Amid sound and fury, Historical Commission approves Feibush Cafe

A surprise — and quite dramatic — appearance by the City’s Chief Integrity Officer, Joan Markman, capped the Historical Commission meeting on Friday morning. Ms. Markman was the last to testify in a case involving the renovations that developer Ori Feibush has made to an individually designated 1898 factory building in the Spring Garden Historic District. Feibush opened a cafe in the spot at 2100 Fairmount Avenue earlier this year.

Feibush and his attorney, Carl Primavera, appeared before the Commission to offer more details on a compromise plan he had presented late last month to the Commission’s Architectural Committee. Commissioner Dominique Hawkins, who chairs the Architectural Committee, said that he had satisfactorily addressed the Committee’s concerns and that she was ready to motion for approval, with the caveat that Feibush find a less obtrusive way of attaching exterior folding gates to the extant but (not original) garage doors. Feibush said he’d like to keep them for their industrial aesthetic.

Then all hell broke lose. A chorus of opponents to the modifications took the mike. Kevin McMahon, preservationist with Powers & Co., speaking on behalf of the neighbors, questioned whether standards set for a storefront should even be considered since the building was not built for that purpose. He also had the, dare we say, temerity, to claim that Commission executive director Jonathan Farnham’s examples of precedents that had been approved by the Commission — such as a storefront at 1602 Spruce — were “really not true,” or comparable.

Other neighbors said the alterations were “substandard”and a “desecration” that “defaced” the facade. The new executive director of the Preservation Alliance, Caroline Boyce, read from a lengthy and strongly worded statement that alluded to Feibush’s propensity to grab without asking.

The proceedings had a faint tinge of the hatchet job about them, with several speakers asking that a business not be given special treatment when so many homeowners are routinely called to task before the Commission.

And then Markman addressed the Commission, saying that while she lived in the neighborhood — and indeed had enjoyed Feibush’s cafe — she felt compelled to speak in her official capacity. She said she had no opinion on the matters under discussion but was “just concerned about the process” of the meeting, echoing the sentiment that Feibush be held to the same standards that the homeowners who had appeared earlier in the meeting.

At this point Primavera jumped up, voicing his “objection” to what he termed “heavy-handed” comments that were offensive to the “bar” (he tried to pressure Markman into admitting that she is an attorney) and to the Commission. Declaring that “they protest too much.” he asked, “What’s going on here?”

Commission Chair Sam Sherman calmed him down, while Commissioner John Mattioni said, “I am personally offended — but we can take care of ourselves.” Turning to Markman, he added, “I believe you are out of line and if you are here at the Mayor’s request, I believe he is out of line.” (After the meeting,  both the Alliance and McMahon told PlanPhilly that they had not asked Markman to appear and she, too, emphasized that “none of these people knew I was coming.” She had initially come out of curiosity after reading an email from a neighborhood group, she said.)

As always, Commission co-chair Sara Merriman struck a graceful chord, explaining that the “key difference” between the homeowners who had earlier presented and Feibush was that his appearance was “about getting to a place where he can fix the violations.” Commissioner Hawkins picked up on that, saying that while Feibush had proceeded illegally, he had “moved a long way” toward making amends, and she pointed out that the storefront had already been “extraordinarily altered” prior to his occupying the space. With that, she restated her motion, adding that the Commission staff should review all details of any revisions, and the application received unanimous approval.

It was a stormy end to an otherwise mundane lineup of cases, which had resulted in three denials and one tie, broken by Commissioner Sherman. That case concerned a proposal to install a parking pad in the “character-defining” open space of a home in Girard Estates. Commissioner Mattioni recused himself from the discussion because his law firm represents the applicants in the matter.

The applicants initially appeared before the Commission in 2008 and received a denial for the pad; when Commissioner Merriman inquired about the differences now, attorney Maryanne Huha Finegan noted that the applicants had a set of architectural plans. She also said that they planned to add shrubs and greenery to the site to preserve its open space character.

Commissioner Hawkins observed that using the space for parking was “intrinsically different” from its intended use — say, for barbecuing — but Commissioner Richardson Dilworth III questioned the “appropriateness” of such thinking. “What if we were talking about a removable object?” he asked. “What if it was a sculpture of a car?” Commissioner David Schaaf scoffed at the speculation, noting that a car involves crossing the public right of way via a curb cut.

Commissioner Dilworth next made a motion of approval, which resulted in a tie of 5-5; Commissioner Sherman broke it by adding his “aye” vote to the tally.

The two cases which began the meeting concerned modifications made to individually designated homes in Washington Square West. The first involved the demolition of what the applicant said were concrete steps and the replacement of them with brick ones. His request for legalization was unanimously denied.

The second concerned facade alterations, including the addition of star bolts, a stucco base, and a storm door and alterations to the steps, windows, sills and lintels. In concurring with the Architectural Committee’s recommendations, the Commission unanimously approved the legalization of the new additions and denied the alterations.

A third application sought to legalize vinyl windows installed on an individually designated 1860 home in North Philadelphia. The Commission denied the request but allowed for the gradual replacement of the windows at a pace of three per year to spread the cost of bringing the building into compliance.

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