Philadelphia real estate icon Ronald Rubin, a major player in the local Jewish community, died April 12 at his Penn Valley home. He was 89.
“Ronnie was the best of the great men I’ve known, not because of what he did, but because of who he was,” said his longtime friend Steve Cozen, founder and chairman of Cozen O’Connor law firm.
“His goodness, morals and ethics and love of family really defined him. He was a world-class mensch.”
In the real estate world, Rubin was known for his role with PREIT, the region’s largest mall landlord, as well for founding the Center City District in 1991, which made the city a cleaner, safer place.
A signature moment for Rubin, though, occurred in the mid-1970s after the pneumonia-like disease that came to be known as Legionnaires’ disease killed 29 people staying at the Bellevue Stratford Hotel on Broad Street in Center City. Then-Mayor Frank Rizzo wanted the building destroyed.
But Rubin — whose father Richard, a Ukranian immigrant, got his first job delivering shoes from a high-end shoe store to guests at the Bellevue — intervened, lining up a consortium of banks that helped him buy and renovate the Renaissance-style hotel. In 1979, the hotel reopened, and Rubin redeveloped it years later to better suit market needs with fewer rooms and more office space.
He also was involved in preserving the PSFS building a few blocks away on Market Street.
Another Rubin project involved building the 54-story BNY Mellon Center at 1735 Market St.
In 1997, when the Pennsylvania Real Estate Investment Trust bought the Rubin Organization, which was founded by his father, Rubin became CEO.
During his tenure, PREIT bought the Gallery at Market East, which was revamped in recent years as Fashion District Philadelphia. PREIT also renovated the Cherry Hill Mall and counted Willow Grove Park and the Moorestown and Plymouth Meeting Malls among its properties.
Rubin was PREIT’s CEO through 2012 and stepped down as executive chairman in 2016 — although he still maintained an office afterward.
“It’s the nature of the beast,” he told the Jewish Exponent in 2016. “I’m a participant. I like to be in the game.”
A native of West Philadelphia, he graduated from West Philadelphia High School, where he was voted class comedian. Then he was off to Pennsylvania State University, but he didn’t last there.
“When he flunked out of Penn State, my father was furious and helped him get a job on the packing line of a sweater factory,” sister Judith Garfinkel said. “Not long afterward, just before he was getting ready to marry Marcia Miller, my father invited him to join the family business, a small brokerage with just my father and a secretary. When Ronnie got into the office, he blew the walls off. He found his niche.”
Aside from his involvement in shaping Center City, Rubin was a steady presence in the Jewish community, including service as president of the board of trustees of the Jewish Federation of Greater Philadelphia from 1978-80, time on numerous committees and nearly 50 years as a board member.
“I’m certainly a practicing Jew,” he said in a 2012 Exponent interview. “I don’t want to say I’m holier than thou. I believe in the basics. My business career — my life — is all based on relationships, and ultimately all relationships, if they have any meaning, are based on trust. I try to impart that culture in my business. Building relationships is everything. I don’t know whether that’s a Jewish ethic. But it certainly has driven my life.”
Past Jewish Federation President Mimi Schneirov, also a longtime Jewish Federation board member, saw Rubin’s relationship building in practice many times.
“I can remember many meetings where there were difficult decisions to make … but he could bring everyone together … to him, relationships were everything,” she said, adding that when things got tense, Rubin could tell stories that lightened the mood and got things back on track.
Rubin used that touch with everyone he met, Schneirov said. She recalled returning from a lunch one day when a panhandler approached them. Not only did Rubin give the man money, but he struck up a conversation as well.
Rubin also was ahead of his time in his treatment of women, Schneirov said, detailing how he appointed her to be the first woman to head one of Jewish Federation’s allocation committees, before she became the overall organization’s first female president.
Rubin was honored at the National Museum of American Jewish History’s Only in America Gala in 2016, which featured a performance by Andrea Bocelli. Rubin served as a trustee and co-chairman of the museum and helped see the construction of the Market Street building from the ground up.
“They’re so excited about Bocelli. I said Bocelli is going to make a speech, and I’m going to sing,” Rubin joked in the 2016 Exponent interview.
Cozen said NMAJH likely wouldn’t have happened without Rubin’s help.
“He found and bought the site at Fifth and Market,” he said. “From the very beginning, he was a huge proponent.”
When NMAJH’s founding chairperson, George Ross, died shortly after the museum opened, Rubin stepped into the breach, museum CEO Misha Galperin said, and he noted that Rubin’s close relationship with then-Vice President Joe Biden resulted in Biden cutting the museum’s opening-day ribbon.
Rubin was active with the museum even in his final days as his health declined, according to Galperin.
“His attitude toward it was that it was just another challenge you need to overcome,” Galperin said. “He’s an inspiration. You don’t replace him — you hope other people step in.”
Rubin’s other leadership roles included a stint as chairman of the Greater Philadelphia Chamber of Commerce, and he was on the boards of the Franklin Institute, the Philadelphia Orchestra, Albert Einstein Medical Center, Tel Aviv University, American Friends of Hebrew University, Continental Bank Midlantic Bank, PECO Energy Corp., Exelon Corp., University of the Arts, the United Jewish Appeal, the Kimmel Center and the Regional Performing Arts Center.
“When my brother committed himself to a cause, he was focused and passionate about achieving it,” younger brother George Rubin said. “He was a relentless networker as he reached out to the people who could offer support.”
Rubin is survived by his wife Marcia (née Miller), son William P. Rubin (Elizabeth Merryman), daughter Susan L. Rubin, sister Judith Garfinkel (Marvin), brother George Rubin, a grandson, two step-grandchildren, a niece and several nephews.
Gloria Hochman contributed to this report.