Karen Heller: Southern France on North Broad

Bart Blatstein at last week's launch party for his planned casino/hotel/entertainment complex.
Bart Blatstein at last week's launch party for his planned casino/hotel/entertainment complex. (DAVID MAIALETTI / Staff)
Posted: October 28, 2012

During the many years I toiled at North Broad and Callowhill, several comparisons came to mind, but southern France was not one of them.

There were no lavender fields, no rosé wine, no bouillabaisse. The area - neighborhood was too generous a term for this squalid section - was gouged with surface lots, and proved an exercise in sensory deprivation utterly divorced from the natural world. The dominant fragrance emanated from the Broad Street Line. The local bistro was Gus's Lunch Truck.

No Impressionist painters were inspired to paint the area. Mostly, people tried to paint over the area with two of the Mural Arts Program's ugliest works.

So imagine my astonishment when Bart Blatstein looked at The Inquirer and Daily News' iconic white building, the Tower of Truth, and envisioned southern France on North Broad, albeit with slot machines encased in Second Empire style.

Developers are, by nature, dreamers and gamblers, seeing opportunity and growth where others see only the Steak & Bagel Train. Many developers appear a tad wifty, perhaps existing in some altered state of consciousness, but this project is in a class by itself.

Blatstein named his proposed $700 million casino/hotel/entertainment complex The Provence, a part of the world believed so foreign to many Philadelphians that the news release offers elocution assistance, "pronounced Pra-VONCE," as Henry Higgins might instruct Eliza Doolittle. The developer envisions a tree-lined village and promenade 70 feet in the air, sort of a Francophile's High Line, where some of us once parked.

"Why France?" Blatstein was asked at his launch party Wednesday in the Bartworld of Northern Liberties. "We share a lot of history with France," the perpetually exuberant entrepreneur said, citing French-inspired buildings like City Hall and the Free Library, and the Parkway based on the Champs-Élysées. "And, after all, the French helped us to finance the Revolution."

Oh.

The French, as far as we know, will not finance The Provence. Instead, the Hard Rock Cafe would manage the place. Blatstein waved away any funding issues with Trumpian flourish: "I could build four of these projects with the money that is being offered to me."

When people use the term world class in describing a proposed project, which P.T. Blatstein did repeatedly, often world and class have little do with it.

Virtually every casino built in Atlantic City has been sold as "world class," and to what end? One woman at the launch party Wednesday described The Provence "as a moneymaking Revel," perhaps not a wise comparison. Blatstein's proposal is one of several for a second Philadelphia casino - so far, the most public and lavish - which must be submitted by Nov. 15 to the Pennsylvania Gaming Control Board.

The party was thick with city Democrats, including Council President Darrell Clarke who all but endorsed the project in his district, but what's truly useful in securing the almost $75 million license is the support of state Republicans. Blatstein proves no slouch here, enlisting power broker Bill Sasso and strategists John Brabender and Brian Nutt, all of whom have worked closely with Gov. Corbett.

Blatstein's distinction is that he's already made a difference in our city. Once just another developer of hulking soulless boxes, he permanently transformed Northern Liberties with his Piazza at Schmidts. Where other people saw a defunct brewery, he saw Rome's Piazza Navona. Blatstein invested in the Temple neighborhood, developing a movie-and-retail complex farther up North Broad, better and earlier than other speculators.

In a world of bland, of thinking safe and small, Blatstein most decidedly does neither. He's a builder, an entertainer and visionary, even if it's not everyone's vision. Give him credit for the outsized moxie, the near-absurdity of seeing and selling 120,000 square feet of glitz when many locals were just hoping for a CVS. What's next? Covent Garden comes to Fishtown?

After waiting forever for change to come to North Broad, a few blocks from Center City yet a dismal world away, the area finally has Vetri and Starr restaurants, pricey loft condos and the Barnes nearby, though still no retail or vestiges of the natural world. It's as though the area went from dead to fancy with no midway stop.

Neighbors, for the moment, are being cautious in their response. "We have deep concerns about the potential impacts, traffic, parking, crime and safety, and we question whether it fits in a community that is finally springing to life," said Kevin Greenberg, the lawyer for a coalition of area groups.

In 1999, residents vehemently fought the proposed Phillies' ballpark at Broad and Spring Garden - where Blatstein's apartment conversion of the former State Building begins renting next month. That opposition was led by then-powerful former State Sen. Vincent Fumo, a local property owner who currently resides in a federal facility in Ashland, Ky.

While Blatstein downplayed the casino as part of a larger vision of an opulent hotel, club, and shopping complex, there is no Provence without gambling, and the area provides some incompatible neighbors. The site is surrounded by schools, and adjacent to the district's headquarters. Last month marked the groundbreaking of a Mormon Temple at 17th and Vine. More than one observer has noted the similarities in the church and casino designs.

The nearby Convention Center may once have been viewed as helping draw business to a swank entertainment complex. Given its recent troubles attracting conventions and revenue, perhaps the converse now holds true: The Provence, as promotional materials tout, "might serve as a catalyst for increased bookings" at the Center.

The protracted struggle over Philadelphia's second casino has continued longer than many wars. I'm not convinced the city needs a "Vegas-style resort and casino complex" on North Broad or anywhere else, but you've got to hand it to Blatstein, no one else dared dream of France.


Contact Karen Heller

at 215-854-0586 or kheller@phillynews.com, or follow on Twitter at @kheller.

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