Bike rack, or beer rack?

The city wants Fishtown's Green Rock Tav­ern to get rid of their bike rack - in their eyes, an il­leg­al side­walk cafe.

When Jam­ie Ma­hon, co-own­er of the Green Rock Tav­ern on East Le­high Av­en­ue, com­mis­sioned a loc­al artist to build a bike rack for his side­walk a few years ago, he thought he was do­ing a good thing.

His goal? Dis­cour­age people from driv­ing to the bar, at 2546 E. Le­high, and pre­vent pat­rons from lock­ing their bikes to nearby trees and rail­ings. Plus, at $2,500, he hoped the sculp­tured steel frame would add a little street art to this part of Le­high, also home to Stocks Bakery and the Port­side Arts Cen­ter.

But on June 2, he got an un­wel­come let­ter from the city’s De­part­ment of Li­censes and In­spec­tion. In the  de­part­ment’s eyes, the struc­ture — about 4 feet high and 6 feet long with a 3-inch rail along the top — wasn’t just a bike rack.

It’s also, al­legedly, a beer rack.

More ac­cur­ately, the city is deem­ing Ma­hon’s bike rack an il­leg­al “side­walk caf&ea­cute;.”

The vi­ol­a­tion cites a “bike rack w/bar counter top (that holds cus­tom­ers bever­ages),” and or­ders that the bike rack be re­moved with­in 35 days. If the il­leg­al “side­walk caf&ea­cute;” is still there after three in­spec­tions, the bar could be fined $75 by the city, with sub­sequent fines spik­ing to as much as $300.

Now, there are a few de­grees of irony here.

First of all, Ma­hon’s bike rack is, in fact, il­leg­al — wheth­er it’s hold­ing bikes, as in­ten­ded, or beers, as some cus­tom­ers have in­ter­preted its use. (Green Rock policy for­bids tak­ing beers out­side, but Ma­hon said with the in­door smoking ban, “it’s really hard to con­trol.”) 

The bike racks were in­stalled sev­er­al years ago, and the bar nev­er got of­fi­cial per­mis­sion from the city.

But Henry Py­att, com­mer­cial cor­ridor man­ager for the New Kens­ing­ton Com­munity De­vel­op­ment Corp., said that up un­til a few months ago, there was no clear or easy way for busi­ness own­ers to ap­ply to the Streets De­part­ment for bike rack per­mits.

“There is a pro­cess for that now, and it’s not hard to do,” Py­att said of new bike rack per­mit. “But [Green Rock] did build it be­fore the city even had a per­mit pro­cess.”

He said as long as a rack isn’t block­ing the street, im­ped­ing use of the side­walk, or dan­ger­ous in some oth­er way, the Streets De­part­ment has been fairly quick to “leg­al­ize” ex­ist­ing racks and al­low new ones — something he thinks stems from the city’s push to en­cour­age more bikes on Philly’s streets.

In that, Ma­hon sees a bit­ter sort of irony.

“You have artists get­ting grants to put bike racks all along Frank­ford Av­en­ue, and that’s like four blocks away,” Ma­hon said of the NK­CDC’s “artracks” pro­gram. “Here, I took money out of my own pock­et, and now the city is try­ing to make me take it down.”

Again, the city of­fi­cially isn’t try­ing to get rid of a bike rack — it’s try­ing to shut down what is seen as an il­leg­al side­walk caf&ea­cute;. Ma­hon said the day he got the vi­ol­a­tion no­tice, sev­er­al pat­rons had taken chairs out­side, which he be­lieves led to the crack­down.

Maura Kennedy, an L&I spokes­wo­man, said the vi­ol­a­tion was “promp­ted by a com­plaint that this res­taur­ant was us­ing the area for side­walk seat­ing.”

While she said she was un­cer­tain if in­spect­ors have guidelines for what con­sti­tutes out­door seat­ing, she said she be­lieved the com­plaint arose be­cause pat­rons were al­lowed to bring chairs out­side.

“If he doesn’t have the per­mit­ting, he shouldn’t be let­ting his cus­tom­ers re­con­fig­ure his space to be used as side­walk seat­ing,” said Kennedy. “If it’s be­ing used as a bike rack, it’s a bike rack. If you’re us­ing it as a table, it’s side­walk seat­ing.” 

Even if the bar broke rules about how many chairs and tables they’re al­lowed to have out­side without a caf&ea­cute; per­mit, Ma­hon doesn’t think the bike rack should have to be a cas­u­alty in straight­en­ing the prob­lem out.

And while he has looked in­to side­walk seat­ing, Ma­hon has nev­er ser­i­ously con­sidered ap­ply­ing for a per­mit.

“I just don’t think this part of the neigh­bor­hood is ready for it yet,” said Ma­hon.

He also dis­putes that his bike rack qual­i­fies for what the city calls a side­walk caf&ea­cute;.

The Phil­adelphia Code defines a “side­walk caf&ea­cute;” as  “An open-air space on the pub­lic side­walk dir­ectly abut­ting, ad­ja­cent and con­tigu­ous to a res­taur­ant or any premises li­censed by the Pennsylvania Li­quor Con­trol Board … where food is served at tables and chairs.”

To be fair, you might be able to lay a cheesesteak length­wise along the top of the bike rack, but call­ing its 3-inch grate a “table” might seem a stretch.

Mo­tion­ing to his win­dowsills, Ma­hon ar­gues that any bar in the city with sim­il­ar fea­tures could be cited with op­er­at­ing an il­leg­al side­walk caf&ea­cute; un­der the same premise.

The whole is­sue, though, un­der­scores a big­ger point — pat­rons leg­ally shouldn’t be bring­ing drinks out­side in the first place.

Sgt. Wil­li­am LaT­orre works for the State Po­lice’s loc­al li­quor en­force­ment branch, and said both the bar and pat­ron could run in­to prob­lems with the law if the cor­rect per­mit­ting isn’t in place.

On one hand, if the bar doesn’t have an “ex­ten­sion of premises” per­mit, the own­er could be fined by the state for let­ting pat­rons leave with drinks. The bar own­er also could get slapped with not hav­ing side­walk per­mits by the city, which is what happened at Green Rock. Fi­nally, city po­lice could also charge pat­rons with vi­ol­at­ing loc­al “open con­tain­er” laws.

With that in mind, Ma­hon is won­der­ing if the whole is­sue might be dealt with simply by pla­cing a sign on the bike rack that warns pat­rons about pla­cing food or drink along the rail.

But, when it comes to get­ting rid of the bike rack, he’s adam­ant that it should stay, and he’s plan­ning on fil­ing per­mits with the Streets De­part­ment to make the rack of­fi­cial.

To him, it’s a small but im­port­ant part of bring­ing more life to this stretch of Le­high Av­en­ue.

“To me, this whole thing is just back­wards,” Ma­hon said of the city try­ing to re­move the bike rack.

Py­att, of the NK­CDC, ex­pressed a sim­il­ar sen­ti­ment.

“I think it would be a loss to Le­high Av­en­ue and a loss to the busi­ness to lose that bike rack,” said Py­att.

Kennedy, of L&I, isn’t even con­vinced that the vi­ol­a­tion is in­ten­ded to make Green Rock get rid of the bike rack.

She said if sub­sequent in­spec­tions find the struc­ture is be­ing used as a bike rack — without chairs and pat­rons — the in­spect­or wouldn’t likely write up the tav­ern.

“With us, the biggest thing is com­pli­ance,” said Kennedy. 

Re­port­er Bri­an Rademaekers can be reached at 215 354 3039 or 

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