New grant completes financing for Divine Lorraine

Eric Blumenfeld now has all the money he needs to revive the Divine Lorraine, the iconic former hotel that has towered over North Broad Street for years, vacant since 1999, collecting dust and graffiti.

On Wednesday, the Philadelphia Redevelopment Authority approved a loan for the project worth $2.5 million as well as a $1 million grant from the Neighborhood Transformation Initiative left over from the John Street administration. That money, combined with a $3.5 million state grant awarded last week, federal historic tax credits worth the same amount, and a $30 million investment from New Jersey real estate lender Billy Procida, will allow Blumenfeld to start work on the redevelopment next month.

“It will get us across the finish line,” Blumenfeld said on Wednesday.

Blumenfeld plans to remake the building, which he bought for the second time in 2012, with 109 apartments and retail spaces on the first two floors.

“The city has been incredibly helpful, as has the state,” Blumenfeld said. “It’s been a group effort and I’m hopeful that this approval this afternoon kind of insures that the Divine Lorraine will be rehabilitated starting next month.”

The financing of the project is a win for the Nutter administration as well. Alan Greenberger, the deputy mayor for economic development, has been banging the drum about the project for years and making personal promises that its revival will be underway before Nutter leaves office in January.

It’s been a week of wins for development on North Broad Street, too. On Tuesday, the Planning Commission approved a plan from New York-based RAL Companies to build nearly 500 apartments and an 80,000-square-foot supermarket on the vacant lot behind the Divine Lorraine. Earlier in the day, a City Council committee voted to approve zoning tweaks and a street striking for that project as well.

Greenberger said on Tuesday that the timing isn’t exactly coincidental.

“Both projects really feed off of each other,” Greenberger told PlanPhilly. “The Divine Lorraine has to get done. I mean, nobody’s going to make an investment like you saw without the Divine Lorraine getting done. That’s sort of a given. So we have to finish that off. I’ve been working on this for a lot of years, and I want it done.”

Blumenfeld said on Wednesday that he’d sold off his stake in a large waterfront parcel recently so that he could focus on rehabbing the Divine Lorraine. He said he welcomes the proposal from RAL.

“I’m thrilled about it,” said Blumenfeld. “Very excited. It’s nice to have comrades developing on North Broad Street.”  

The Divine Lorraine was built in the 1890s and designed by the architect Willis Hale. Patrick Grossi, director of advocacy at the Preservation Alliance of Greater Philadelphia, said the building is an emblem of the era when North Broad Street was the place where some of the wealthiest Philadelphians, many of whom were new-money industrialists, chose to live.

Starting in the 1940s, the hotel was operated by Father Divine of the Universal Peace Mission Movement. Divine renamed the hotel and ran it according to a strict behavioral code. Men and women were housed on separate floors, but the hotel was among the first in the country to be racially integrated.

Grossi said that finding an adaptive reuse for a historic building as old and as large as the Divine Lorraine should also be regarded as a preservation win.

“It’s a difficult building to work with, so the fact that the developers are taking a risk by opting to work with it is something that the Alliance would hope to see a lot more of.” Grossi said. “… I do think that this is a strategy that developers in Philadelphia would be wise to be thinking about more carefully, and I think a lot of folks don’t realize the options they have. There are alternatives to demolition, and in many cases there are economic incentives for those alternatives.”

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