Change is coming fast to the blocks around Broad Street and Ridge Avenue.

Restaurant impresario Stephen Starr is opening a kitchen and commissary in the soon-to-be-vacated Ridge Avenue men's shelter.

Project H.O.M.E. is building a four-story apartment building on a vacant lot at 15th Street and Fairmount Avenue.

Across the street, private developers are replacing a warehouse and taproom with 34 rental apartments.

Around the corner on Broad, the Laborers' District Council of Metropolitan Philadelphia is raising a five-story office building.

And then there's the Divine Lorraine Hotel, the 10-story, graffiti-covered landmark that has been an empty eyesore since 1999.

Deputy Mayor Alan Greenberger calls it "a billboard of blight." Mayor Nutter thinks it's standing in the way of a rebirth of North Broad Street. Last Monday, he pledged to the Greater Philadelphia Chamber of Commerce that he would do something about it.

With political pressure building, the current owners, who defaulted on their construction loan and owe $702,779.82 to the city in taxes, may have found someone to take their place.

On Friday, one of the owners, Michael Treacy Jr., said a Philadelphia developer had an option to buy the derelict property. He did not disclose the company but said, "They could go to settlement shortly."

Treacy said this was the fourth time in recent years that someone has wanted to take over the beloved but bedraggled building.

Will this deal stick?

"Hope springs eternal," Greenberger said. What's different this time around is the broader consensus that the building cannot continue to deteriorate.

"People want to see this redeveloped," he said. "Stars are starting to align, and when they do, you move fast."

The lender involved with the current owners - the union-owned Amalgamated Bank of New York - has signaled more of a willingness to make a deal.

"We're looking for a solution to get the taxes paid and the hotel renovated," said Keith Pilkington, an Amalgamated spokesman.

But until that happens, the Divine Lorraine is under assault from vandals who have busted windows and painted cryptic graffiti messages on the roof and walls.

A year ago, the city sealed doorways and windows on the ground floor with cinder block. "Vagrants were living in it," Greenberger said. "We were terrified of the thing burning down."

Half the price

The current owners paid $10 million in 2006 for the hotel and an adjacent three-acre parcel. In addition to Treacy, the group included a Dutch company, Sunergy Housing, and the Michigan-based NSI Real Estate Group.

After the economy collapsed, they could not raise the money to follow through with ambitious plans to renovate the hotel into apartments and to build residential towers on the vacant lot.

Local developers who have looked at the property say that today the hotel and land are worth half what the owners paid.

The Divine Lorraine is among the most endangered historic buildings in the city, according to the Preservation Alliance of Greater Philadelphia.

Ben Leech, director of advocacy for the alliance, said the former hotel, which is listed on the National Register of Historic Places, should be saved for its social history. "It's a story not enough people know," he said.

Opened in 1894 as the luxury Lorraine Apartment House, the building was one of the city's first "skyscrapers." It was purchased in 1948 by the Rev. Major Jealous Divine, a charismatic civil rights pioneer who preached a message of peace and interracial living and claimed to be God personified.

Father Divine converted the building into the Divine Lorraine Hotel and moved in with his wife, Mother Divine, and 24 disciples of his International Peace Mission.

A boost to Broad

The hotel offered inexpensive apartments and 25-cent meals to followers who promised to remain celibate and dress modestly.

Guests and residents were segregated, with men on floors two through five and women on six through eight. The mission sold the hotel in 1999, and it changed hands twice before being bought by the current owners.

A restored Divine Lorraine would be a tremendous boost to the North Broad Street neighborhood that already is showing signs of growth.

"I want this building to happen," said City Council President Darrell L. Clarke, whose district includes the property. "It will remove a very significant blighted situation."

If the current deal fails, the city could force a change in ownership.

Greenberger said it could condemn the Divine Lorraine using the power of "eminent domain" or put the delinquent property up for a sheriff's sale, Greenberger said.

The condition of the Divine Lorraine makes it a hard sell. "It's a shell inside," Greenberger said.

Floors are laid out in an odd way, with dead-end corridors, and there are irregularly shaped spaces on the top floors. The property, too, does not conform to the city's current building code.

Even though a restoration would be costly and complicated, Leech of the Preservation Alliance believes the iconic hotel should be saved.

"It's the definition of landmark," Leech said. "When you see it, you know where you are, and to lose that from the streetscape would be tragic."

Ben Leech of

the Preservation Alliance talks about why the Divine Lorraine Hotel deserves to be saved.