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Big sale of land between Old City and NoLibs offers chance to make a mark

For sale: a major stake in what may be central Philadelphia's next big real-estate hot spot.

Property investor Mark Rubin is selling a portfolio of aged industrial and office buildings covering 7.75 acres — an area bigger than Rittenhouse Square — north of eastern Center City, situated between the booming neighborhoods of Old City and Northern Liberties.

The eight-property assemblage, which sprawls east of Ninth Street along Callowhill and Spring Garden Streets, includes a large tract that already has zoning permissions for a pair of residential high-rises designed by architect Cecil Baker and a historic former bank building that was home to one of restaurateur Stephen Starr's earlier ventures.

Whoever snaps up these properties will lead development in a section of the city that's ripe for revitalization, said Michael Barmash, who is marketing them as a senior managing director at Colliers International in Philadelphia.

"You have a hole between Northern Liberties and Old City," Barmash said in an interview. "This is an opportunity to control a neighborhood."

Rubin's properties, which Barmash said could fetch as much as $80 million, are hitting the market amid a gradual uptick in activity in and around what is now a district dominated by parking lots, industrial buildings, and strip-center retail.

At Fifth and Spring Garden Streets, Bryn Mawr-based investment company Alliance Partners HSP LLC is converting Destination Maternity Corp.'s former headquarters warehouse into a retail, light-industrial and office complex to be anchored by Yards Brewing Co.

Clustered around Ninth and 10th Streets, just to the west of Rubin's properties, development group Arts & Crafts Holdings has been buying up aged commercial properties for conversion into workshops for craftspeople and loft-style offices.

Another prominent area property that has come up for sale is the 188,000-square-foot former industrial building near Seventh and Callowhill Streets that is home to the Electric Factory concert venue, the Philadelphia Business Journal has reported.

"It's really a seller's market in disposing of many of these assets," said Michael Silverman, a managing director at Integra Realty Resources in Philadelphia, who estimated that property values have more than doubled in the area over the last 10 to 15 years. "The market is certainly frothy."

Rubin's assemblage of properties started coming together in the 1960s, when his father, Seymore Rubin, began running a furniture business out of a building at 444 N. Third St. that has since become offices.

Over the years, the family acquired other area properties as they became available, eventually becoming full-time landlords. Holdings in the neighborhood, all of which are part of the for-sale portfolio, also include a warehouse structure near the Market-Frankford Line stop at 200 Spring Garden St. that is home to a City Fitness gym and the Sherwin-Williams Co. paint store at 827 Spring Garden St.

It was in another of  Rubin's properties, the Frank Furness-designed Northern Saving Fund & Safe Deposit Co. building at 600 Spring Garden St., that Stephen Starr operated his nightclub the Bank in the late 1980s and 1990s. Starr closed the business after tiring of the punishing late-night hours, Rubin said in an interview.

For the 2.6-acre parcel that accommodates the building at 444 N. Third St., Rubin commissioned architect Baker to design a residential project that takes near-maximum advantage of a late-2015 zoning change permitting big mixed-use projects in the previously industrial-only district.

The plan, calling for 24- and 27-story residential towers over ground-floor retail and three largely concealed levels of parking, passed through the city's design-review process in October, meaning that a new owner could begin work on the project after obtaining building permits.

Rubin's own offices are in a nearby two-story building that is also part of the for-sale assemblage. That building sits on 11,000 square feet that could be "developable to 31 stories" under the new zoning, according to a Colliers brochure marketing the portfolio.

But Rubin, 60, who also owns properties in University City, Germantown, South Jersey, and other areas, said he hopes to find a way to stay in the neighborhood.

"I want to hang around and watch what goes on," he said.