Close to 150 people packed a small room on the second floor of the Greater Bethlehem Temple Church last night, on the 2300-block of Tasker Street in Point Breeze. The topic at hand: The Point Breeze Pop-Up. General sentiment expressed by the crowd: Shut it down.
Point Breeze has been a neighborhood in flux recently — it’s gotten whiter, wealthier and younger. According to the estimated 2015 Census, the black population decreased 9 percent since 2011, while white population jumped 29.4 percent and Hispanic by 25 percent. Per Zillow estimates, median home value leaped from $77,300 to $115,000 during that same time frame. The rapid changes have created a rift between longtime residents and those who are newer to the area.
Thursday’s meeting brought that divide to a head. Rep. Jordan Harris’s office had circulated a flier announcing the gathering, but most of the crowd had been drawn in by a more incendiary pamphlet. The unsigned, un-credited sheet read, in part:
“WE MUST FIGHT BACK … Don’t be fool. This is a Trick to take over our community. We are asking you to help Stop the Out Door Beer Garden.”
Controversial from the start
The Point Breeze Pop-Up is a venture from John Longacre, the man behind South Philadelphia Tap Room and American Sardine Bar. A longtime investor in South Philly real estate, Longacre decided to turn an empty lot at 1622 Point Breeze Ave. into a temporary beer garden for the summer. He cleaned up the space, installed lighting and cameras, planted flowers, and converted an 18-wheeler into a bar with more than 10 tap spigots poking out the side.
PBPU launched on Saturday, May 16. Inside the garden, people enjoyed a wheat beer festival. Outside the garden, along the sidewalk, other people staged a neighborhood protest.
It’s not the first time these pop-ups have caused controversy.
The beer garden trend was made possible by a 2012 liquor code amendment. Known as Act 116, it says liquor license holders can apply for a connected catering license allowing them to serve alcohol at up to 50 off-site events. Savvy bar owners realized they could piggyback these “events” into consecutive days, and essentially create an ongoing alfresco bar, albeit a semi-permanent one.
Last year, a Daily News Joe Sixpack column called out the piggybacking as “taking advantage of an LCB loophole,” and described ways it might be an unfair business practice. Instead of ponying up $90,000 and wading through a lot of red tape necessary for a brick-and-mortar bar, the pop-up license comes for just $500 and requires only a short form. The article sparked a minor uproar, and four state legislators even wrote a letter to the PLCB to express their concerns.
Another difference in the catering license application? There is no requirement that advanced notice be given before the pop-up opens. Those orange placards that typically announce a forthcoming bar, and advise of ways to comment on it, are not part of the process.
Point Breeze issues
At Thursday’s meeting, it became clear this was one of the major issues people had with the PBPU. Many of the residents had no idea it was coming until a few weeks before it opened — there was no legal requirement that Longacre advise them of it. That said, he did make efforts to. He met with 2nd District Councilman Kenyatta Johnson, who recently defeated a primary challenge for a spot on this November’s election ballot. Longacre then followed the councilman’s advice to meet with South Philadelphia HOMES (the RCO, or Registered Community Organization, for the area), where they held a public meeting asking for input.
Despite Longacre’s efforts, many residents still had no idea the garden was coming. During the two-hour gathering, they expressed worries about kids walking back and forth from school and seeing people drinking out in the open air, and about noise and light pollution that parties in the garden might create. A pastor stood to express why he takes offense.
“It’s a stone’s throw from my church, and they’re going to have drinking on Sundays. In my culture, in my belief, Sunday is a holy day, it’s the Lord’s day. I’m asking about your concern about my spirituality,” he told Longacre.
Longacre caused a brief stir when he tried to answer. “Sir, not everyone in this room goes to church on Sunday.” After a partial collective gasp, other audience members concurred. “You might as well close it down on Fridays, too,” members of a nearby mosque murmured loudly.
Longacre also pointed out that — other than during the launch beer fest — his garden is usually relatively quiet and there’s no live music.
“The beer garden is really just the backdrop,” he explained. “We have food trucks, we have a farm stand, we have a CSA drop-off, flea markets, yoga classes.”
Gentrification is coming
Harris’ goal in hosting the meeting was to gather input from the community about their concerns, and draft them into a letter to other state officials. The law that allows pop-up gardens is new, he explained, and legislation was the way to change it for the better. He even brought in Jeff Lawrence, PLCB assistant director of licensing, and Chris Herrington, director of the PLCB’s Office of Legislative Affairs, to present.
They explained that Longacre was in fact following the letter of the law, as far as liquor license rules were concerned. But the backlash in Point Breeze is about more than just the drinking.
For many residents, the pop-up a symbol of forthcoming development…and gentrification.
Around an hour into the meeting, one man stood up and declared to his neighbors: “This is bigger than beer fests. The end result is they’re coming and building here and raising our taxes.” He went on to note his taxes had already jumped from $280 to $1,400 in one year. “People on fixed incomes can’t afford that. The area is going to change, and our kids won’t even know what ‘across the tracks’ means!”
(As someone helpfully explained, “across the tracks” is how residents of Point Breeze refer to the area north of Washington Avenue — a neighborhood that’s already seen a lot of redevelopment and is now often referred to as “Graduate Hospital.”)
“We just want him out of South Philadelphia!” shouted one woman.
“He sounds like another Ori!” said another, referring to developer Ori Feibush, who recently challenged Johnson for the 2nd District council seat and lost. (Feibush was present at the meeting, but declined to comment.)
“If the beer garden is temporary, what are you going to do with the lot after it closes?” another person pressed. It was a question that was on many people’s minds. The flier that had brought folks out had suggested what would happen:
“John Longacre stated he plans to build $500,000.00 CONDO’S at the same spot in September 2015 …. Stop the POINT BREEZE TAKE OVER.”
Longacre tried to answer with a joke — “We’re gonna build big giant mansions, they’re gonna cost $1 million each!” — but his sarcasm was not well-received. He quickly clarified that the real plans were to put in retail stores at ground level (Point Breeze Avenue is already zoned commercial) and to build apartments on top. He promised the audience some of them would be affordable.
“We might as well realize the beer garden isn’t going anywhere,” one woman told her neighbors.
“If we were so concerned about that lot, we should’ve gotten together and put our money together and bought it!” said another. Residents expressed the wish that instead of a beer garden, they’d gotten a rec center, or a library.
Harris ended the meeting by thanking the assembled folks for their courtesy. Though there had been some speaking out of turn, and a few random outbursts, the gathering did not devolve into a shouting match.
For his part, Longacre stayed after the meeting disbanded, talking with the residents. He owns several properties in the area, and — whether or not he personally cares, which he does appear to — it’s good business to make friends with your neighbors.
As Harris said when he opened the discussion: “We all live here now, and we’re gonna have to live together. If you’ve been here 40 years, like my grandmother, you deserve respect. If you’ve been here two weeks, you deserve it, too.”