The American Sardine Bar, ever on the horizon, appears to have finally cleared its last hurdle. For the moment, at least.
Earlier this week, we attended a community meeting organized by South Philly H.O.M.E.S., or SPHINC for short. The room, split roughly 50/50 between newer and older residents of Point Breeze, was tense from the start. About fifty members of the Point Breeze Community were present to hear two presentations: a local developer seeking approval to purchase some vacant city lots, and John Longacre, owner of The American Sardine Bar. The memorable presentation by the developer will warrant a post of its own, but to examine Longacre’s presentation will require some additional background and context.
With the use as a bar on the first floor already permitted and his liquor license ready to go, Longacre still required approval from the ZBA to legally use the 2nd floor of the building for his business. Seating and a kitchen were already present on the 2nd floor and had been used illegally over the years by the prior owner of the building, the Wander Inn. With input from many neighbors who live on the 1800 block of Federal near the building, petition signatures from hundreds of residents living in Point Breeze, and letters of support from the Point Breeze Pioneers, Al Brown’s Point Breeze Performing Arts Center, Newbold CDC, and Neighbors in Action, the ZBA voted unanimously in favor of the project at 1800 Federal St. on May 18th. So what was John Longacre doing at 1444 Point Breeze Ave. on Monday night?
Longacre, who also owns the South Philly Tap Room, has expressed his frustration with this process, suggesting that Point Breeze has presented more of a challenge to his development efforts than any other neighborhood. This difficulty comes not only from certain specific individuals in the community, but from Council President Anna Verna herself. Case in point: Anna Verna’s office submitted a notice of lawsuit dated June 9, 2011 to Common Pleas Court asking the ZBA to reconsider its vote.
Verna defended her office’s position by stating; “Longacre had us believing that there was community support. We were told that there was never a community meeting with his plans presented.” When reminded of the three community meetings held in 2010, letters of support coming from residents and civic groups in both 2010 and 2011, and the hundreds of petition signatures, Verna stated “We were not made aware of this.” Verna’s response when presented with the facts about community support, which seemed overwhelmingly stronger than opposition, was “Who can you trust?”
In the Point Breeze neighborhood, we can understand Verna’s confusion. With a variety of neighborhood groups and community associations representing different viewpoints of different people who live in Point Breeze, it must be totally impossible to get a handle on what the community actually desires. And when a group takes a position that someone doesn’t like? As Point Breeze resident Tiffany Green stated at the meeting, “I’ll hold my own meeting and we’ll take our own vote.” A fine way to find consensus, if we do say so.
Longacre’s presentation was in response to the lawsuit notice from Verna’s office. He negotiated that he would appear at one more community meeting, a SPHINC meeting, to present his case to legalize the restaurant use of the 2nd floor. Verna’s office agreed that if he received support from the community at this meeting, it would drop the suit. Longacre’s presentation lasted perhaps sixty seconds and then he responded to a couple of questions and accusations. One near neighbor, Silvia Wilkins, opined that Longacre was presenting a plan for a bar that was different than what he intended to operate. She also suggested that the former owner had breached an agreement with SPHINC that he would present a potential buyer to the community before selling. Seems like a tough agreement to enforce.
In the end, the American Sardine Bar did indeed receive the support of the community by a large majority, which cleared the way for his use variance.
This was an outcome that Ms. Wilkins did not care for. Following the meeting, Wilkins and Longacre exchanged some heated words which ultimately led to her physically assaulting him. Longacre emerged from this confrontation with some minor scratches and bruises, and Wilkins emerged in handcuffs, arrested by the same police officers who had been called to the meeting earlier, for an unrelated matter.
So there you have it, folks. American Sardine Bar should be landing in about a month, marking the end of a terribly challenging process for John Longacre and perhaps the beginning of a new era for Point Breeze. And we can certainly drink to that.