude from the “great” neighborhood associations, and that he asked for — and secured — a commitment from Live Nation to largely staff The Met with local residents. Even the local carpenters and builders, he said, are happy to be working on the building.
“It’s almost like they don’t wanna finish, because they don’t wanna leave,” he said, raising his eyebrows.
Right now, Blumenfeld said, he feels lucky. When he first bought the property, he was confused. How was it available? What was he missing?
“I felt like Gilligan,” he said.
A couple partnerships with Live Nation and Comcast later (the latter is indirectly running the building’s dining services), and it’s a new ballgame. “We’ve gone from Gilligan to shoot the moon.”
“I’m living proof,” he said, “that if you have a dream, and you’re willing to put in the time, and you know you’re gonna get knocked down, and you just commit to never giving up, then you can do anything.”
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