Mid-Century needs new space after zoning refusal

Mid-Century Furniture Warehouse, a Fishtown furniture store, is leaving its current location after unexpected neighborhood opposition at a Zoning Board of Adjustment meeting led to the business being refused a zoning variance.

“We really love where we’re at,” said Heidi Duffey, the business partner of owner Brian Lawlor, of East Columbia Street — that’s where the warehouse, a 200-year-old former barn, has been located for the past four years.

“But we have just decided we have to pick up and move,” she said.

Following the city’s refusal to allow the business a zoning variance, Duffey and Lawlor are looking for a new location for the store. They said they feel there were insufficient grounds for refusing their variance, but at this point, a legal battle to overrule the zoning board’s decision would be prohibitively expensive.

They are awaiting a cease-and-desist letter from the city any day now.

“It’s very devastating for us. It’s going to cost us thousands of dollars. I don’t know if it will, but it could shut the business down,” said Duffey, a Northern Liberties resident, of the prospect of moving the warehouse.

The warehouse, which has six employees including Lawlor and Duffey, had been a storage space for furniture that is sold to dealers. In July, they began opening up the warehouse twice a month to the public, offering furniture at wholesale prices.

At that time, they also initiated the process of obtaining a variance to change their building’s zoning from residential to business.

“It’s [zoned] residential, which is weird because it doesn’t have a kitchen or anything,” Duffey said.

The Fishtown Neighbors Association almost unanimously passed the proposal, 10 to one, after holding a hearing open to the public on Sept. 18. The FNA sent a letter to the city indicating their approval of the zoning change.

However, when Duffey and Lawlor went to a follow-up ZBA meeting held by the city on Sept. 28, they said they were ambushed by two neighbors with a “laundry list of complaints,” Duffey said.

“We didn’t think anybody was going to be showing up at the zoning hearing to contest or protest because we thought we had worked through the issues at the neighborhood association meeting,” Duffey said. “We didn’t know that we needed people to come speak on our behalf, and we couldn’t talk ourselves.”

She said that the neighbors made false statements, which she and Lawlor were not allowed to rebut, including that the warehouse was open for business every day and was using strong chemicals to work on their furniture. Duffey said they are not open every day and the strongest chemical they use is lemon oil to clean wood furniture.

Another complaint was they were parking a commercial truck on the street, and apparently “people were having trouble seeing it when they turned,” according to Duffey.

“There were concerns we only heard about for the first time at the meeting. And we would have been happy to sit down with them and work through these issues,” Duffey said.

Duffey also said she has learned that the daughter of the two neighbors who complained is going to open a furniture store right around the corner from where their store is located.

She was uncertain if there would be a furniture sale this coming Sunday, as they may receive the official cease-and-desist letter from the city any day now. She said they are looking for a new location anywhere in Philadelphia.

“Everyone has said if we had a lawyer there it would have been a slam dunk, but we didn’t take a lawyer,” Duffey said of the ZBA meeting.

“A gripe of two neighbors is not grounds for a refusal,” she said.

Reporter Sam Newhouse can be reached at 215–354–3124 or at snewhouse@bsmphilly.com.