Her towering compromise
It started out looking like another Phila. development debacle, but Dalia Shuster found a way.
By Joseph A. Slobodzian
Inquirer Staff Writer
Sometime in June construction crews will break ground for Parkway22, a 35-story condominium complex behind the Rodin Museum that will recast the vista between the Art Museum and City Hall.
When plans for the luxury condo tower first became public two years ago, few people would have bet it would become reality.
Not Dalia Shuster.
"I'm very proud of the way we conducted this. We lost nothing," said Shuster, 50, CEO of her own international real estate development company, Naveh-Shuster.
Shuster describes the story of Parkway22 as an example of the patience and strategy needed by developers. It's a description that belies the toughness developed as a captain and commander of an otherwise all-male medical unit in the Israeli Army, and from 30 years in the male-dominated construction industry - the last decade as a widowed mother of three running an international company with interests in Israel, Eastern Europe and the United States.
Nor was the Parkway22 tale as simple as Shuster describes it.
Shuster overcame strong, early opposition from Spring Garden neighbors, including powerful Democratic state Sen. Vincent J. Fumo.
She weathered several contentious hearings before the city Zoning Board of Adjustment to obtain permits to develop a property her lawyers insisted she had an unquestionable right to build on under current zoning.
And she spent another year - and a half-million dollars - so her architects could modify the tower's plans after consulting with a local architects living in Spring Garden.
The result was a tower 12 stories shorter than originally proposed, along with a mix of lofts and a row of Victorian-style townhouses on Spring Garden Street - and community acceptance instead of time-consuming litigation.
"She really surprised me very, very much," said Joseph Beller, a lawyer who has specialized in zoning for more than four decades.
Hired by Spring Garden civic groups and residents to challenge Shuster's plans, Beller ended up joining Shuster's attorney, Neil Sklaroff, to present city officials with a "global settlement" of the dispute.
Beller said he was surprised when Shuster suggested that he, Sklaroff and architects for both sides meet and come up with a compromise.
"I've been doing this for more than 40 years and I can tell you that not many developers would be able to step back and let the professionals handle it," Beller said. "She is a strong woman and it takes a strong person to stop, put the car in reverse and decide to take a new route."
Shuster jokes about her decision to step away from the Spring Garden talks.
"Lawyers, please be to God, keep me far from them," she laughed in accented English.
Shuster said that at that first community meeting in March 2006, she put aside the anger being directed toward her development team and listened to what was being said.
"I said to myself, 'Dalia, this is only a political issue. There's no other reason to object to this project.' What looks better, an old hotel or new development that much enhanced the site?"
If Beller was surprised by Shuster's methodical, "laid-back" attitude, it seems very much part of the approach of a very long-term investor.
Consider the Best Western Motel property - site of the Parkway22 complex - which Shuster bought for $2.75 million in October 1993, long before the Center City Renaissance and almost four years before the real estate-tax abatement program for new construction that helped spark Philadelphia's building boom.
"When we purchased this hotel, not many people, investors, believed in Philadelphia," said Shuster, in a recent interview at the Parkway22 sales office carved out of the motel property. "No tax abatement, no bonuses. We come with our vision and our belief. . . . We bring ourselves, we invest our money."
Shuster says she and her late husband, Zvi, bought the motel always intending to develop it as a condo tower - even if they had to wait for Philadelphia and the real estate market to catch up.
In the meantime, Shuster said, she invested $1.6 million to upgrade the property and make it an income-generator.
It's a strategy Shuster has practiced elsewhere.
With her family in construction, Shuster said she and her husband - he died in 1998 - founded their own real estate development firm 30 years ago in Tel Aviv.
After 10 years, she said, they decided to try investing abroad, focusing on the United States.
"We believed in the United States economy . . . and we have a lot of respect for the American support of the Israelis. So our first thought was to invest in a friendly country," Shuster explained.
They began their quest in 1988 more like a young couple looking for their first house than international investors: They rented a car, started driving and made notes on properties that interested them.
But the Shusters didn't buy a thing until 1993.
"Some American people started to laugh: 'You just spend your time and you don't pick nothing,' " Shuster recalled.
But in 1993 the years of research paid off and the Shusters bought properties in New York, New Jersey, Connecticut and Philadelphia.
Philadelphia, she said, seemed like a natural place to invest because of its links to U.S. history and location midway between New York and Washington.
Among the Philadelphia purchases: the Best Western motel; a 160-unit apartment complex, Townhomes of Regency Place on Woodhaven Road in the Northeast; and an old clothing factory at 1238 Callowhill St.
In the late '90s the factory was converted into 64 condos and renamed the Beaux Arts Lofts, then the first residential growth in years in the old industrial zone east of Broad Street between Spring Garden and Vine.
"In that time nobody believed, or even knew what the loft look was," Shuster added. "But it was very great project and very profitable."
Shuster has three grown children: a 27-year old daughter who is a lawyer, a daughter, 25, and a son, 23, who are both in school. All three are likely to follow her into the business in some way.
Since Zvi's death, Shuster's firm, by all accounts, has prospered, developing luxury condominiums and nursing homes in Israel and Eastern Europe.
Shuster said she credits much of her leadership skills to the two years she spent in the Israeli Army in the mid-1960s, when she was a captain in an otherwise all-male medical unit.
The experience, she said, cultivated a sense of adventure and risk-taking that coalesced on her first visit to New York in 1988, when she went to Nike's flagship store.
"It was a very nice advertising film. And in the end, with all the high-volume music around, was 'Just do it!' "
"I will never forget this moment in my life," Shuster said. "I said, 'Dalia, if you believe, just do it.' "