Want to host a block party? After changes last year, Philly’s permit process has glitches

One resident gave up on his festivities altogether.

The 2017 Father's Day Block Party in West Philly

The 2017 Father's Day Block Party in West Philly

Courtesy Larissa Mogano
michaelawinberg-square-crop-feb2018

Philadelphia is basically block party capital, with thousands popping up each year. But after a change in the process last season, some residents are having a hard time getting the permits required to host the outdoor festivities.

It’s been eight months since the Streets Department changed the application process. Despite the city walking back the revision, there’s still confusion on how all it’s supposed to work.

When officials announced people had to get separate approval from the police before they could apply to host a block party, it caused a lot of backlash. They quickly changed their tune — restoring the old process and straight-up apologizing for creating such a mess.

So everything’s back to normal now, right? Wrong. With spring in its infancy, block party season’s gaining momentum — and Philadelphia neighbors are reporting new glitches with the online system.

“They had a kind of streamlined process before and then they blew it up,” said South Philly resident and Billy Penn Who’s Nexter Dena Driscoll. “And then pieced it back [together], missing a few pieces.”

How it’s supposed to work

The process now goes like this, per Streets spokesperson Kelly Cofrancisco:

  1. You apply online, submitting a completed form and signatures from 75 percent of your neighbors
  2. You’re notified that you’ve gotta wait a few weeks for police to approve your application before you make a payment
  3. Police either approve or reject the application
  4. If you’re approved, you’re notified that you can now make a payment
  5. You pay up
  6. You get a permit

But recent applicants say this order — where payment comes only after approval — has surfaced a glitch in the online application.

Pay now or pay later?

When Driscoll applied online to host her own block party, she did everything she was supposed to: Collected signatures from her neighbors and sent in the form. She submitted everything on April 5, and from there, Driscoll was instructed to wait a few weeks for police approval, then pay the $25 application fee.

A few days later, she got an error message via email. Driscoll’s application didn’t go through, it read, because she hadn’t paid the fee — yes, the same fee she was instructed not to pay until she got the PPD nod.

The error message James Gitto received after he applied for a block party permit

The error message James Gitto received after he applied for a block party permit

Courtesy James Gitto

To boot, the email misstated the date she had selected. In an email Driscoll received on April 7, the system identified her block party date as April 5 — that was the date she sent in her application, not the date she selected to host the party.

The email provided a phone number and link that Driscoll could visit for help — but when she clicked, the landing page told her she couldn’t pay yet, because she hadn’t gotten police approval. (Is your head spinning yet?)

“The email freaked me out,” she said. “So I call the number, no one picks up and no voicemail is allowed.”

Mixed messages

Mixed messages

Courtesy Dena Driscoll

Ultimately, Driscoll said she only resolved the problem through a contact in her district councilperson’s office, who helped move the process forward behind the scenes.

She’s not alone in her experience. Other hopeful party hosts report the exact same glitches: the payment error, the broken link and the unreachable phone number. West Passyunk neighbor James Gitto was so frustrated by the ordeal when he applied in March that he gave up on his block party altogether.

“I just never heard anything,” Gitto said. “And it didn’t make sense to move forward with logistical stuff if I didn’t know if I would get the permit.”

Cofrancisco of the Streets Department said these are isolated incidents, and the system is working as designed. She recommended neighbors having trouble with the system call 215-686-5501 or email block.party@phila.gov.

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