Formerly a dirty lot, this beer garden caused controversy

Formerly a dirty lot, this beer garden caused controversy

Courtesy of the Point Breeze Pop-Up

The Great Point Breeze Beer Garden War is about to start again

John Longacre has been battling L&I for almost a year about whether the South Philly beer garden is operating legally.

Ready for another summer of excitement in Point Breeze? In late May, the Point Breeze Pop-Up will reopen for a second season — at least that’s owner John Longacre’s plan.

“We’ve done a lot of improvements; I’m really excited for the pop-up this year,” said Longacre, a reuse-centric real estate developer who’s also proprietor of American Sardine Bar, South Philadelphia Tap Room and Brew bottle shop. “There’s a lot more seating, the grounds are nicer and we have more programming, more community events on the schedule.”

Unstoppable force, meet immovable object: In Longacre’s way (or hoping to be, anyway) is the Philadelphia Department of Licenses and Inspections.

At issue is the question of whether the residential zoning of the location — a formerly deserted lot at 1622 Point Breeze Avenue — makes it illegal for a pop-up to operate there.

Last summer, L&I and Longacre waged a back-and-forth battle over this point. It began when the department slapped a cease and desist order on the garden in early July for “improper zoning.” Longacre sued in municipal court, and won the right to re-open from Judge Nina Padilla, who said L&I had restricted Longacre’s access to due process. The City Law Department appealed that ruling to Commonwealth Court, effectively shutting the garden down again. Within a week, Padilla issued an emergency injunction that allowed the pop-up to resume operations, and it finished out the season in normal fashion, wrapping up with a fall flea market on October 31.

As of now, the Commonwealth Court appeal is still pending.

And although there’s a new person in charge of L&I — Commissioner David Perri, who Mayor Jim Kenney appointed to replace Carlton Williams (the man many blamed for the department’s recent chronic dysfunction) — none of the parties have changed their position on this specific matter, and each considers itself unquestionably right.

“I have a tremendous amount of respect for Mr. Perri. The changes he’s already made at L&I are nothing short of miraculous,” Longacre said. “It’s running so much better right now. That said, this is not an interpretive scenario. This is about state law.”

Longacre believes his LCB permits give him the right to operate the beer garden, no matter what the zoning is. “The city doesn’t have the ability to overwrite any state-issued license, under any circumstances,” he said.

In this particular case, the state-issued licenses are off-premise catering permits from the Liquor Control Board. Ostensibly available so that liquor license holders in good standing can cater one-time events (think weddings or holiday office parties), Longacre is piggy-backing a bunch of permits for sequential days so that the pop-up can operate throughout the summer.

It’s a bit of a loophole, but it’s the same loophole everyone else is using. Almost all the pop-ups that’ve sprouted around Philly in recent years operate the same way, from those run by PHS to the Uptown Beer Garden behind the Mellon Bank building.

The difference? The locations where those other pop-ups serve beer, drinks and snacks are all zoned commercial.

But that shouldn’t be a deal-breaker, Longacre insists. “The entire purpose of the bill [that set up the temp catering permits] was to allow licensed bars and restaurants to be able to use their liquor licenses outside of their place of business under temporary circumstances. If they required commercial zoning, why would any person ever be able to host a catered event in their backyard, or a block party on a public street?”

L&I Commissioner Perri disagrees. After noting that he considers John Longacre “a good guy” who he is “not out to demonize,” and clarifying that he was unable to comment specifically on pending litigation, he offered his opinion on the general matter.

“A liquor license does not allow the holder to bypass the zoning code,” Perri said. “Say you bought a liquor license — that doesn’t mean you can just open a bar anywhere you please.

“Pop-ups are typically commercial in nature,” he continued. “It doesn’t matter whether it’s a beer garden, a soda garden or a retail market. If you propose one in a residential area, you need a variance. Without that variance it’s illegal.”

Longacre, who has received encouragement from the PA Tavern Association, a statewide industry group, indicated he was willing to continue to the court fight as far as it would go.

“What I will agree with Mr. Perri on is that if the city does want to have the ability to enforce these things, they should go to the state and get them to amend the bill. If they did that, we wouldn’t be doing what we’re doing.”

Eventually, Longacre plans to fully develop the lot at 1622 Point Breeze Avenue. He hasn’t revealed what he envisions there, but has talked about wanting to revive the former commercial corridor with lively retail and mixed-use buildings. The project isn’t ready for prime time yet, so for now, he’s going with the beer garden.

Pending any decision from Commonwealth Court before then, the Point Breeze Pop-Up will kick off with the 11th annual Wheat Beer Fest from noon to 8 p.m. on Saturday, May 21. Regular hours for the garden will be announced soon.

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