Note: Article update, 10AM, October 22
Hidden City spoke this morning with one of the building’s owners, David Hirsh, whose family business, Patriot Fiber, has been located there since the early 1950s. “We’ve been working with L&I to resolve the issues,” he said. “We’ve been really cooperative. I think they have some legitimate concerns. Now we’re aggressively addressing them.” Hirsh said that Viking Mill Associates, the LLC that legally owns the building, is financially responsible for remediating violations. He said he is clear on the work that needs to be done to address the majority of the violations. Through lawyers, Hirsh has filed a motion in court to allow a portion of the building to be occupied while repairs are being made. When will the building reopen? “I guess I have the same question,” he said. “I think we have an important art center here.”
Note: This article was updated at 10:40PM, October 21.
Citing “numerous violations” of the city’s building, zoning, electrical and fire codes, the City’s Department of Licenses and Inspections Monday issued a Cease Operations/Stop Work Order at the Viking Mill building in Kensington. The order took effect at 3PM Monday. Dozens of tenants–most of them artists, craftspeople, and makers–have been forced to remove their equipment and exit the building. The atmosphere outside the mill, originally the Arrott’s Steam Power Mills Co., which made cotton and woolen yarn, was somber this afternoon as the large community dispersed.
One of the anchor spaces in the transformation of East Kensington as a new creative hub of the city, the building is home to artist studios, the Little Berlin gallery, a recording studio, a bike works, metal works, guitar pedal fabricator, practice rooms, and other creative practices, all of which were forced to close and at least temporarily unable to make income.
Frustration was mostly aimed at the City, but also at the building’s owner, David Hirsh. “I’m not going to be able to work. Two of my employees will be out of work unless we’re able to find another space,” said Bill Capozzoli, of Capozzoli Metalworks, which makes ornamental pieces for railings and staircases. “I understand that buildings need to be safe. I sympathize with the fire department and the need for safety, but the way they’re closing this–I was under the impression that they’d list violations to take care of. Instead they’re just shutting it down. A lot of the violations would have been taken care of if they’d come in and told us the specific violations. Where are we going to go if this isn’t open? We’re all very invested in the building.”
“I have six employees and nowhere for them to work anymore,” said photographer Brian Kinney of the post-production firm Missing Element. “Right now is our busy season. Whatever queue of work we had is now pushed back until this is hopefully resolved. I found out about the violations months ago, but we didn’t get notification from the building owner that basically the building would be shut down until this morning.”
Hirsh, who took over the building as Viking Mill Associates, LLC in 2007, received notice of numerous fire and electric violations on April 30, 2013. The violations were categorized as “non-hazardous.” In a letter dated October 17, 2013, L&I senior attorney Beverly Penn indicated the building had been inspected October 15, and found to have had significant violations: electrical wiring installed “without permits and by non-licensed contractors” and walls constructed without fire proof materials. The letter noted that welding was being done without permit, a kiln was on premises, and proper systems for the collection of wood shavings were not in place in spaces used for wood working.
A recent small fire on the building’s fifth floor was put out quickly by the sprinkler system.
Donna Hirsh, presumably the wife of David Hirsh, wrote on the Viking Mill Facebook page Monday night that though the date of reopening wasn’t clear, the building’s closure would be temporary. “The issues which have caused the temporary closure are being addressed. We have been addressing the issues from the beginning. Viking Mill was unaware of the closure, given only a few days’ notice,” she wrote. The building, she said, would be open for the remainder of the week so that tenants could remove belongings.
“I’ve done a lot of mural projects out of this building, including the mural on the building,” said muralist and stained glass artist Emilie Ledieu. “As much as I appreciate the affordability of the building, at least one of the landlords was well aware that many of the spaces were not up to code well before the L&I inspections. The landlord had good intentions but we are all paying the price. He really should have hired somebody to really properly manage the place. The tragedy of this is he has the right intentions that we need in this city, but he doesn’t know how to go about it.”
Hirsh told tenants he has sought a legal injunction against the building shutdown in order to give him time to do the necessary repairs. The case is apparently to be heard tomorrow. As of press time, Hirsh was unavailable to comment.
Soon after Hirsh took over the building, artists and other creative businesses began to move in. In the rough spaces, they built their own walls, and, in exchange for low rent, made their own electrical and other improvements, not always to code. Today, the tenants are caught in a difficult situation where significant physical and code changes must be made–and they’re being required to make them. In an e-mailed letter to tenants obtained by Hidden City, Hirsh said, “We will need the cooperation of tenants who have violations, to re-mediate these violations.”
Indeed, a building like the Viking Mill exists in a substantial gray area, where artists and makers, unable to afford market rates (and not desiring finished space), seek community, cheap rent, and atmosphere. All that is on offer at Viking Mill. According to the building’s website, Viking Mill has endeavored to provide “affordable work space for various kinds of artists and craftspeople,” often leasing raw space with the idea that the tenant would complete necessary upgrades to the space. This sort of ad hoc renovation is typical–and probably necessary–where pioneering creative people are at work. “The space for rent is full of character,” says the website. “The five-story building is a brick and wood beamed, hard-wood floored structure, being historic in construction but current in our lives by providing space in which artists can be creative.”
And yet these kinds of spaces are by definition almost certain to be filled with building code violations. Moreover, City inspectors, motivated by regulatory failures at the Thomas Buck Hosiery building just a block from the Viking Mill, which burned to the ground in April, 2012, and at 22nd and Market Streets in Center City, where a building collapsed in June, killing six people, have increased oversight.
The consequences of this conflict felt very real Monday at Viking Mill. Like other tenants, Matt Gaither, a drum maker, said he’s essentially stuck. “I’ve got thousands of dollars worth of equipment at Viking Mill, and I don’t have the money to move it and nowhere to take it,” he said. “The shutdown was too short notice. I think that almost anyone in here that’s a craftsman without a workspace–it’s really restricted what you can do.”
“The neighborhood isn’t going to have these artist spaces anymore, unless you study the art of law. No one’s going to be able to afford this,” said Jesse Beamesderfer, an artist.
In the past decade, as center city priced out young artists and creative businesses, particularly in Old City, Kensington has become a hotbed of creative small businesses and contributed to a serious revitalization, one that brings positive effects (new coffee shops, galleries, restaurants) as well as increases in rent that slowly push artists further away in pursuit of lower rents. As tenants removed their equipment before the building shutdown this afternoon, they discussed where they could go next. In every case, they cited new warehouses and other industrial spaces around Somerset, Tioga, and other locations even farther north with space to lease: and almost at once the cycle begins anew.
Lee Tusman, Peter Woodall, and Nathaniel Popkin contributed reporting to this article.