It was a faceoff between city planners and city residents. And the residents won.

The Philadelphia zoning board voted unanimously Wednesday to block a developer's hotly contested plan to build a four-story apartment complex across from Pat's King of Steaks.

The 4-0 vote to deny a zoning variance drew elation from neighbors and disappointment from developer Paul Mirabello, and left the future of the long-vacant parcel at one of the city's marquee intersections uncertain.

"I'm super-excited," said Robert Stewart, 35, among a handful of residents who pleaded during the two-hour meeting to allow only single-family homes on the large lot at Ninth and Wharton Streets. "I feel like my voice actually mattered."

Neighbor Gil Lettieri was so shocked that he asked someone else to confirm he had heard the vote correctly. The 72-year-old Wharton homeowner had been particularly active in helping lead community opposition to the plan for 18 apartments and up to five stores near Passyunk Avenue.

"It made me feel better to see there's still some justice in the city of Philadelphia," Lettieri said. "The Zoning Board of Adjustment did that for me today."

The vote underscored the appointed panel's enduring power, even as Mayor Nutter has made zoning reform a priority and has pushed the Planning Commission to craft comprehensive surveys of the city to recommend changes in land use and zoning.

In opting to keep the property zoned residential, the board, led by onetime Nutter aide Julia Chapman, disregarded that a week earlier, the Planning Commission recommended that the empty lot - zoned for a church long ago demolished - be rezoned for apartments and retail.

Lawyer Brett Feldman had made the case that the lot was the only nearby property fronting Ninth that lacked a commercial zoning designation. It is a stone's throw from the Italian Market and sits across from open-at-all-hours Pat's, and Geno's Steaks also is just a few paces away.

"It's just commercial after commercial after commercial," Feldman told the board.

Feldman added that the lot was not always zoned residential. It gained that designation in 1989 only as neighbors fought a plan by hamburger chain White Castle to build a restaurant there. Before that, it had been St. John's church and rectory.

The church was demolished, the White Castle plan never materialized, and the lot has stood undeveloped for 25 years.

Zoning board members were unconvinced that, as Mirabello argued, there would be no market for new townhouses so near the hustle and bustle of Pat's.

And board member Greg Pastore conveyed a belief in the will of neighbors despite the recommendations of city planners.

Neighbors were incensed at the prospect of high-density development in a neighborhood where on-street parking has become scarce.

Pastore said he had read about the community opposition in the paper and doubted a zoning change would fly.

"There's a lot of politics involved," Pastore said.

Indeed, Councilman Mark Squilla sent a letter to the zoning board conveying his opposition to the variance.

Chapman told Feldman that the zoning change was arrived at legitimately.

"It was done in a public fashion," Chapman said, "whether you like it or not."

In his two terms, Nutter has devoted significant resources toward overhauling the zoning code. The Planning Commission's approval last week of a "district plan" for South Philadelphia contained a recommendation to rezone Mirabello's parcel. That and other recommendations, however, need Council action to codify them.

"As a city that funded this big report, and not to stand by it, is a little disappointing," Mirabello said of the decision.

215-854-2431@Panaritism