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How Allan Domb became the ‘condo king’

Domb built a reputation as a tireless and ruthless broker who regularly pulled 12- to 14-hour workdays, and his travails and expertise frequently documented in The Inquirer’s real estate pages.

Former Councilmember Allan Domb (center) became a real estate magnate after studying for a broker's license at night while working as a locksmith in Center City.
Former Councilmember Allan Domb (center) became a real estate magnate after studying for a broker's license at night while working as a locksmith in Center City.Read moreCharles Fox / File Photograph

Born in Jersey City in 1955, Michael Allan Domb rose to prominence in local real estate beginning in the late 1970s, after he decided there wasn’t enough room for advancement in his career as a manager of a Phelps Time Lock Service franchise in Center City.

In 1979, just a few years out of college, Domb heard a radio ad for Temple University’s real estate program and later said he knew he had found his life’s calling. He quit the locksmithing business and spent nights studying for the real estate brokers exam, later snagging a part-time gig with Fuiman Real Estate, specializing in the city’s budding condo market.

Just a few years later, Domb had founded an eponymous brokerage, then a title company, called AD Abstract. He weathered the ups and downs of the city’s fickle 1980s condo market — and double digit interest rates — to become not just the largest luxury broker in town, but in the country.

In 1987, the National Association of Realtors recognized the 33-year-old as the nation’s top residential salesperson, after a stunning year in which Domb helmed nearly 300 real estate transactions that would be valued at close to $100 million today, when adjusted for inflation.

Domb quickly built a reputation as a tireless and ruthless broker who regularly worked 12 to 14 hours a day, and his travails and expertise were frequently documented in The Inquirer’s real estate pages.

“The thing that my parents gave me was the work ethic,” he said, in 1987, explaining the year of jaw-dropping sales.

Rivals accused Domb of burying his own listings in an attempt to cut out competing real estate agents — Domb skipped the centralized MLS listing service in favor of tiny newspaper classified ads — to avoid splitting commissions. Once, Domb asserted that he tracked down a prospective condo buyer while they were vacationing in London. Another time, after his then-wife Daphne went into labor, he was said to have stopped on the way to the hospital to deliver an agreement of sale — just before doctors delivered their child.

Over time, Domb focused not just on selling condos, but on buying, converting, and renting them out as well. Domb’s companies gradually amassed ownership stakes in the majority of buildings fronting Rittenhouse Square, which are among the city’s most prized addresses, and nearby towers, such as the Wanamaker and the Warwick. He maintains interests in many of the condo complexes he helped create or market to this day, as well as seats on nearly a half-dozen condo boards, according to his most recent statements of financial interest.

He got into the condo parking lot trade — Center City spots might be valued anywhere from $35,000 to considerably more — and partnered with garage operator Parkway Corp. As of 2020, he had ownership stakes in six parking facilities in the city. Around 2005, he partnered with now-famed restaurateur Stephen Starr, whose set piece fine dining restaurants helped spur on Center City’s dining scene (Domb remains a partner in the Starr Restaurant Organization) and, later, other chic spots like Cotoletta, in Fitler Square. As young people increasingly helped fuel Philadelphia’s resurgent downtown in the 2000s, Domb got a piece of that, partnering with Milkboy and City Tap House, both craft beer bar chains.

Along with his deep entanglement with downtown real estate came related interest in civic causes aimed at revitalizing Center City — or boosting the value of the city’s condo trade, depending on the perspective. As president of the Philadelphia Board of Realtors and its associated political action committee, Domb advocated for lowering the city’s realty transfer tax and for extra sanitation, security, and other amenities downtown — a goal later realized through the expansion of the Center City District, an economic development agency.

The PAC was allegedly nonpartisan and when asked, ‘Are you Democratic or Republican?’ Domb said he liked to reply, ‘No, I’m a Realtor.’”

As neighborhoods around Center City began to gentrify, Domb followed. About six years ago, he began buying and rehabbing shuttered corner bars across Fishtown and Port Richmond, including spots like craft beer bar Kraftwerk or the Tin Can Bar, a hipstery cocktail spot. When Loco Pez, a chain that pairs tacos with a faux dive bar aesthetic, sought out a location in Graduate Hospital, Domb got a stake in that, too.

The list goes on: an espresso bar in Manhattan, a coworking space in the former Gallery mall, a boutique mac-and-cheese bar. He also owns Schlesinger’s, a Jewish delicatessen in Center City that is an homage to Domb’s New Jersey-based ancestors and serves items bearing the names of his properties, such as a pastrami-topped hot dog called “The 1845 Walnut.”

Domb’s rags to riches story and rarely paralleled business acumen has made him the embodiment of the city’s elite — earning him both scorn from progressives and unvarnished praise from his peers.

In a 2015, Philadelphia Magazine profile of the budding Council candidate, Joe Zuritsky, CEO of Parkway Corporation said simply: “Allan is a force of nature.”

Staff writer Sean Collins Walsh contributed to this article.