Eric Blumenfeld, a prominent homegrown Philadelphia developer, more than a decade ago began rehabbing buildings in the city’s North Broad Street corridor and inviting big-name restaurateurs to use the space. Now, with the reopening of the long-vacant Divine Lorraine as apartment/restaurant space, a beloved architectural icon, Blumenfeld, owner of EB Realty Management, believes his vision is finally coming together.
And even before that building is fully occupied, he is directing his attention a few blocks to the north to refurbish another monument to the corridor’s storied past, the Metropolitan Opera House, which is slated to reopen next year as a Live Nation concert venue.
“Two days ago, scaffold was up on the south side of this building,” Blumenfeld said May 17 as he looked out an apartment window during a tour of the Divine Lorraine presented by ULI Philadelphia’s Young Leaders Council. “We got the scaffold down yesterday, and the windows went in today—the whole wall of windows on the first floor. So it’s sort of getting exciting for me to think about the uses for the first two floors of the building.
“The idea that we’re going to continue to create new, fun restaurants on North Broad Street has to go part and parcel with other things,” he said. “This building gives us an opportunity to do a collaborative workspace on the third floor as an office use. . . . That brings a daytime use, and the Met, with 4,200 seats, brings a crazy opportunity for nightlife. So the combination of all these events—I think North Broad Street, by the end of next year, is a different world.”
The Divine Lorraine, aside from being an architectural gem designed by architect Willis Gaylord Hale and built in the 1890, lies at the intersection of a half dozen neighborhoods in various states of transition. Vacant since 1999, it had become a symbol of North Broad Street’s decline. Now reopening, it has become a symbol of the corridor’s rebirth, a process still taking shape.
After initially operating as a hotel, the building was bought by Reverend M.J. Divine, the eccentric leader of a local religious movement, said Christopher R. Cordaro, vice president of Blumenfeld’s development group, who gave ULI members a brief history of the building. “Father Divine” had 70 to 80 of his followers sign the title along with him, Cordaro said. Divine died in 1965, but the building continued to be used by his followers into the 1990s.
The building was purchased by New York–based developer Tony Goldman in 2000 for less than $2 million. Blumenfeld bought it in 2002 for $5.6 million, but sold it in 2006 for $10 million in order to focus on another project a few blocks away. During the Great Recession, the building’s new owners backed away from their development plans, and the building was soon deep in tax delinquency.
Blumenfeld, who said the decision to unload the building had haunted him, jumped at the chance to buy it back at a sheriff’s sale in 2012 for about $8 million. After pulling together an elaborate package of financing—including an initial $30 million loan from financier Billy Procida, millions in federal historic tax credits, a grant from the state Redevelopment Assistance Capital Program, and a loan from the Philadelphia Redevelopment Authority—Blumenfeld is opening the Divine Lorraine this year. Some apartments are already occupied.
He closed the tour by showing guests around the first-floor restaurant spaces—still a work in progress—and said he is in talks with restaurateurs.
“A lot of it is hypnosis and creating a vision, and trying to get others to share it,” Blumenfeld said of the redevelopment process.
Procida, who provided the bulk of the private financing for the project, said he is been so pleased with the project that he has signed on to work with Blumenfeld on other developments.
“In 35 years, $3 billion of projects, it’s not my biggest project, but it’s definitely my favorite,” Procida said after the tour. “What’s crazy is I thought that I would never do anything to top this. But going into the Metropolitan Opera House now and doing the Live Nation project, where we’re going to do a $20 million loan, is probably even going to top this. And then I’m quitting.”