Tony Goldman, 68, visionary who revitalized Philadelphia's 13th Street

Developer Tony Goldman in his office space on Walnut Street. His vision revitalized the 13th Street corridor in Center City.
Developer Tony Goldman in his office space on Walnut Street. His vision revitalized the 13th Street corridor in Center City. (MICHAEL BRYANT / File Photograph)
Posted: September 14, 2012

When New York developer Tony Goldman arrived in Philadelphia with plans to revitalize Center City's seedy 13th Street, almost everyone here wondered whether he was crazy.

One of the skeptics was Michael Nutter, a city councilman in 1999 when Mr. Goldman sought tax incentives for his project.

"We just all kind of looked at him and thought, 'What the hell are you talking about?' " Nutter said Wednesday. "He had all these ideas and a vision, and there was nothing going on down there."

Mr. Goldman, 68, died of heart failure Tuesday in New York, leaving as his epitaph a trail of signature, vibrant, urban neighborhoods that changed whole downtowns, including Mayor Nutter's Philadelphia.

"Tony Goldman decided that he was going to transform 13th Street and did," Nutter said. "Thirteenth Street between Walnut and Chestnut is as vibrant and alive as 18th Street over on Rittenhouse Square."

Today, there is plenty happening on 13th Street. People flock there to dine at El Vez, Barbuzzo, and other restaurants, savor gourmet chocolates and gelato, and shop for eclectic jewelry and housewarming gifts.

Mr. Goldman already had helped revive New York's Soho district and restored art deco glory to Miami's South Beach when he pressed his dream for 13th Street, an area many civic and political leaders considered hopeless.

In the 1990s, 13th Street from Chestnut to Walnut "was the prostitution capital, the drug-dealing capital, and just the deterioration capital of Center City," said Paul Levy, president of the Center City District, which provides street cleaning and other services to downtown businesses and residents.

Mr. Goldman's methods could be controversial. Not everyone agreed Philadelphia should grant him tax-increment financing, which allowed some tax revenue from the project to go toward paying off the developer's costs. But he won Council approval and lured hot restaurateurs such as Stephen Starr to locate there.

Mr. Goldman grew up in New York City and started Goldman Properties in 1968, developing brownstones on Manhattan's Upper West Side.

In the mid-1970s, he saw potential in the dilapidated cast iron buildings in Manhattan south of Houston Street and began renovating them. He saw restaurants as an anchor for burgeoning neighborhoods and opened the Greene Street Cafe and Soho Kitchen & Bar, which offered 100 wines by the glass.

The strategy worked, and soon people were paying sky-high rent to live in the lofts above the restaurants in the area now known as Soho.

He duplicated that model - destination restaurants and shops in renovated historic buildings with living space above - in Philadelphia, on Wall Street, and elsewhere.

Along the way, he won plaudits as a historic preservationist and kind human being.

In 2010, the National Trust for Historic Preservation gave him its highest honor for excellence in historic preservation.

"When he renovated, he was very much preserving the character of the existing buildings," said John Gallery, executive director of the Preservation Alliance of Greater Philadelphia.

Marcie Turney, chef and owner of several restaurants and businesses on 13th Street, was in tears in her house because financing for her Lolita restaurant was not coming together when Mr. Goldman said he would fill the gap. Lolita opened in 2004.

"He came down from New York and said he was going to make this happen," she said.

Craig Grossman, managing director of Goldman Properties, said Mr. Goldman saw huge potential in Philadelphia, poised strategically between New York and Washington.

"He loved the history, the critical mass of the properties . . . the scale of the city," Grossman said. "He felt it was poised for greatness."

In a 1999 Inquirer interview, Mr. Goldman lamented Philadelphia's lack of an Armani store. He diagnosed the city as "aesthetically depressed."

He prescribed therapy, but observed: "This is not a difficult problem to overcome. You have fabulous physical assets."

Former City Councilman Frank DiCicco said Mr. Goldman was a New Yorker at heart who "thought big," dressed nattily in black with patent leather shoes, and saw Philadelphia's promise even when residents didn't.

"Who ever thought you'd be eating outside at 13th and Sansom?" DiCicco asked. "It was a scary place."

Mr. Goldman is survived by his wife, Janet; son and business partner Joey; daughter and business partner Jessica Goldman Srebnick; and four grandchildren.

"To the community he touched, he was a transforming, once-in-a-lifetime figure," his family said in a statement. "To us, he was a devoted husband, wonderful father, and doting grandfather."

Services are Friday at Temple Emanu-El, Miami Beach.


Contact Miriam Hill at 215-854-5520, hillmb@phillynews.com, or follow @miriamhill on Twitter.

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