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The Divine Lorraine Hotel has been called a billboard of blight, an urban ruin among North Broad Street's empty storefronts, auto-repair lots, and grand but decaying historic buildings on the fringe of the city's revitalizing center.

The 10th floor of the Divine Lorraine Hotel. (MICHAEL PRONZATO / Staff Photographer)
The 10th floor of the Divine Lorraine Hotel. (MICHAEL PRONZATO / Staff Photographer)Read more

The Divine Lorraine Hotel has been called a billboard of blight, an urban ruin among North Broad Street's empty storefronts, auto-repair lots, and grand but decaying historic buildings on the fringe of the city's revitalizing center.

But that could soon change, as the 121-year-old architectural landmark becomes the signature project in a burst of investment along the once-bustling corridor that begins just north of City Hall.

Envisioned there are the rebirth of the Divine Lorraine as apartments with ground-floor dining, at least two new residential complexes, and conversion of the former headquarters of The Inquirer, the Philadelphia Daily News, and into a boutique hotel.

Together, those projects could forge a northward path for the type of development that's enlivened other parts of Philadelphia as it solidifies the link between Center City and the Temple University campus.

"The renovation of the Divine Lorraine will be an enormous tipping point," said Alan Greenberger, deputy mayor for economic development. "Nobody is going to invest in and around that area with an abandoned building covered in graffiti."

The Divine Lorraine stands tall, 10 stories of pale-brown brick at Broad Street and Fairmount Avenue, its monumental archways and parapet walls splotched with spray paint. Its windows are empty or boarded, its balcony railings rusted.

Inside, the marred brick floors of the building's once-sumptuous rooms - gutted by a previous owner - are littered with empty beer cans and bottles. On one wall, a massive graffito portrays a bleary-eyed Bart Simpson smoking an enormous joint.

Developer Eric Blumenfeld's EB Realty Management Corp. has secured public and private financing for the $30 million restoration project. He said he is undaunted by the prospect of reviving the wreck.

"The bones of this building are irreplaceable," Blumenfeld said, motioning to the massive steel beams that have supported it through years of neglect. "We're not really changing this structure. We're working with it."

Under Blumenfeld's plan, the upper stories will be framed into 101 mostly one-bedroom apartments, each with a balcony. A less-ornate annex building will accommodate eight more units.

The two buildings' basements, which will be dug out to permit direct entry from outside, and the main structure's ground floor will be divided into four restaurants and a bar by prominent Philadelphia chefs, said Blumenfeld.

It's a strategy he forged nearby on North Broad at his Lofts 640-apartment project in a former industrial building, which has benefited from the ground-floor tenancy of chef Marc Vetri's Osteria, consistently ranked among the city's best restaurants.

Work on the Divine Lorraine could begin as soon as this month, with its first move-ins by late 2016.

"We're going to transform a distressed neighborhood," Blumenfeld said.

His bet on the neighborhood also includes work at the former Thaddeus Stevens School of Observation and the Metropolitan Opera House.

But he is not acting alone. About five blocks south, at Broad and Callowhill Streets, Parkway Corp. plans a mixed-use project with about 340 residential units where it had been operating two parking lots.

Construction could begin by the end of this year, said Parkway president Robert Zuritsky.

Across the street from Parkway's project, developer Bart Blatstein is proposing a 125-room boutique hotel in the Inquirer Building, according to an application for state assistance for the project.

And on the four acres of vacant land directly beside the Divine Lorraine, New York-based RAL Cos. & Affiliates plans two towers with 486 apartments and at least 27 single-family rowhouses.

RAL's $220 million project also includes a supermarket in an area identified by the U.S. Department of Agriculture as having a high number of low-income residents with limited access to healthy, affordable food.

"This area between Temple and Center City really has almost been forgotten," said RAL president and CEO Robert Levine, whose previous projects include converting Lower Manhattan's Arthur Levitt State Office Building into residential units. "This project, coupled with the Divine Lorraine, will really change things dramatically."

The structure originally known as the Lorraine Apartment House was completed in 1892 by architect Willis G. Hale, in a neighborhood that was a magnet for newly wealthy Philadelphians who eschewed the city's more established upscale neighborhoods.

Many of those residents soon decamped for the suburbs, leaving the neighborhood first in predominantly Jewish hands - the imposing Rodeph Shalom synagogue is a remnant of that era - then as a working-class African American community.

The Lorraine, which had already been transformed from an apartment building to a hotel, was bought in 1948 by the Rev. Major J. "Father" Divine's Unity Mission Church, under which it offered some of the first racially integrated high-end hotel accommodations in the country. The hotel closed in 1999.

The decline of the neighborhood came with the hollowing out of Philadelphia's industrial economy, much of it based in the nearby Callowhill district.

"It left no jobs. It left shuttered buildings," Greenberger said. "The center of life in Philadelphia moved away."

But as other neighborhoods in Center City's orbit have since been revitalized, development along North Broad has been stymied by the Vine Street Expressway, which has isolated the area, Greenberger said.

Median income in the U.S. Census tract that includes the Divine Lorraine (bounded by Broad, Poplar, 10th, and Green Streets) was $18,607 in 2012 compared with $61,392 in Center City, according to the most recent available data. Just 16 percent of the area's homes are owner-occupied, versus Center City's 40 percent, the data show.

"I would love to look out of my window and see buildings that aren't run-down and covered with graffiti," said Gary Sheplavy, a 29-year-old surgical-device representative who lives at Lofts 640.

These days, Vine Street may be weakening as a barrier under the pressure of demand for housing in Center City, as well as revitalization creeping from the Fairmount neighborhood to the east, Greenberger said.

Temple University also has renewed its role as an anchor for development, purchasing the former site of William Penn High School just south of its campus for athletic facilities and other uses.

Eventually, Temple plans ground-floor retail along the Broad Street-facing part of the parcel, with a job-training center above, said James P. Creedon, senior vice president for construction, facilities and operations.

"All the energy is closing in on that node," said Greenberger. "It's finally coming to fruition."

215-854-2615 @jacobadelman