PhilaMOCA set to reopen in its home, owned by celeb DJ Diplo and now legit

PhilaMOCA will celebrate its 10th anniversary by reopening its doors to the public after a long city-imposed hiatus.

The exterior of PhilaMOCA

PhilaMOCA is located on North 12th Street in a former mausoleum and tombstone showroom. (Courtesy of PhilaMOCA)

The Philadelphia Mausoleum of Contemporary Art will celebrate its 10th anniversary by reopening its doors to the public after a long city-imposed hiatus.

The beloved arts venue known as PhilaMOCA won a special exception from the city’s Zoning Board of Adjustment on Wednesday morning, and the indie institution’s manager expects to be fully operational again by April.

PhilaMOCA’s troubles began in September when representatives from the city’s Department of Licenses and Inspections showed up in the middle of a concert.

“They said, ‘you are zoned as an art gallery but this is a nightclub setting,’” said Eric Bresler, PhilaMOCA’s manager. “I didn’t argue. Art has a broad definition and we’ve certainly exploited that over the years. We outgrew our art gallery zoning.”

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The city inspectors were not wrong about the nightclub element. Celebrity DJ and music producer Diplo has owned the former tombstone and mausoleum showroom since 2007, when his Mad Decent record label bought the North 12th Street building for $300,000, according to city records. The iconic Callowhill building used to serve as Mad Decent’s headquarters and host the Mad Decent Block Party, a dance festival that Diplo, who attended Temple, has since taken to other cities.

But with the no-longer-local DJ busy touring internationally and posing for GQ spreads, it wasn’t only the building’s zoning that needed updating. PhilaMOCA also needed to fulfill a few small fire code obligations like getting extinguishers inspected and changing the swing of a door so it opens outward. Now all of that is done, and once they secure a special assembly permit, PhilaMOCA will be back in business, Bresler said.

In the process of going legit, PhilaMOCA also got entangled in the vagaries of the city’s Registered Community Group system. For years, the art venue on North 12th Street dealt amicably with the Callowhill Neighborhood Association, a deep-rooted group whose jurisdiction technically ends a few dozen feet from the venue’s doors.

When Bresler and his team applied for the special exception, however, they became involved in negotiations with the Democratic 14th Ward RCO which is the designated neighborhood group for the area. (The city’s law allows political organizations to also become the civic groups that developers and business owners have to interface with for zoning cases, although critics say that ward organizations don’t fulfill the transparency and accountability measures the law requires.)

Bresler said that he’d never heard of the 14th Ward RCO prior to the fall. The hyperlocal political group didn’t know about PhilaMOCA’s existence either.

The groups are friendly now, but Bresler said he found the negotiations bewildering.

“We live in a rapidly developing neighborhood so I think the group is at a point where they can leverage their power in ways that will improve the neighborhood,” Bresler said. “Whether the leveraging they do is moral or legal I can’t comment on. But I was certainly uncomfortable with some of the things they were demanding.”

Bresler wouldn’t say what those sticking points were, but in the end, the community benefits agreement signed by two sides simply establishes operating hours and a few other ground rules.

Many of the stipulations were things that the venue was doing anyway, like ensuring that underage people aren’t consuming alcohol on the premises.

“Another issue was about using the bathroom on the outside, and there are going to be some crowds and [we want to ensure] the line will not go in front of neighbors’ houses,” Diane Monroe of the 14th Ward told the zoning board at the Wednesday hearing.

Calls to 14th ward leaders were not returned by late Wednesday afternoon.

The operating hours for concerts will be between 10 a.m. and 10:30 p.m. on weeknights, with an hour later extension on weekends. Movie screenings can last until 1:00 a.m., to ensure that there can be two screenings in a night.

“I will miss living in the wild west that we’ve operated in for the last 10 years,” said Bresler, who has managed the venue since 2012. “That really added to the ambiance and the mystique of PhilaMOCA. I just hope none of that is lost now that we are a legitimate and recognized and watched building.”

PhilaMOCA is raising money on GoFundMe to help pay for the expenses incurred since September. They’ve raised over $32,000 by Wednesday, which has been used to cover rent, utilities, and fire code upgrades since September. They hope to raise at least another $10,000-to-$20,000 to continue covering rent, utilities and remaining repairs until April.

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