Richard Gottlieb, President and COO at Keystone Development + Investment, spoke with VISTA Today about growing up in Northeast Philadelphia, moving to Cherry Hill as a boy, attending Drexel, and how a relative introduced him to the commercial real estate business after college.
He shared Keystone’s plans for the new SORA West development in Conshohocken, which has been in the works for almost 20 years. Although the borough is just one square mile, its strategic location near several forms of transportation and a varied workforce made it an appealing site for development.
Gottlieb also discussed the public-private partnerships that made the development possible and some perks the community can enjoy, such as additional parking to access restaurants and shopping. He also explored Keystone’s plans for The Curtis in Philadelphia, which includes office, residential, retail and life science space.
Where did you grow up, Rich?
I’m a Northeast Philadelphia guy! My dad enjoyed a little success and moved our family to Cherry Hill, but I don’t feel I ever left Philly. I went to Drexel and moved to Lower Merion after graduation, and I’ve lived there ever since.
What drew you into real estate, Rich?
I already had a real estate license. When a family member married a guy with a real estate business, I went to work for him for a while after college. It was an absolute disaster! But it did make me appreciate the commercial real estate business.
I have always liked business, and one of the cool things about commercial real estate is that we touch a variety of businesses. I get to meet all sorts of people and see things that are going on. I’ve always found that extremely appealing.
I also love that real estate is a permanent thing you can touch and feel. Especially as I moved from a broker into the development world, we get to do things that are there for the whole community to see. It’s pretty amazing!
Developments like SORA West don’t just magically appear. They take years to develop.
It’s ironic. I ended up coming to Keystone because I was looking to make a change, and I read an article that said, “Bill Glazer and his group bought these two buildings in Conshohocken.”
I called him up and said, “I see you’re growing, and I’d like to talk to you further.” Six months later, I came to Keystone, so those two buildings really brought me in. Every once in a while, Bill would say, “Let’s go for a walk,” and we’d walk around the block several times, discussing the property’s potential.
What was it about Conshohocken that drew you and Bill in?
In real estate, we’ve all heard, “location, location, location.” You can’t beat Conshohocken’s location. There is access to rail, buses, two major highways, and you can also access every level of labor within a couple of miles. We have people who walk to work, people who drive, and people who take public transportation, so it’s an amazing location.
It’s a perfect time to be in Conshohocken – all those things are coming together.
There are about 1,000 apartments going up in Conshohocken right now, with many more coming. There is a population explosion happening, for all good reasons. It’s a live, work, play environment. And not only that – a lot of people get off the train in the morning, coming from Center City, Philadelphia, going to offices in and around Conshohocken.
Not unlike Phoenixville.
Phoenixville is a super cool place to live right now. Who would have thought it? But then again, Conshohocken wasn’t a cool place either. It’s been building for many, many years. Conshohocken’s city founders had a good plan, and they encouraged the public-private partnerships.
You mentioned partnerships. Who were the partners who made SORA West possible?
When the litigation on the vacant property was finally settled, and the RDA and the Borough of Conshohocken got control of the property, they sent out an RFP to develop the historic firehouse and the empty land next to it. Everybody thought about how they could develop those two pieces of land – put something like a Starbucks there. There wasn’t much you could do on those two parcels alone.
So, we came up with a more audacious plan, something that would change the neighborhood by combining the two parcels with Keystone’s site. I credit Bill Glazer with this vision. I’m happy that the town and the people in charge, the elected officials and borough officials, liked our vision. So instead of doing this little project, we said, “This is the gateway to the community; this is the first corner over the bridge. Let’s make this a gamechanger for the community.”
The local officials embraced our audacious plan and worked with us for over two years until the buildings’ zoning and planning were approved. That was the first partnership.
In addition, our elected officials at the county and state level, including Sen. Vincent Hughes and County Commissioner Valerie Arkoosh, along with State Representative Mary Jo Daley, understood the vision, too.
Our whole thesis was that you have these amazing, beautiful buildings along the river. And you have a downtown. If we could build something that’s an anchor, draws people, creates a sense of place, and connects the office buildings to the downtown, we’d create a true town center and help the entire community.
What we have now is this anchor location, which is the international headquarters of AmerisourceBergen, one of the largest companies in the state of Pennsylvania –10th on the Fortune 500 list – we have a first-class hotel, we have restaurants, and we have this beautiful plaza for events.
Our lender on the buildings, TriState Bank, worked with us. They provided the time and flexibility we needed to finalize the lease and secure a loan for the construction of the new buildings.
