Isaiah Zagar’s Painted Bride mosaic could survive in new plan for Old City site

Architectural rendering of the apartment building proposal for the Painted Bride site from Atrium Design Group (Courtesy of Atrium Design Group)

Architectural rendering of the apartment building proposal for the Painted Bride site from Atrium Design Group (Courtesy of Atrium Design Group)

Old City’s memorable Painted Bride mosaic could live on after all.

The latest plans to redevelop the 230 Vine St. home of the Painted Bride include the iconic Isaiah Zagar tilework, marking a departure from past plans to tear down the mosaic.

Developer Shimi Zakin of Atrium Design Group, which is under agreement to buy the building, released the new plan in the wake of a Commonwealth Court ruling that overturned a 2019 court decision that would have blocked the sale of the performance and gallery space if it meant the destruction of the artwork. The colorful Painted Bride mosaic is one of 200 recognized Zagar pieces throughout Philadelphia and the world.

Under the mosaic-saving proposal, Atrium would build 70 residential units, 10 short-term rentals and ground-floor commercial space in a 85-foot building. The development would exceed the historic neighborhood’s 65-feet height limit and cover more of the lot than is allowed under zoning regulations.

In addition to the building, the developer has proposed 12 parking spaces and 44 bicycle parking spaces.

The city’s Department of Licenses and Inspection denied Atrium a permit in November, telling the developer that Philadelphia Zoning Board of Adjustment would have to approve a variance  to account for the height and floor-area ratio of the proposed building. The ZBA hearing hasn’t yet been scheduled but Thursday, the developer expects to present the plan to Franklin Bridge North Neighbors, the registered community organization. The ZBA requires applicants to present plans to local RCOs and take community support into account when making decisions.

Even without the variance, Zakin could move forward with plans to build a 16-unit building with 16 parking spaces. He said he went back and created a proposal that would preserve the mosaic in a larger structure because of the upswell of opposition to the prior plan that would have destroyed the mosaic.

Just last month, another developer made national headlines when it whitewashed a mural of Gloria Casarez, a Latina LGBTQ activist who helped advance rights for queer people Philadelphians. As new construction reshapes many parts of the city, developers are increasingly facing hard questions about what to do about murals and other public artworks that affix buildings. Zakin said he was cognizant of the conflict and trying to do right.

“We’re trying to be good neighbors,” he said. “We’re trying to listen to people around us and to at least try.”

The Painted Bride decided to sell the building as part of a strategic shift. The aging Old City building had become too costly a burden for an arts nonprofit to maintain and that the organization’s future is nomadic, with its art moving around the city or shared remotely, executive director Laurel Raczka said.

2020 made the Bride even more confident in the decision to sell.

“To be a nimble organization is very wise because we’re able to pivot when buildings aren’t being utilized,” Raczka said.

Neighbors fear ‘precedent’

Robert Gurmankin, president of Franklin Bridge North Neighbors, said the developers contacted the group in December because of the city’s refusal to issue a permit. The group’s zoning committee met with them last Monday to go over the project.

“One of the big concerns was that they want to go 20 feet higher than what the zoning laws currently allow,” Gurmankin said. “The concern is the size but also it might set a precedent for future developments.”

Gurmankin said he’s heard of people in the neighborhood falling into three camps so far. There are those who love the mosaic and are fine with anything that’s proposed as long as it’s preserved. Others don’t care at all about the mosaic, and then there’s many who like the mosaic but worry about height and long-term upkeep.

“Strictly speaking for myself, I like the building but I do have concerns. If they could build within the zoning code at 65 feet, I’d be all for it, assuming they could give some assurances about the long-term viability of the mosaic,” he said.

Gurmankin said he thinks neighbors are likely to challenge the proposed building height.

“If our community decides that we don’t want to go along with the variance they seek and they don’t build this building and the mosaic gets torn down, our community will be seen as the bad guy,” he said.

He said the conflict between Zagar and his supporters and the Painted Bride put nearby residents in a bind.

“We’re in the middle of the Painted Bride seeking to get the maximum return so they can go on with their programs and then the art community that wants to keep the mosaic,” Gurmankin said. “Ultimately, our neighbors that live on the street have to live with whatever gets built.”

Isaiah Zagar did not respond to requests for comment.

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