The city granted zoning variances Wednesday to allow a developer to build apartments in Old City that would preserve the Painted Bride Art Center’s signature mosaic.
Architect and developer Shimi Zakin has said the variances are necessary to ensure the feasibility of his plans to incorporate the 7,000-square-foot mural by mosaic artist Isaiah Zagar into the development of an apartment building.
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.
Zakin, of Atrium Design Group, called the project “an amazing collaboration between art and architecture, art and development.”
“We are all very happy and appreciate that the city is seeing eye to eye with us on this great design and great proposal,” he said.
The city’s Zoning Board of Adjustment is allowing Zakin to build his apartments 85 feet tall, which is 20 feet higher than local zoning allows without a variance. The project also can slightly exceed density limits.
The decision is subject to appeal. Neighborhood groups did not want the city to grant the zoning exceptions because some neighbors worry about scarce parking, congested streets, and setting a precedent that could invite other developers to build taller in the historic neighborhood.
About two years ago, the city issued a zoning permit to Zakin that would have allowed the developer to remove the Painted Bride building and construct 16 luxury townhouses measuring 65 feet tall at the site. After talking to advocates in the arts, he changed his plans.
Besides dealing with any potential appeal, the biggest next step for Zakin is to present his new design to Orphans’ Court and ask for approval to buy the Painted Bride building. The court previously had denied the sale.
Zakin’s current proposal would include 64 apartments built above the Painted Bride mosaic at 230 Vine St. and would leave the mural walls unaltered.
“It just makes so much sense, I think,” said Emily Smith, executive director of the nonprofit arts group Philadelphia’s Magic Gardens, which preserves and provides access to Zagar mosaics. “So it feels like such a relief.”
Smith spoke with the artist soon after hearing the news Wednesday morning. “He was screaming with happiness,” she said. “And he said, ‘Well, now we need to get to work.’”
Her organization has an extensive restoration and preservation plan for the mosaics that has been years in the making.
“We couldn’t be happier to get to work and do everything we’ve been talking about doing for the last couple of years,” she said.
In a written closing argument submitted to the zoning board before its decision, lawyers for the Franklin Bridge North Neighbors Association rejected the idea that the plan for apartments was the only one that works financially for the developer and called the development “a vanity project.”
They argued that alternative, shorter designs could also preserve the mosaic, such as townhouses behind a freestanding mural.
“The proposal provides for a structure that is too tall,” lawyers Vern Anastasio and Harry Cook wrote. “While other recent developments in the neighborhood match or exceed the height of this proposal, none are similarly situated mid-block on a small east-to-west street adjacent to at-risk historic structures not exceeding 38 feet.”
Zakin’s lawyer, Michael Mattioni, wrote in his closing arguments that the variances “will allow the preservation of one of the works that make Old City the desirable community that it has become, transitioning from an artist enclave to vibrant residential and mixed-use community.”