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And they all fall down

Tower Investments, led by real estate developer and CEO Bart Blatstein, obtained demolition permits earlier this month to demolish the Henry F. Ortlieb Brewery, a four-building complex at 838–852 N. American St.

According to Licenses & Inspections spokeswoman Maura Kennedy, although the demolition could take place anytime starting today, the demolition permit stands through 2015, so there’s no telling when the bricks might fall.

The Ortlieb’s Bottling House on the east side of North American Street as well as Ortlieb’s Lounge on Third Street will not be torn down.

Blatstein did not, as of press time, return several messages requesting comment, but Tower Investments’ publicist Frank Keel did say over the phone last week that no specific time for demolition has been scheduled.

The brewery closed in 1981. Tower Investments purchased the buildings in 2000, the same year Blatstein purchased Schmidt’s Brewery, now the bustling Piazza at Schmidt’s.

Schmidt’s Brewery, 1050 N. Hancock St., was torn down over the following two years despite opposition from neighbors, according to the Web site Hidden City Philadelphia.

Will similar development take place at Ortlieb’s? It’s hard to say. Blatstein told Hidden City that plans for the property are “unclear,” and added, “The market is so different than it was three or four years ago … I would have kept the buildings if I would have felt it was a marketable commodity, but the condition of the buildings is such that it’s just not worth it.”

In 2007, Tower Investments explored the idea of rehabilitating the buildings for residential use, but the plans never progressed after they were presented to The Northern Liberties Neighbors Association’s Association.

Larry Freedman, NLNA’s zoning chairman, said that when Tower presented those plans, most neighbors supported the idea. He said it’s hard to say whether the buildings should stay or go without knowing the plan for the space, but said the buildings’ demolition could be a positive thing for the neighborhood.

“It would be nice to see something happen over there. It’s a desolate street, it’s been doing nothing but standing there and rotting,” he said. “I’m going to take a leap of faith and say it’s possible that, if somebody tears that building down, that might be the first step toward something that might be more beneficial to surrounding neighbors.”

There are differing opinions.

Since news of the demolition began to spread online, comments on neighborhood message boards have ranged from, “This building is an eyesore so I’m not sad to see it go,” and “Why would we want to save that?” to “The complex can be saved and repurposed“ and “It’s beautiful and it’s a part of the history of the neighborhood.”

Susan Graeser, who lives in Northern Liberties, said she doesn’t want to see Ortlieb’s demolished.

“I guess some people look at it and see a mess, but I look at it and see everything that made Northern Liberties a neighborhood,” she said. “The history behind it is almost majestic and timeless … [Schmidt’s and Ortlieb’s] provided jobs, they created this neighborhood.”

Shanna Fitzgibbons, who currently lives in Fishtown but has lived in Northern Liberties, said she wouldn’t want to see more apartments built in Ortlieb’s place — the neighborhood has enough apartment complexes, she said — but she believes Blatstein can do whatever he wants with the space.

“Bart bought it. It’s his. I don’t see how I or anyone else, except for maybe the immediate neighbors, have any right to object to what he wants to do to his property … we live in a capitalistic society; that’s just how it works.”

She said she thinks any neighborhood opposition comes from the fact that people don’t like change, and that people tend to dislike wealthy real estate developers.

Michael Greenle noted in an opinion piece for The Philadelphia Inquirer that, if the complex is so deteriorated that it can’t be saved, it’s Blatstein’s fault, since it’s been under his ownership and left to deteriorate since its purchase.

“It’s a mess,” Freedman said. “I know it’s falling apart.”

Regardless of what might happen to the property, and despite neighborhood opposition, Freedman said the neighborhood doesn’t own the building — all Northern Liberties can hope for is what he called a “glass half-full” scenario in which any new development there only enhances the neighborhood.

“My personal opinion is I love to see things develop. I love to see streets active with people and energy,” he said. “The way it [the Ortlieb’s site] is now, that’s not happening.”

It also was announced last week that Tower Investments is scheduled to reveal tonight its plans for a $1 billion resort and casino complex at 400 N. Broad St., the former site of the Inquirer and Daily News. That “Launch Party,” was scheduled to take place at 5 p.m. at the Tendenza catering hall at the Piazza.

Managing Editor Mikala Jamison can be reached at 215–354–3113 or at mjamison@bsmphilly.com.

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