Kill the Bella Vista Autumn Mural

No matter how much neighbors love the artwork, redevelopment of a vacant lot is better for Philadelphia

Local media outlets this week have highlighted a fascinating preservation versus development case study in Bella Vista, where a proposed town home threatens to block neighborhood views of a well-liked local mural. The Inky headlined the piece: “Planned townhouse imperils Autumn mural.” Far better if it had been called: “Sentimentality imperils redevelopment of vacant lot.”

The case is pretty simple. About 10 years ago, muralist David Guinn painted a handsome scene of a small house in a forest where the leaves have turned yellow, gold, amber. It was applied to the party wall of a rowhome that sits next to a vacant lot, which has been used for a long time as surface parking. Recently, the lot was purchased by new owners who want to build a townhome on the site. The mural is a distinctive piece, and for a lot of people in the community, it’s come to feel like part of the neighborhood. Enough so that 1,000 people have signed a petition in support of the mural. A lot of them feel personal connections to the installation, such as Paige Gottman, the owner of a local Montessori School who has incorporated the mural into her curriculum.

Too bad. This sort of neighborhood sentimentality should have no place in zoning decisions. Seriously, people. We’re going to deny a responsible property owner the right to develop their property—to turn a vacant lot into a home—so as not to deprive the local Montessori School of its view? Really?

That’s crazy. It also represents a massive misunderstanding of what the city’s fantastic Mural Arts Program is about. Murals, when used well, help to patch over the many holes that have been rent in Philadelphia’s urban fabric over the years. Ideally they help developers see possibilities, instead of blight. Murals, in other words, are a means, not the end. Jane Golden, the executive director of the Mural Arts Program, gets this. Naturally she feels conflicted about the potential loss of a beloved mural, but she told the Inquirer that “cities are fluid and dynamic and changing.”

That’s exactly right. At their best, cities are constantly evolving. Philadelphia has evolved less than most of its counterparts (Boston, Chicago, New York, D.C.), in large part because there’s been a lot less relative development here than in those cities. That’s not so bad for the denizens of wealthy enclaves like Queen Village or Old City (where residents are fighting what looks like a stunning development they deem too big for the neighborhood). But for the city as a whole, the relative lack of development is very bad indeed—and at least part of the reason why Philadelphia remains the poorest big city in the country.

I don’t mean to suggest that sentimental attachment to a mural is a serious drag on development in the city. It’s not. But more broadly speaking, Philadelphia’s resistance to change, its constant fighting of the natural dynamism that all healthy cities possess, well, that is a drag on development, and its holding the city back. So I say build the townhome, and paint another mural somewhere. It’s not like the city lacks for empty lots to choose from.

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  • jerry shotframe

    You are dead on. The Mural program is awesome and the city should continue to fund their wonderful work. But all must remember they are not meant to be permanent. We don’t want property owners and their neighbors to start getting reluctant to bless mural projects.

  • Vincent E

    Although I agree with the general premise that this is private property and the owner will ultimately be able to develop it as they please, this specific issue is more complex and fact-sensitive than your blog appreciates. The “vacant lot” had been rented as nine off-street parking spots in a densely-populated residential neighborhood for the past decade. The lot was no more “vacant” than any other parking lot in the city. The only difference was that, despite its commercial use as a parking lot (with an economic benefit to the prior owner of approx. $20k/yr.), the zoning for the property was never changed from residential to reflect it’s actual use. Another cause of ire for the community is that the house the developer intends to build on the lot is an aesthetic eyesore. So in the place of a beloved and internationally renowned mural in an already affluent section of the city (one might say, a burgeoning “wealthy enclave”) the community instead will have to look at what has been aptly described by another writer as “a suburban architect’s typically crass attempt to imitate the urban vernacular.” That sort of change is a far cry from an evolutionary improvement.

  • Patrick, I am surprised that you did not do any reporting on your own but rather took everything in the Inquirer article as fact. This is not a homeowner building his/her dreamhouse. This is a developer who doesn’t care about the neighborhood – at all. Sure, developers can develop. That is what they do. But, coming into a neighborhood guns blazing is not the way successful developers work. The biggest point – which you missed – is the loss of income to our neighborhood. One building will not make up for the dollars we lose in tourists coming to our restaurants and stores.

  • Kay M.

    Wow, what a great example of terrible journalism! There is so much more to this story that what Mr. Kerkstra presented. I see that some previous comments have already commented on the fact that this is not, as he wrote, a “vacant lot.” While a parking lot is not an ideal use of space, in this neighborhood where parking is at a premium it is a welcome site use, especially as it allows for a clear view of the gorgeous mural which has become a neighborhood landmark, visited by thousands of people a year.
    When this charmless, cheaply-built single residence is built, the neighborhood will have traded their dynamic, useful space for an ugly building, more difficult parking, and a few new neighbors. The trade doesn’t seem worth it. The neighbors recognized this as soon as they found out about the proposed development, and even went so far as to offer to buy back the lot (at a profit for the developer). Unfortunately, he was unwilling to do this, thus the controversy.
    While change and development are generally positive, this isn’t across-the-board. In this case, the development does not seem to be a step forward for this neighborhood. They are willing to fight for what they see as an important part of their community, and I support them.

  • In this case, one outside developer is looking to extract a large profit from a neighborhood at the expense of everyone else, the residents of Bella Vista, and all Philadelphians

    While cities are dynamic and changing, we also recognize the need to preserve certain features that are highly valuable. In New York, Penn station was torn down in what is widely regarded as a major loss to the city and to American architecture and history as a whole. This case is obviously of a different magnitude, but there are parallels.

    I painted the Autumn mural in 2001 and could never have imagined how much it would come to mean to Bella Vista and to the city as a whole. My intention was never to lure developers into building on the long established parking in front of it.

    the most important thing here however, is not whether it is appropriate to build in front of a mural, it is that thousands of people value the mural as an asset to the neighborhood and the city and are fighting to save it.

  • Tony

    I love the mural, too. And love the Mural Arts Program even more. My concern is that if the well-intentioned neighbors are successful, the Mural Arts Program might have great difficulty in ever getting the rights to build future murals. Who will agree to allow their wall to be used if they believe that their adjacent lot will lose all of its development rights going forward? And if the wall owner is different from the lot owner, then the lot owner will have a legitimate basis for fighting future mural projects that might deprive him of his property value. The only way the Mural Arts Program works is if it is not threatening to anybody and doesn’t endanger anyone’s property rights. These neighbors should be concerned about the longer term repercussions of what they are seeking to do here. They might save one mural but lose the Mural Arts Program.

  • paige gottesman

    i guess with good national press, you get bad local press as well, such as this unoriginal piece.
    this is typical. i would expect someone who writes articles like this to do more investigative reporting, instead of using the same article as the Inquirer and merely adding in some condescending ‘facts’ about what philadelphia development needs.

    this ‘article blog’ really doesn’t deserve to be taken seriously. please encourage more development from a rebuttal article than merely regurgitating parts of other reporters work. also, a supervisor should be required to do a spelling and grammar check before these things are posted.