Our second partner was AmerisourceBergen. They understood and liked our vision. There were several sites AmerisourceBergen looked at, not just in Conshohocken but across the region.
Nobody wanted to lose AmerisourceBergen. Chester County mounted a considerable effort to keep it.
Who wouldn’t want a company with AmerisourceBergen‘s clout in their community? They did a regional look – they looked in Delaware, and down the 202 corridor, they looked in King of Prussia, they looked here, they looked in Center City, Philadelphia and Camden, NJ. They determined that this was the right location for them. But even within Conshohocken, there were several sites they could have selected.
Obviously, everybody wanted them. But they understood that this was their best location. They didn’t want to be just in a building. They wanted to access the outside too. They have a cafeteria now, and it’s a beautiful one, but it wasn’t built to accommodate their entire population. It was built to accommodate a portion; everybody else should go out in the community and eat at the restaurants.
Who at the county or state level championed the project?
We had met with the governor, and they were supportive. So, all the way to the state level, they were supportive of us. And then, the local community wanted to ensure they had a good project. They weren’t pushovers, as they shouldn’t be, but they worked with us, and I think we’re all happy with the results.
What do you think, short term and long term, the impact of this project will be on Conshohocken?
I’m looking forward to more people returning to the office, which I believe is already happening. It’s building on a daily basis and creating more activity. This month, the final piece of the development, Hotel West & Main, will open.
Our vision of a dynamic town center will finally become a reality when employees return to work, business and leisure travel resume, and two vibrant restaurants open at the hotel.
We’ve built a 1,500-car parking garage that will be open to the public on nights and weekends as part of our agreement with the community. And all other times during the week, up to 5:00 PM, there are 150 parking spaces open to the public.
There is abundant parking for our hotel and restaurants. If you live on the other side of the river, Main Line, or Center City, you’re able to drive over the bridge, pull right in off of Elm Street, and right into the parking garage. It couldn’t be easier!
But it shouldn’t just be our restaurants that they’re going to. Now, you can park in the garage, walk through a beautiful plaza, and access blocks of coffee shops and restaurants in downtown Conshohocken.
I firmly believe in helping the community. Residents need services, so I’m hoping that, again, it helps everybody. It’s hard for one restaurant in one location to make it, but when there are five –
– or 25, even better, right? It will be interesting to see what Conshohocken looks like in 20 years. I look at Naperville, Illinois, and what that is. The Delaware Valley doesn’t have a Naperville.
No, you’re exactly right. But we have – well, Phoenixville may be something like that.
Conshohocken could become like Naperville.
I think it already is. But Conshohocken is one square mile – not big. It has grown. We have all the services. They run it like a first-class community. But we’re heavily developed. That’s a big barrier to entry here.
Let me ask about another Keystone project, The Curtis. The glass mural in the lobby is one of Philadelphia’s hidden gems.
It’s true. The Tiffany “Dream Garden” mural is hidden, and not a lot of people know its existence, but you’d be surprised how many people walk in off the street all day long to see it.
What plans do you have for The Curtis?
That’s a fascinating building. There’s a lot going on in that building, and it works. It’s office space, retail, residential — and it’s become a thriving life sciences hub. It has unique architecture. The building was built to house the printing presses for the Saturday Evening Post back in the day. So, because of that, we have higher ceilings, better floor loads, low vibration, and several abandoned elevator shafts. The shafts provide fresh air for life science.
So, we started that a couple of years ago, and we have six life science tenants that are using over 175,000 square feet and growing.
We also have 86 stunning rental units. There’s a waiting list for people who want to live in the building. The views are unrivaled. Most face east, to the river, and I will tell you, there is no better view of historic Philadelphia and the Riverfront. It’s unbelievable.
We have retail, we have P.J. Clarke’s, and we’re looking to expand our restaurant selection. We just announced that we signed a lease with an experiential dinner theater company, Without a Cue. And the neighborhood continues to grow – a lot more residential development is happening there.
It’s an extremely safe neighborhood. You not only get the police, but also have the federal guards protecting our national treasures and monuments. You have two federal parks, Washington Square and Independence Mall, right next to us.
It’s a very active building, and it’s so big. I don’t think people realize all the things that are happening simultaneously. The tenants like being in there, whether residential or office or life science – they like the location.
It’s a great time to be Rich Gottlieb!
You know, I pick good friends and partners. When I met Bill Glazer, I said, that’s the guy I’m going to get very tight with and stay close to. It’s been a very important partnership for me.