A Philadelphia judge reversed a zoning board decision to grant zoning exceptions to a developer who says he needs them to preserve the Painted Bride Art Center’s signature mosaic as part of his apartment development.
The Philadelphia Common Pleas Court judge agreed with some neighbors that the mosaic in Old City could be preserved without allowing the developer to build taller and more densely than local zoning rules allow. Franklin Bridge North Neighbors, one of the registered community organizations for the area, is among the groups that appealed the August decision by the city’s Zoning Board of Adjustment.
The court ruling Tuesday was the latest chapter in a saga that dates back to 2017, when the arts center announced it wanted to sell the building, located in an area eyed by developers.
Judge Anne Marie B. Coyle wrote that the zoning board came to an “overreaching conclusion” in granting zoning variances and that there was not enough deliberation of alternative proposals for buildings that would both preserve the mural and stay within zoning parameters. She said the developer’s claims that he faced hardships because of the mural that should qualify him for zoning variances were “baseless,” and that he is free to demolish it if he wants. The zoning board’s decision to grant variances, Coyle said, was “an unequivocal abusive exercise of discretion.”
The zoning board also “disproportionately ignored compelling evidence of the critically negative impact that the proposed structure would naturally impose upon the surrounding neighborhood and buildings,” Coyle wrote.
Architect and developer Shimi Zakin of Atrium Design Group, who now owns the building, has said the zoning exceptions are necessary to move forward with his plan to incorporate the 7,000-square-foot mural by mosaic artist Isaiah Zagar into the development of an apartment building.
“The decision really affirms what we’d been saying all along,” said Harry B. Cook of Anastasio Law, an attorney who represents Franklin Bridge North Neighbors. “I think the developer offered a false choice. It was either this process or the mural’s gonna be demolished.”
“There’s other ways to save this mosaic,” he added. “It’s not that anyone in the neighborhood association wants it taken down.”
In Zakin’s plan for apartments, the group fears congested streets and setting a precedent for taller and more dense development in the popular neighborhood.
In other situations, Cook said, “murals have gone before the zoning board and the board has stated they don’t do aesthetics, it’s not part of their calculus.” The same should have been the case in this instance, he said.
In 2019, the city issued a zoning permit to Zakin to allow him to remove the Painted Bride building and construct 16 luxury townhouses. He changed his plans after talking with advocates in the arts.
Zakin closed on the sale of the Painted Bride building in April. His plans include 64 apartments at 230 Vine St. that would be built above the Painted Bride mural and would leave the mural walls unaltered. The apartment building would be 85 feet tall, which is 20 feet higher than local zoning allows without a variance.
Zakin can choose to appeal Tuesday’s decision to a higher court. On Wednesday, he said he is evaluating his options.
“We are shocked and disappointed by the court decision,” he said in a statement. “We believe that our proposed design was the appropriate response to the development of this site while keeping the [Painted Bride mural]. The language of the court decision is brutal and not sensitive to the planning issues of this site. We also feel sorry for all those who had hoped, as we have, to see this project happen, and who will feel the sense of loss.”
Cook’s law partner, Vern Anastasio, said efforts to tie the construction of apartments to the preservation of the mosaic “was a hostage situation,” where the Painted Bride mural was the hostage and the ransom “was a monster tower.”
Cary L. Rice and John S. Summers, attorneys at Hangley Aronchick Segal Pudlin & Schiller who initiated the appeal of the zoning board decision, said in a statement there was “no legal basis” for the apartment building as planned, “and we thank the Court for preserving the unique and historic character of Old City.”
“We are pleased that the Court stopped the development of a new apartment building at the Painted Bride site that substantially exceeded multiple local zoning requirements,” said the attorneys, who represent entities with ownership interests in the Chocolate Works apartment building down the block from the Painted Bride site.
Jerrold “Jim” Moss, an attorney with Astor Weiss Kaplan & Mandelwho represents Zagar, said in a statement that he and the artist are disappointed in the court’s decision but that it is up to Zakin what to do next.
“[Shimi] Zakin had received high praise for redesigning the project to create a handsome new building in a way that would also save the Zagar mosaic,” Moss said.