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.