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Artists and entrepreneurs renting space in an East Kensington warehouse feel blindsided and confused after the building was sold and their leases were abruptly terminated.
Called Viking Mill, the building is a 150-year-old former warehouse that was converted into studios and lofts about 15 years ago. Urban Axes opened there in 2016. Over the summer, it was sold for $9.6 million, and plans were released to develop it into 178 luxury apartments.
The existing studio tenants — 40+ creatives and small business owners — were shocked last week to receive instructions to vacate the premises within one month.
The property’s new owner says that shouldn’t have happened.
“None of this should have been a surprise,” said Patrick Duffy, CEO of Chatham Bay, the Delaware-based company that bought Viking Mill. “We were expecting that [the former owners] were giving them notice.”
The former owners of the building, David Hirsh and Bob Weinstein, did not respond to Billy Penn’s requests for comment.
Tenants showed a reporter a letter sent by Hirsh on Sept. 1, notifying them their leases would be terminated in 30 days. If they didn’t move out, the letter said, they would be evicted.
Just after learning of the sale and the pending lease terminations, tenants discovered the building’s water was shut off. New owner Duffy said this was a surprise to him as well. “We found out about it on Friday and by Saturday we had spent several thousand dollars to bring porta potties to the site,” he told Billy Penn.
Water service was finally restored building-wide on Thursday.
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The situation may seem familiar. In 2013, the building at 2019 E. Boston St. was abruptly closed by Philadelphia’s Department of Licenses and Inspections, for multiple violations of building, zoning, electrical and fire codes. Tenants were caught similarly off guard.
This time around, the water shutoff stemmed from a discontinuance permit submitted on Aug. 24 by the former owner, according to PWD spokesman Brian Rademaekers, which was executed Sept. 2. The reason for that request is unclear. Unlike a shutoff, which requires adjusting a valve on the curb, a discontinuance involves disconnecting a property from the water line.
It only added to tenant frustrations. Viking Mill leases are not meant to be residential, so it’s not as though people are losing their homes. But moving out in 30 days is a huge endeavor, several of them explained to Billy Penn.
Many of the makers have equipment, inventory, and employees they need to relocate — and that’s if they’re able to find new space within the month.
Craftsman Peter Steliga, who runs a business out of Viking Mill, said he has 12 tons of equipment and around $500k worth of client projects to get out of his studio. He’s spent most of the past week trying to sort out what happened with building ownership.
Brown, an artist who uses their Viking Mill space for painting, said they now have to downsize into a studio that’s a fraction of the size and comes with higher rent. Brown has a full-time job in addition to their art, as well as an upcoming show to prepare for.
“It’s going to be an unrealistic amount of work,” Brown said.
Brown said they were even more surprised about the outcome because they called Hirsh to ask about the building situation in the morning of Aug. 31 — just hours before the sale closed. They said Hirsh told them he was certain the sale would fall through.
Melanie Maslany, who runs a ritual and wellness products business called Elements of Aura from her Viking Mill studio, said former owner Hirsh spoke to her three times in the two weeks before the building’s settlement, and also expressed serious doubts about the deal.
He did tell Maslany the buyer wanted everyone out before settlement, she said, but “he said he and his business partner were absolutely not going to do that because if the sale didn’t go through for any reason, they would have to start from scratch without any tenants.”
Artists tried to organize to buy the building, but ran out of time
The plans to build an apartment complex at the Viking Mill site were no secret. A zoning permit was issued in May. Last week the developer, Chatham Bay, got additional permits for demolition and repurposing the existing building.
A bunch of tenants had already left the building, according to Steliga, the craftsperson. He estimated there had been around 70 renters before the sale process began, versus the 40 or so in the building now..
About four months ago, after Hirsh notified tenants a sale could happen soon, artist Brown started organizing an effort to form a collective to buy out Hirsh’s share of the building and co-own it with Weinstein. Over 1k people signed Brown’s petition in support of the effort. But when Brown reached out to co-owner Weinstein about this proposed arrangement, they said, he didn’t respond.
According to tenants, they never received clear information about what the sale would mean for them.
At one point, after seeing reports about the building permits issued for the property, Elements of Aura owner Maslany said she told Hirsh he needed to start notifying people that they might have to move. So he started calling tenants to say they would have 30 days to move out if the sale went through, but continued to express uncertainty that it would.
“He wanted to control the narrative. He did, and we all believed him,” Maslany said.
Duffy, the new owner, said the agreement of sale barred Chatham Bay from communicating with tenants before closing. “We had no ability to terminate leases. They were supposed to do that prior to closing,” he said.
“We’re sorry that this is happening,” Duffy added. “It’s unfortunate for people that are trying to operate businesses there.”
Brown wrote an update for petition-signers on Tuesday, notifying them the sale had gone through. The co-op idea would have been a lot of work, Brown wrote, but “we could have had a really beautiful thing.”
Malsany thinks the co-op idea could have worked if they had more time to organize it. Like Brown, she found a smaller studio where she plans to set up her business. She secured the space, in a Port Richmond building, on Thursday night. It’s two-thirds of the size of her spot at Viking Mill.
Brown made clear they feel fortunate to have found a new place to paint. For a short time, they thought Viking Mill closure would mean an end to making art. It’s not their main source of income, and finding a new workspace on short notice seemed impossible. After being involved in the neighborhood since 2009, it was hard to see the artists’ space disappear so abruptly.
“It really makes me give pause to everything that I have fought for in this neighborhood for over a decade,” Brown said. “We keep getting pushed out of every neighborhood in every city.”