Mt. Airy Arts Garage gets WMAN zoning endorsement

(Revised edition: Corrections made to a street name and neighborhood area)

Last night’s West Mt. Airy Neighbors’ Zoning Committee meeting was no sleeper. It featured a good old-fashioned neighborhood brawl, a City Council candidate, a Congressman’s (Chaka Fattah) aide coming to the rescue of a garage, and the proposed expansion of the Mt. Airy Arts Garage.

The board of Mt. Airy Arts Garage, a nonprofit incubator for local artists, wants to transform the property on 9-11 West Mt. Airy Avenue into a venue for markets, where artists could sell their wares for about two days every month. The space would also include room for a gallery and seven artist studios, said Mt. Airy Arts Garage secretary Donna Globus. The only problem is, the group needs a variance from the Zoning Board of Adjustment in order to go through with the project, because the property is zoned as commercial, and the proposed artist studios aren’t permitted of-right.

One neighbor was concerned about the possibility of parking issues, but Globus assured the crowd that artists would stop briefly to unload in front of the market, and then quickly drive and park a few blocks away. Another was weary that if artists were allowed to blow glass or do bronze sculpting in the studios, it would create unwanted fumes. Globus said these types of artists would not work on the property.

The West Mt. Airy Neighbors’ Zoning Committee voted unanimously to support the project, so long as the neighbors and the Mt. Airy Arts Garage craft a proviso together, which would likely ban artists like glass blowers and bronze sculptors from working on the site. After it’s drafted, the Committee will send a letter of support to the city’s Zoning Board of Adjustment, which will ultimately decide whether to give the Mt. Airy Arts Garage a variance or not.

But the meeting’s large crowd wasn’t there for the Arts Garage.

The room at Summit Presbyterian Church was filled to the brim because of one man’s hope to obtain a zoning variance to legalize the construction of a garage on West Johnson Street in the Blue Bell Hill neighborhood. The property is zoned “R5” residential, where such multiple structures are not permitted. The applicant claims that there was always a garage on the property, and that he was simply fixing it up after the roof collapsed — in other words, he says it was zoned improperly when he bought it many years before.

Nearly 25 people, including Fattah’s press secretary, Ron Goldwyn, supported the project. Many were from the Blue Bell Hill Civic Association, where Goldwyn is a board member.

“This is a historically tight and proud neighborhood,” said Goldwyn, “and this has been a very neighborly project.”

But a handful of roiled neighbors took issue with the fact that the applicant didn’t obtain the proper permits before completing the construction, and that it may be encroaching on another neighbor’s property.

The Zoning Committee voted against the variance 6-3.

Greg Paulmier, a Democratic candidate for the 8th District City Council seat, was another applicant at the meeting. He is seeking a variance that would allow for a single-family dwelling in the property on 538 Carpenter Lane, despite it being zoned as commercial. Most neighbors didn’t oppose the change. One neighbor, however, was concerned about limiting commercial uses in that area, which she called “a unique corner of the world that has commercial opportunities.”

She added, “I always think of Jane Jacobs arguing for a wonderful mix of things bumping up against each other.”

In the end, the Zoning Committee voted against the variance 8-1.

And finally, the Zoning Committee voted unanimously in favor of a use certificate for GTown Motors at 6602 Germantown Avenue, which would permit the automobile mechanics shop to expand into car sales. The applicant said about eight cars would be for sale outside at a time.

The Zoning Committee will send recommendation letters to the city’s Zoning Board of Adjustment for each of the aforementioned applicants, advising the Board of their decisions. The Board will then rule on whether to grant them zoning variances (or, in GTown Motors’ case, a use certificate).

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