Artists Pushed Out of Their Studios for New Luxury Development

Viking Mill Artists Studios once provided workspaces to hundreds of Philadelphia artists, designers, craftsmen, and musicians. Since its $9.6 million sale in September, however, the restored factory building has been the site of ongoing disputes between current tenants and its former owners. As luxury developers draft renderings of the new 178-unit property, local artists have been asked to vacate their longtime studios on short notice, leading them to enter more expensive and precarious work arrangements, leave the city altogether, or stay put to fight back.

The former Viking Mill building, known for the angel mosaic on its facade by resident artists Alex Stolypine and Emilie Ledieu, is located in East Kensington, just north of the newly redeveloped neighborhood of Fishtown. Former co-owners David Hirsch and Bob Weinstein sold the building to Delaware developer Chatham Bay through New York realtor SCOPE. Just one day after the sale, the building’s water was shut off, and Hirsch notified tenants that they had 30 days to vacate — even though some leases required up to 90 days’ notice, according to tenants.

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Neither Hirsch, Weinstein, nor the developers responded to Hyperallergic’s requests for comments, including questions regarding the artists’ claims that their leases stipulated a 90-day notice period.

The Viking Mill building in East Kensington, Philadelphia with mosaic by artists Alex Stolypine and Emilie Ledieu (photo by and courtesy Peter Steliga)

Much like Fishtown, Kensington is a former light industrial neighborhood of factory buildings repurposed into housing and studios. The 70,000-square-foot Viking Mill was built in the 1860s to house yarn manufacturer Arrott’s Steam Power Mills Company, but it was converted into artists’ studios about 15 years ago. While Viking Mill’s studios were all non-residential, many tenants took on janitorial and administrative roles, including pleading with city officials to keep the building open after the Department of Licensing and Inspections (L&I) flagged the absence of a fire sprinkler system in 2013.

Jen Brown, a painter who rented a studio at Viking Mill since 2015, recalls cleaning the hallways and bathrooms as a 1099 contractor for Hirsch and Weinstein. Brown told Hyperallergic that the co-owners had expressed concerns about selling the building, so Brown offered to buy it as an artist cooperative. Despite these conversations, Hirsch and Weinstein still went with the highest bidder, Brown says.

“If an artist can rent a studio and pay on time for several years, then randomly be given 30 days’ notice, how is that fair?” Brown told Hyperallergic. “Many artists have more in their studios than some people have in their homes.”

Jen Brown in their Viking Mill studio (courtesy the artist)

Since May, Brown has drawn up a petition and organized demonstrations with the Philadelphia Tenants Union and the Riverwards L+I Coalition. They fear luxury developers may soon target surrounding buildings, too, such as Corral Street Arts House across the street as well as The Loom Philly and Paper Box.

“These developers are all from outside the city and building in the immediate vicinity of Viking Mill, meaning city blocks that were just fields are now filled with luxury condos,” Brown said. “Meanwhile, all the new construction even from before COVID-19 along Girard Avenue and Front Street — massive apartment buildings and condos with mixed-use housing — have remained empty with vacant storefronts at the street level.”

Jen Brown’s former studio at Viking Mill (courtesy the artist)

Brown recently found another studio further north of Viking Mill, but for other tenants, relocation is not as seamless. For craftsman Peter Steliga, who has run a shop in the building for 11 years, his rental required a $40,000 personal investment to restore the space. Steliga restores and designs furniture, jewelry, and lighting for auction houses and private clients; he claims his studio was leased to him in complete disrepair and needed to be in good shape for visitors.

“When I first moved here, the floor had collapsed and a tree was growing through it, and there were no windows,” he said. “I did this extreme makeover with the understanding that I could stay as long as I wanted.”

For Steliga, now 63, leaving Viking Mill means potentially starting all over again. As such, he is refusing to leave and, along with other resident artists, entering a collective legal dispute with Hirsch that may soon become a lawsuit. Steliga claims he has worked with Hirsch over the years to ensure the building remains open and in good standing with the city, making this sale feel like a slap in the face.

“Many of us have been here day and night taking care of things that David refused to handle on his end,” he said. “I even went to court for him and Bob to get the building open again. This is really not about the owners, but rather the tenants in this building who are dramatically impacted by this closure.”

Other artists have expressed frustration that Hirsch and Weinstein were still signing leases mere weeks before listing the property. Jackie Riccio, a Lenape artist who ran her Land of Plenty business in Viking Mill’s basement for 15 months, signed a new lease in April for a larger space only to learn in mid-May that the building might be sold. The artist told Hyperallergic that her lease required a 90-day vacancy notice; as such, she has been organizing with Brown, Steliga, and other tenants to ensure everyone receives the same.

“Getting that extension allows us enough time to try to find another suitable space,” Riccio told Hyperallergic. “This is really unfortunate, though, because no other studios in the area are even remotely close to the price of what we paid here, which was just under $1 a square foot.”

Jackie Riccio and her artists collective in their studio (photo by Ezra Weill)

Riccio originally rented her Viking Mill studio with three other artists in order to make rent. In her new space, however, the rent increase required her collective to find two additional artists. For them, the neighborhood’s changes point to ongoing class tensions around which artists get to stay and who the developers aim to bring in next.

“It is super apparent now that Fishtown has already started eating up East Kensington,” she continued. “I just walked around the north side of the building the other day and was astonished by how quickly these high-rise luxury condos got built nearby — and none of us know who will be moving into them.”

Viking Mill is hardly the only example of its kind in Kensington, or in Philadelphia, or throughout the United States. Luxury developers have been taking over working-class neighborhoods in rapid succession, particularly those inhabited by artists, preserving historic arts districts in name only. As Viking Mill tenants face eviction, Brown emphasizes that the fight to protect artists is more necessary than ever.

“We hope that if we make enough noise then maybe this will not happen again in the same way,” Brown said. “But until communities actually have a say, rather than some outside developer, this will just keep happening.”


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