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Fate of Painted Bride’s mosaic remains uncertain as developer pursues zoning exceptions

The Painted Bride Art Center announced in 2017 that it would sell its Old City building, which is in an area coveted by developers. Current plans for apartments preserve the mural.

This view of the proposed apartment building on Vine Street shows how the new apartments would hover over the existing, one-story Painted Bride building, preserving its mosaics by artist Isaiah Zagar.
This view of the proposed apartment building on Vine Street shows how the new apartments would hover over the existing, one-story Painted Bride building, preserving its mosaics by artist Isaiah Zagar.Read moreAtrium Design Group

A developer’s plans for an apartment building that would preserve the Painted Bride Art Center’s signature mosaic are still up in the air as the zoning process that will decide the mural’s fate drags on.

Architect and developer Shimi Zakin ditched early plans to demolish the Old City building and construct townhouses in favor of building apartments that would incorporate the 7,000-square-foot mural by mosaic artist Isaiah Zagar. Zakin, of Atrium Design Group, is seeking several zoning variances that he argues are necessary to make the project — and the preservation of the mural — feasible.

The local neighborhood association, Franklin Bridge North Neighbors Inc., opposes the zoning variances. The group has said the apartment building would be too tall, parking would be too scarce, and streets would be too congested. Members have said they would rather see luxury townhouses at the site in line with Zakin’s original plan.

» READ MORE: This developer has a plan to save the Painted Bride’s mosaic. The neighborhood wants to stop him. | Inga Saffron

Emily Smith, the executive director of the nonprofit arts group Philadelphia’s Magic Gardens, convinced Zakin that the mosaic was special and has called his revised plans and preservation of the mural a “win-win-win.” The nonprofit preserves and provides access to Zagar mosaics at its location on South Street and elsewhere.

At a Zoning Board hearing Tuesday, Zakin reiterated his position that he would like to keep the mural but that doing so is a hardship that entitles him to zoning exceptions. He estimates that preserving the mural will add $2 million to the cost of his project.

“I was humbled by the amount of support that we were able to get from not just neighbors and people in the city of Philadelphia but other people who are very actively working and writing about architecture and design in the small architecture and design community in Philadelphia,” Zakin said at the hearing, which was continued from April.

The hearing is scheduled to resume Aug. 3.

» READ MORE: Potential sale of the Painted Bride building is back in court (from September 2020)

Zakin’s seven-story apartment building would be 85 feet tall, which is 20 feet higher than allowed in the neighborhood without a variance. The project also slightly exceeds density limits. The Zoning Board also would have to allow the Painted Bride building to continue covering the site.

Zakin’s plans for the property leave the mural walls unaltered and call for the construction of 64 housing units above the mosaic at 230 Vine St. The project would feature roof decks, an internal courtyard, 10 short-term rental units, 12 off-street parking spaces, and bicycle storage. A commercial space would occupy the ground floor facing Vine Street. A small art gallery would connect the public and private spaces.

Vern Anastasio, a lawyer representing the neighborhood association, argued that Zakin has no hardship that would entitle him to zoning variances because he already has a zoning permit — issued about two years ago — for the removal of the Painted Bride building and the construction of 16 townhouses that would measure 65 feet tall. So if the current plan to preserve the mosaic is too costly or complex, he said, the developer is free to pivot to his original plan.

» READ MORE: Court blocks sale of Painted Bride, citing ‘priceless’ mosaic facade (from September 2019)

Robert Gurmankin, president of Franklin Bridge North Neighbors, said he worried that the granting of variances for the Painted Bride project may set a precedent in the historic neighborhood that would invite other developers to build taller.

“I can’t speak for everyone in our neighborhood, but I think most people would like to see [the mosaic] preserved but with something closer to the zoning code,” he said.

Gary Vernick, a homeowner who lives across the street, said he has “grown to love the mural.”

“I think it’s a wonderful addition to the neighborhood,” he said. “But not at the expense of the neighborhood’s welfare and well-being.”

» READ MORE: Painted Bride sale may proceed, judges say, but Isaiah Zagar murals may not be doomed (from October 2020)

The fate of the mosaic has been uncertain since the arts center announced in 2017 that it wanted to sell its building, which is in an area coveted by developers.

In October, a panel of Commonwealth Court judges said the sale of the arts center’s building could move forward. An earlier ruling from a Philadelphia Orphans’ Court judge had blocked the sale, saying it would most likely mean the destruction of the mosaics. Lawyers representing Zagar, the artwork’s creator, have asked the Pennsylvania Supreme Court to hear the case.

Philadelphia’s Magic Gardens has agreed to restore and maintain the mosaic if the city approves Zakin’s plans. Smith, the executive director, said the apartment building’s overhang “protects the mural in a way it’s never been protected before.”