Some Philly developers have learned to tread lightly around neighborhood associations, the groups that hold the power to derail projects by denying zoning variances.
Others disregard that, and adopt a mantra that seems closer to Facebook’s famous “move fast and break things.”
The definition of breaking things, however, is sometimes subjective. Whether or not a Graduate Hospital developer was actually doing that — or was making things better — is at the heart of a debate that blew up on the Southwest Center City Facebook page last week, when a photo of street art in progress garnered 300 comments and counting.
In question is a single tiny wall in a single tiny pocket park at 22nd and Catharine Streets, and an effort to repaint it without getting permission.
For the past several years, the 950-square foot wall has sported a very simple design: the word PLAY, written in large, single-color letters. It was fading slightly, but not without notice; the Friends of Catharine Park last year began discussing how and with what to replace or repaint it. After some initial outreach to neighbors, the all-volunteer board had gotten as far as submitting a proposal to Mural Arts, and potential funding sources had been contacted.
“We had already reached out to a few entities,” said Nia Fresnel, vice president of the Friends of Catherine Park board. “The Mural Arts decision date for our application is May 15.”
Fresnel thinks the application has a good chance of getting approved, she said, because of the uniqueness of the concept the board had come up with: an interactive design that incorporates augmented reality.
“We thought, let’s turn it into an interactive learning space,” Fresnel recounted, noting discussions about that idea were already underway with various art, tech and municipal innovation programs.
But while all of these efforts were happening behind the scenes, the wall stayed visually the same — for too long, according to Max Glass, the 29-year-old principal of development firm Forward. Glass owns several properties in the area, including the building that houses Ultimo Coffee, and one directly across the street from the park.
“I first noticed maybe [the wall] needed a little love when someone mentioned to me the letters were not spaced accurately,” Glass told Billy Penn. (“I learned a lot from the documentary Helvetica,” he added.)
So he hired an muralist, bought a bunch of paint, and directed the artist to start painting over the wall — immediately.
Glass wasn’t exactly sure what the end result would look like, but he expected it to be “something that expresses the meaning of PLAY in both color and shape…. One thing I cared about, I didn’t want him to mess up the PLAY.”
The guerilla revamp — which Glass intended to pay for out of pocket — might have been successful, if someone walking by hadn’t captured a photo of the beginning of the work and posted it online. Residents responded in droves. Most were aghast at the boldness of the action, including the Friends of Catharine Park board members.
“It was quite alarming,” Fresnel told Billy Penn, “given the fact that we had been planning since last year, and had been soliciting community support in upgrading the mural.”
One topic in the lively comment thread had to do with whether the wall itself was public or private, and how that affected a person’s right to show up and apply paint to it. Glass believed the wall was owned by the city — and that because it was a public wall, he was well within his rights to swoop in and start painting.
Officially, the wall is owned by the city, per Fresnel, not by the person whose house exists on the other side. That arrangement was reached “back when the park was constructed,” she said. Yet, that does not give anyone the right to paint on it without getting community feedback or advising the park friends group. She termed the way Glass went about things as “likely criminal.”
However, the kerfuffle appears to be on its way to being resolved without legal action.
Over the past week, the two sides have communicated, and reached an understanding. Glass will have his artist restore the original PLAY image, and the Park Friends will continue exploring the possibility of an interactive replacement, ideally in partnership with Mural Arts.
Glass isn’t thrilled with the state of affairs, calling it “a waste of money” to restore the old image just so it can eventually be painted over again, and lamenting the need to “do art by bureaucracy.”
But he’s resigned to the situation, he said, “as long as I can see the bylaws of the Friends of Catharine Park group so I understand the corporate governance and can have confidence that something will get done eventually.”