Written by: Matt McGraw
Photos by: Matt McGraw
When traveling past Fairmount Avenue on the way down North Broad Street, it is almost impossible to miss the imposing behemoth that is the Divine Lorraine Hotel. Once a pinnacle of wealth and luxury in Philadelphia, the grand hotel has sat abandoned since 1999 and has fallen into great disrepair. Despite multiple attempts to renovate or restore the building to its original glory, none have come to fruition thus far. However, since September, the building’s latest owner has finally begun to restore the structure to it’s former self, with plans to make it an apartment complex and stores. The question that many local Philadelphians have though, is whether or not the Divine Lorraine should be made into a “for-profit” building instead of a historic landmark. Will the new shops and housing really help to improve the surrounding community, or will it only increase the existing gap between the rich and the poor?
Following the most recent purchase of the Divine Lorraine in October 2012 by Eric Blumenfeld, president of EB Realty Management Corp. (EBRM), many were hopeful that the new developer would bring life back into the hotel, but for over two years it continued to just sit there, untouched. But in February of 2015, EBRM announced plans to renovate the Divine Lorraine into a residential apartment complex with restaurants and retail stores on the ground floor, and in September, after nearly 15 years of stagnancy, renovations finally got under way. Now, in late October, North Philadelphians can see the beginning steps of these restorations being completed by general contractors Domus Inc. with financial backing from EBRM, Procida Funding & Advisors, and Philadelphia Industrial Development Corporation (PIDC.) EBRM has stated on their new site for the Divine Lorraine that its renovation “will signal the rebirth of the gap between Center City and Temple University,” and that it, “will no doubt catapult this community to a higher level of community enrichment.” But will it really have this effect on the existing community? Certainly there will be some new stores for shopping and restaurants for eating and perhaps some more local jobs will be created, but in the long run this project will promote gentrification of the surrounding areas rather than improving what is already there.
Gentrification is the process of wealthy individuals, companies, and even the city itself buying and renovating homes and stores, often in “deteriorated” urban neighborhoods, which increases property values but also displaces the families and small businesses who resided there, often with little more than a few months warning. This practice is seen commonly throughout Philadelphia in areas such as Northern Liberties, Fishtown and around Temple University. The effect is that lower-income families are pushed out of an area, and wealthier families and businesses move in. Often, areas that gain a new boost in wealth (i.e., a newly renovated apartment complex) then have a foothold from which wealthy investors spread out and take over the surrounding neighborhood.
While it isn’t a definite that the renovation of the Divine Lorraine into apartments and retail space will cause gentrification in the surrounding area, it certainly won’t hurt the chances of it happening either. While nearly everyone can agree that fixing up this historic old building is a good thing, people do need to see the realities that bringing a large money-maker into North Philadelphia can potentially have on the community. Stuck between Center City and Temple University, lower-income families residing in the area may find the long-term effects of the hotel’s renovation to be more of a curse than a blessing and may eventually find themselves wishing that the building had remained vacant after all.