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New plans for a short-term rental building would demolish the Painted Bride’s signature mural in Old City

In June, a Philadelphia judge rejected the developer's plans for apartments that would have preserved the Painted Bride Art Center's signature mosaic by artist Isaiah Zagar in Old City.

This file photo shows Isaiah Zagar's mural on the exterior of the Painted Bride Art Center in Old City as it looked in 2010. The mural is currently covered and could be demolished under a proposal to build a restaurant and short-term rentals at the site.
This file photo shows Isaiah Zagar's mural on the exterior of the Painted Bride Art Center in Old City as it looked in 2010. The mural is currently covered and could be demolished under a proposal to build a restaurant and short-term rentals at the site.Read moreSharon Gekoski-Kimmel / Staff Photographer

The Painted Bride Art Center’s signature mosaic seemed doomed, then saved, and now it seems doomed again.

A developer’s various plans to redevelop the center’s site in Old City have included luxury townhouses that would have demolished the building’s mosaic and apartments that would have preserved it. The first plan was opposed by arts advocates, and the second was blocked by a handful of neighbors and a Philadelphia judge.

Now, the developer, architect Shimi Zakin of Atrium Design Group, has proposed demolishing the building and its mural at 230 Vine St. and constructing a six-story building with 110 short-term rental units, a restaurant or other commercial space on the first floor, amenity space, balconies, and two roof decks.

» READ MORE: A Philly judge reversed a zoning board decision to allow apartments atop the Painted Bride mosaic

The proposal for short-term rentals is the latest turn in a fight that began in 2017 over the future of the closed Painted Bride Art Center building and its 7,000-square-foot mural by artist Isaiah Zagar, which is in a location that has grown more valuable and attracted developers. Over years of legal battles, various judges blocked and allowed the sale of the building.

Before the pivot to all short-term rentals, Zakin had proposed 64 apartments and 10 short-term rentals, which would have hovered over and preserved the mural. He said that preserving the work would be financially feasible only if he received permission from the city to build taller and more densely than local zoning rules allowed. The city’s Zoning Board of Adjustment granted him that permission in August 2021.

The plan for apartments replaced Zakin’s original proposal to tear down the building and build 16 luxury townhouses. After talking with advocates in the arts, he changed his plans and worked to preserve the mural.

» READ MORE: Painted Bride mosaics saved with Philly’s approval of a new apartment building

Zakin closed on the sale of the property last April, working with Groom Investments LLC, the current owner of the property. Zakin intended to move forward with a seven-story apartment building with commercial space on the ground floor. He told The Inquirer that as an architect, he was excited for the challenge of hovering his new building over the mural and preserving the work.

But owners of the Chocolate Works apartment building down the block and some other neighbors appealed the Zoning Board of Adjustment’s decision.

In June, a Philadelphia Common Pleas Court judge reversed the zoning board’s decision and agreed with some neighbors that the mosaic could be preserved without allowing exceptions to the zoning code. In response, lawyers who initiated the appeal told The Inquirer they were thankful to the court “for preserving the unique and historic character of Old City.”

Now Zakin has proposed new plans for the site. At a virtual neighborhood meeting to discuss the proposal Monday night, Zakin said the San Francisco-based hospitality company Sonder has a lease to operate the short-term rental units.

» READ MORE: The Painted Bride Art Center has been sold with its signature mosaic intact

The property’s zoning designation allows the short-term rental building, but the developer needs zoning exceptions for the roof decks. A meeting before the Zoning Board of Adjustment is scheduled for June 7.

At Monday’s meeting, Robert Gurmankin, president of the local registered community organization Franklin Bridge North Neighbors, said he is concerned that Sonder does not plan to staff the building at all hours of the day and detailed some of the problems with noise, parties, and police activity at other short-term rentals in the neighborhood.

He said he thinks the short-term rental industry “has outpaced” what city government planned for and worried about 110 more units, but he acknowledged that the developer has the right to build the short-term rental building under the zoning code.

Emily Smith, executive director of the nonprofit arts group Philadelphia’s Magic Gardens, which preserves and provides access to Zagar mosaics, said the planned destruction of the Painted Bride mosaic was a case of “NIMBY-ism at its most tragic” and said “no one wins here.” The group had been working with Zakin to preserve the artwork in a “project that could have been really incredible,” she said.

The new proposal, Smith said, is “in direct response to a small handful of neighbors that didn’t want this project to go forward.” She called the proposed demolition of the mural “completely avoidable” and “completely senseless.”

She said she thinks Philadelphians will “be looking back in shame about what happened.”

She said the five-year fight over the Painted Bride “rallied people into a bigger conversation about community art and public space.” Smith said she worried that with the loss of works such as this one, the city was losing its “uniqueness” and “quirkiness.” She doesn’t have much hope that the mural will be preserved.

“But again, you never know. This has been a crazy story,” Smith said. “Every time I think something is set in stone, things change.”