Pop-up smackdown

Posted: July 30, 2014

VISIT THE South Street Beer Garden or the Oval and try to find an empty seat. These temporary pop-up taverns already feel so established, it's hard to recall that, by winter, the spaces will revert back to the wind-whipped tundra we race to escape.

Summer has transformed these spots. And, if the crowds are any indication, we can't get enough of them.

Not many Philly bars offer colorful hammocks like those at the Pennsylvania Horticultural Society's beer garden, plopped on a lot at 1438 South St. Or lawn blankets and pillows, like those on the Oval on the Parkway, supporting the Fairmount Park Conservancy.

The taverns bring a vibrant mix of surprise, goofiness and conviviality to outdoor spaces in ways we've obviously craved. Twitter and Facebook might "engage" us (can we kill that word yet?) but they don't connect us physically the way shuffleboard or a beer garden's communal tables do.

The pop-ups offer a new way to bridge the gaps between us. So it would be a shame if the Liquor Control Board shut them down.

That's been the fear, ever since the Daily News' Don Russell reported that beer gardens exist only because of an ingeniously exploited LCB loophole. It lets beer-garden operators set up shop for about $10,000 in multiple permits. That's far less than the $80,000-plus license that brick-and-mortar tavern operators in Pennsylvania buy to open.

Since Don's story ran, the phone hasn't stopped ringing at the office of state Rep. John Taylor, chairman of the House Liquor Control Committee.

"Constituents are concerned that a bar could pop up in a vacant lot on their block," says Taylor's chief of staff, Marc Collazzo.

Not that pop-ups are without perks, he notes. For example, businesses near the South Street Beer Garden are enjoying a bump in sales, thanks to increased foot traffic on the block. So yippee, right? But Collazzo also recognizes the unfair permit advantage the pop-ups are enjoying.

"Obviously, this is something we're looking into," he says.

That worries the Philadelphia Democratic Progressive Caucus, which has launched an online petition called "Protect Philly's Pop-Up Beer Gardens." Almost 3,500 people have signed the petition, which unfairly paints aggrieved established tavern owners as "grumpy because they don't like the competition."

Nonsense, John Longacre says.

"Philosophically, I think the pop-ups are great for the city," says Longacre, owner of South Philly Taproom, American Sardine Bar and the Brew beer boutique.

He established these booming businesses as a way to spur interest in and around Point Breeze, where he buys, sells and develops properties.

"They're fun, they make the city feel like a cool place that people want to move to. I have no problem with pop-ups. I have a problem with the LCB's arbitrary enforcement of its own policies."

Longacre is irked that the LCB inspectors who continually darken his doors do not give pop-ups the same scrutiny. Nor has the LCB closed any of the 40 stop-and-go stores that blight his area of the city.

"In the grand scheme of things, if the LCB was more consistent regarding enforcement of its policies, every issue [that other tavern owners have] with the pop-ups would go away," he says.

That would be great. Because the pop-ups are a home run.

Their nimble presence counters the cynicism that Philadelphians hold about their city's inability to embrace the new. If this awesome garden is possible in Stodge-a-delphia, we think, what else is possible?

They charm visitors, who spread the word, which attracts future tourists.

And, points out Harris Steinberg, they introduce citizens to new areas of the city.

"When you combine art, development and economics in new, interesting projects, they draw people to places they might not otherwise visit," says Steinberg, executive director of Penn Praxis.

Case in point: In its early days, the Fringe Festival staged multiple cultural events in unexpected places in Old City - church basements, hidden courtyards and such. So many events in a short period of time pulled newcomers to Old City, whose nooks and crannies had long gone unexplored. That helped spark interest in an area that has subsequently boomed.

"The Fringe helped pave the way for Old City's revitalization," Steinberg says.

Today's beer gardens do the same and then some, says the Horticultural Society's senior marketing director, Lisa Stephano. Although the South Street Beer Garden her organization sponsors hasn't raised much money for the society, it has introduced people to its City Harvest. The program creates green jobs and helps community gardeners share produce with families in need.

Says Stephano: "We're able to tell them, 'Hey, PHS creates beautiful gardens like this all over the city. Why not volunteer with us?' "

So would the society ever move its annual pop-up out of greater Center City and into dicier neighborhoods, where development catalysts are sorely needed?

"Absolutely," Stephano says. "We're in every neighborhood of the city already. We'd love that."

I'll drink to that.


Email: polaner@phillynews.com

Phone: 215-854-2217

On Twitter: @RonniePhilly

Blog: ph.ly/RonnieBlog

Columns: ph.ly/Ronnie

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