Sara Appleby and Joseph Ross are getting married May 19.
But two weeks ago, and less than a month before their scheduled I-dos — photographer, flowers and food all settled — they got a call: The Fishtown venue they'd booked nearly two years prior was closing.
With guests flying in from as far as Scotland, rescheduling wasn't an option. A friend who's an event coordinator helped them find a new space the following day.
But as Appleby, 26, and Ross, 32, continue to sweat the details, they still haven't recouped their $12,000 deposit.
The couple were told their original venue, Skybox Event Center at 2424 E. York St., was shutting down due to a recent neighborhood spat related to zoning.
Instead, city records reveal a lengthy saga in which the Skybox owner has for years battled for the permissions needed to operate large events out of the space, which is in a residential area. Throughout that time, the owner continued to schedule and host events without the license to do so.
Others who booked events — often years ago — to take place at Skybox in 2018, including at least three engaged couples, are similarly out of luck. Skybox owner Chris Voz has gone dark. Some who booked events have attempted to get back thousands of dollars in deposits, to no avail. One of the property owners, Scott Janzen, said Voz is in default on his lease, which he plans to terminate, and Voz won't be operating events out of the space any longer.
In fact, no one will be. Despite recent efforts by building owners to take over the space in partnership with another tenant for banquets and church services, the Zoning Board of Adjustment denied the variance April 25 that neighbors had protested for months. Janzen said he won't appeal the decision, and he's looking to turn Skybox into a coworking space.
"The ZBA was conclusive, the neighborhood was adamant," said Janzen, who bought the building with co-owner Peter Bloomfield in December 2014. "And we have a different perspective than the neighborhood. But there's no point in continuing the fight."
Efforts to reach Voz were unsuccessful. (Though he does business as Voz, a 2016 tax lien and other legal actions filed against the diner he also owned indicate his name is Christos Aivazoglou.) Jordan Rushie, a Philadelphia attorney who represented Voz through court proceedings this spring, also didn't respond to a request for comment. The listed phone number for the Skybox Event Center is not in service.
Skybox Productions, which was incorporated in 2009 and has hosted weddings, parties and other banquets, operated two venues (the Skybox and the smaller Joia Room, which also won't hold any more events) inside 2424 Studios, a 19th-century former factory building in Fishtown that's home to dozens of businesses, including attorneys, media companies and real estate agents.
Appleby and Ross booked their wedding and reception in the summer of 2016. Yet Skybox's Special Assembly and Occupancy License — a license required for gathering spaces with dancing and more than 50 people — expired in August 2015, said Karen Guss, an L&I spokeswoman.
Janzen said the lease provided that it was Voz's obligation to maintain the required licenses. Guss said while there may be a private owner-tenant arrangement, the code is written to require that "as property owners, these are your responsibilities."
Nearly two years went by before L&I cited Skybox in June 2017 for failing to obtain that license, and that August, L&I served Skybox with a cease-operations order. Shortly thereafter, Skybox filed with the city to obtain the licensing it would need but was unsuccessful. So, to honor those events that were booked prior to the cease operations order, Voz, in August, November and March, obtained extensions and court permissions to maintain operations.
The last time that happened, on March 16, Voz won an emergency injunction allowing him to host two weddings scheduled for the following day and March 24. Court records show his attorney argued that the weddings had been planned many years in advance. The judge ordered Skybox pay a $10,000 fine to operate those events, and the city stood down.
One of those weddings was Jenna and Dan Garrison's. But Jenna said the venue never informed her the city had threatened to shut down her March 17 wedding, necessitating an eleventh-hour court order. Ditto for Meghan McClurg, who got married the following weekend and said she wasn't told either.
While Voz was winning in court to continue hosting his prescheduled events, Janzen and Bloomfield teamed up with Liberti Church East, its tenant at 2424 Studios, to seek a zoning variance that would allow them to legally operate the events space. (Despite Voz's holding an occupancy permit through 2015, the space was never zoned properly for events of more than 50 people that include dancing.) The process required property owners and church leaders, who wanted to use Skybox as a nonprofit, to meet with the neighbors association.
In December 2017, neighbors who attended the Fishtown Neighbors Association's zoning committee meeting shot down the proposal for reasons including concerns about noise and parking.
Alanna Ralph, a Fishtown native who owns Salon Blush across the street from 2424 Studios, helped lead the charge. She estimates she called the police 30 times over the last several years to report disturbances, whether it was valet lines snarling traffic or intoxicated partygoers spilling out and fighting after midnight.
Sgt. John Massi, a patrol supervisor with the Philadelphia Police 26th District, wrote in an April letter to the zoning board that he'd received complaints about Skybox for the last five years. He wrote that "a significant amount" of police resources were expended to handle the "unruly crowds and poor management of this building."
Ralph said the community wasn't necessarily against the church taking over the space. Neighbors were instead frustrated with building owners who they said misled the community in a December letter that assured them Voz wouldn't host any more events there, she said.
In April, building owners and Liberti Church East presented a second, new proposal to hold smaller events at the space. Ian Wilson, the neighborhood association president, said the community didn't feel its concerns "were adequately addressed."
The zoning board denied the request April 25.
The day after, an event coordinator delivered the news to Appleby and Ross.
Others who booked events through Skybox are working to get their deposits back. Dana Pidliskey and Matt Chin, an engaged couple from Bloomfield, N.J., in January 2017 booked their November 2018 wedding reception to take place at the Skybox, and family put down a $3,000 deposit.
Last fall, the couple were told renovations would take place, making them uneasy about what the venue might look like for their reception. Then, in February, they noticed something odd: Skybox's website no longer existed, and calls and e-mails to the owner went unanswered.
At the beginning of March, they drove on a whim to Philadelphia to see the space, where they found a notice on the building indicating Skybox was seeking new zoning.
"There was two months of complete stress," Pidliskey said, "where we were pulling out our hair."
The couple secured another venue. They've attempted to reach Voz and have not heard back. They are now looking at legal options to get back their deposit.
A third couple is facing a similar problem — but they haven't yet booked a new venue for the August wedding they scheduled to take place at Skybox. The groom-to-be, a 31-year-old from the Philadelphia area, did not want to be identified to avoid attention during a stressful time. He and his fiance found out in March that Skybox wouldn't be able to host their wedding and have since been unable to get back the $3,000 deposit they put down after booking in early 2017.
The couple is looking at other venues, and may be forced to change their wedding date.
Meanwhile, Appleby and Ross are moving forward. Even though they only had three weeks' notice, they're getting married next Saturday at the National Museum of American Jewish History. Di Bruno Bros. is catering.
The couple have filed a complaint with the state Attorney General's Bureau of Consumer Protection to try to reclaim the money they're out.
"They had so many opportunities to tell us that this was a potential issue," Appleby said. "To wait until three weeks before and then disappear, it's crazy that a business owner would do that."