Walking by one of Philadelphia's new pop-up beer gardens, you probably wouldn't guess it’s at the center of a huge fight. Decked out with flowers and hammocks, some of the establishments have brought life to long-abandoned lots.
But they've also recently pit state lawmakers and bar owners against beer geeks and local nonprofits.
It all began when the Philadelphia Daily News revealed last week that pop-ups run by the Pennsylvania Horticultural Society and the Fairmount Park Conservancy are serving beer under a loophole in the law.
The article prompted four legislators to write to the Pennsylvania Liquor Control Board, expressing "grave concern" about its interpretation of the law. In Pennsylvania, restaurants and other businesses with liquor licenses are allowed to sell alcohol at unlicensed locations if they buy a catering permit. Lawmakers say the permits were only meant for private, one-day events, but the PLCB is granting them to beer gardens open for weeks and even months.
"The application of the law by your agency allows for the purposeful misuse of the permits," the legislators said in the letter. "PLCB members should put an immediate stop to this practice."
Setting a bad precedent?
State Rep. John Taylor, R-Philadelphia, is chairman of the House Liquor Control Committee and one of the lawmakers who wrote to the PLCB. He said he isn't worried about the current pop-ups, but about ones that might open with little regulation in the future.
To obtain a liquor license in Philadelphia, attorneys say you must typically pay $90,000 and jump through several bureaucratic hoops. Comparatively, the requirements for a catering permit are lax: You have to fill out a one-page application and pay $500 to cater as many as 50 events each year.
"How do I stop these things if they're unwanted, if they're in neighborhoods right on top of other residents?" said Taylor. "This could start an industry that we didn't intend all over the place. They wouldn't be always the nice atmosphere that people have seen."
But supporters say beer gardens, rather than detract from an area’s quality-of-life, actually enhance it. Amber Beasley, 23, was relaxing in a hammock on a recent weekday at the PHS’ pop-up beer garden on South Street. She sees it as a huge improvement over the empty lot that used to be there.
"With the trees and whatnot, it kind of looks like a little getaway in the middle of the city," she said. "Like a little paradise."
Beasley is troubled that officials are talking about restrictions on the beer gardens.
"Pop-up gardens should be encouraged, not kind of shut down, because I think they're a great project and they represent all the good that Philly can do," she said.
Alan Jaffe, a spokesman for PHS, which has operated pop-up beer gardens in the past, said no neighbors have complained about quality-of-life issues. "Quite the opposite," he said. "We have been asked by all the neighborhoods where we've been located to please continue the gardens through the fall."
The South Street West Business Association, whose members include bars, also supports the PHS beer garden, arguing that it attracts patrons to the general area. The Jamaican Jerk Hut, which is located next to the pop-up, has hired five additional employees because of the spike in business.
An unfair advantage?
Support for the beer gardens doesn't stop there: As of Wednesday evening, almost 3,000 people had signed an online petition demanding lawmakers abandon any plans that could shut down the beer gardens. Taylor also said he has heard from "thousands" of people angry about his letter. In his almost 30 years in office, he said he has gotten more input on this issue than any other: "More than education, more than the cigarette tax, more than budgets, more than anything. Which is surprising.”
But John Longacre, president of the Philadelphia Licensed Beverage Association, believes Taylor and the other lawmakers are "100 percent spot-on." Longacre said that the PLCB's interpretation of the law has given pop-ups an unfair advantage.
"Why would they be allowed to do that for a [$500] fee," he said, "when everybody else has to go buy a $100,000 liquor license?”
Longacre, who owns such taverns as the South Philadelphia Tap Room and American Sardine Bar, said he is a huge proponent of beer gardens. In fact, he opened one at Sardine Bar. But he said the PLCB’s lax treatment of the pop-ups is inconsistent with the way it usually treats liquor licensees. Look at the bureaucratic red tape required to hold a one-day outdoor beer festival at your own establishment, he said.
"You have to file a liquor extension premise permit for the day and you have to get site plans. You have to post bonds. It's an incredibly arduous procedure to do a single event," he said. "That’s why a pop-up beer garden popping up out of nowhere … is upsetting to other licensees."
Help from nearby businesses
However, Kathryn Ott Lovell, executive director of the Fairmount Park Conservancy, said the nonprofit hopes its pop-up beer garden on Eakins Oval will help area businesses by bringing in tens of thousands of guests. She said no bar owners have complained about it: "Not a one. We haven't had any negative response to what we've been doing whatsoever."
Lovell said the Fairmount Park Conservancy was not responsible for obtaining the beer garden's catering permit. She said its partner, the Trocadero Theatre, handled that matter. The Trocadero did not return a call for comment.
PHS also said it partners, Vintage Wine Bar, Time and Garage, dealt with the permitting. Jason Evenchik, who owns the three taverns, said it would not be appropriate to purchase a liquor license for the PHS pop-up beer gardens, which are held in a different vacant lot every year and open only for a few months.
"It's very ephemeral," he said. "It's also a donated piece of an empty lot. ... I don't even know if you could put a liquor license there."
If the temporary beer gardens were forced to obtain liquor licenses in the future, he said it would likely put them out of business: "To purchase a liquor license for something that's going to be around for a couple months, open five hours a day, your return on investment probably wouldn't shake out."
Beer gardens with permits can stay — for now
PLCB Chairman Joseph "Skip" Brion said in a statement that pop-up beer gardens using catering permits can stay open for now.
"As always, we as a board listen to the legislature and we will attempt to address their concerns," he said. "However, any licensees that have been issued off-premises catering permits will be able to continue to operate in accordance with those permits."
The beer gardens at Spruce Street Harbor Park and Independence Mall West, meanwhile, are not utilizing the loophole and therefore not at risk of being shut down. The Delaware River Waterfront Corporation, which operates the Spruce Street site, has a liquor license for the venue. The Independence Beer Garden is pursuing a license, according to the PLCB.
Whether pop-up beer gardens such as the Fairmount Park Conservancy's will be around next summer will likely be up for debate in the state Legislature in the coming months. If the PLCB does not apply more scrutiny to pop-ups in the future, Taylor said, the General Assembly should "change the law to allow them or to find a way to disallow them."
"I'm the last guy you're going to hear complain about drinking beer outside. I think it's wonderful," he said. "But it has to comply with some semblance of the law."
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