Twee West Philly Restaurant Fences In Big Chunk of Public Sidewalk

The ironically named William Street Common has placed a long, tall "barrier" around its sidewalk cafe. But is it really the anti-urbanist land grab it appears at first glance?

The "barrier" surrounding the William Street Common sidewalk cafe at 39th and Chestnut in University City. | All photos by Patrick Kerkstra.

The “barrier” surrounding the William Street Common sidewalk cafe at 39th and Chestnut in University City. | Most photos by Patrick Kerkstra.

Some quiet chatter on social media Tuesday alerted Citified to a long, tall fence surrounding the sidewalk cafe of the new William Street Common bar and restaurant at 39th and Chestnut streets in West Philadelphia. The establishment, which opened in February, is owned by power restaurateur Avram Hornik (Morgan’s Pier, Union Transfer, Boot & Saddle and more), and it features cocktails in mason jars, a hyped no-tipping policy, and, if I remember right, mismatched, self-serve tableware. All of it is a bit twee for West Philly, but it’s a nice place nonetheless.

But just look at that monster fence! It’s attractive, as far as fences go, but it’s jarring to see such a big swath of public sidewalk cordoned off for what is so clearly a private use. Most outdoor cafes commandeer public space to one degree or another, of course. But somehow it feels very different when passersby get to gaze at the leisurely patrons and their food, and vice versa. Sidewalk cafes are supposed to feel like a part of the streetscape. They’re supposed to blend private space with public space.

There’s no blending with this fence. Just taking. And it’s not at all clear that this cafe, as constructed, is permitted by city law.

Citified emailed a picture of the fence and a few questions about the sidewalk cafe permit for this address to the mayor’s office. In response, Nutter administration press secretary Mark McDonald said that the city would be checking out the situation.

“The distance between the fence and the tree appears to be inadequate. Streets Dept is sending out an inspector to measure the pedestrian clearance,” McDonald said in an email. “In addition, the fence would require an encroachment ordinance approved by City Council.”

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The establishment has held a valid permit to operate a sidewalk cafe since 2009 (William Street Common opened in February, but there have been other restaurants and bars at the site for years). That permit is slated to expire at the end of the month, and one wonders about a renewal, given the fence.

City Council did in fact authorize the sidewalk cafe for 3900 Chestnut back in 2009, but the legislation makes no mention of a fence, and it explicitly says “no rails will be used.”  And while I didn’t have a tape measure handy, it seems that the cafe is encroaching on a lot more than the five feet of sidewalk specified in the legislation.

So. Slam dunk urbanism offense, right?

Actually, I’m not so sure. Hornik offers a series of explanations for the fence and described the entire William Street Common establishment as an attempt to build community, not exclude passers-by.

William Street Common put in the outside dining area last month. It seats 60, and from the inside it’s quite lovely.

Photo from Foobooz.

Photo from Foobooz.

But before Hornik gets to the merits of his case, he wants to correct my language.

“It’s not a fence,” Hornik says. “They are plant holders that are attached to the picnic tables.”

Well, it really looks like a fence to me, I tell him. If that’s not a fence, what is? “I guess a fence would be something you attach to the sidewalk,” Hornik says. “This is attached to the tables. This is part of the tables.”

He prefers to call it a “barrier.” I’m not sure how that helps.

Anyway, his argument gets stronger from there.

Before the “barrier” went in, Hornik says, outside dining on Chestnut was a non-starter. “Because cars suck. People didn’t want to sit out there because there are five lanes of traffic riding down Chestnut Street,” Hornik says. It’s actually three lanes of traffic, a parking lane, and a turning lane, but Hornik is right. That stretch of Chestnut is basically a highway with stoplights every block. Directly across the street is a Boston Market restaurant, with a big parking lot. This is not Rittenhouse Square we’re talking about. You can see the appeal for William Street Common. After putting in the er, enclosed, dining area, all that unsightliness is easily forgotten by patrons.

Ok, but what about the impact at street level? How bad is this for pedestrians? Well, foot traffic on that block is actually quite light. A block further west, on 40th and Chestnut, there’s plenty of activity. And a few blocks closer to Penn and Drexel, Chestnut is crowded with pedestrians. But there’s not a lot going on on the 3900 block. I stopped by around 5 p.m. Tuesday, and there were hardly crowds queuing up to squeeze by the sidewalk chokepoint created by the fenced-in (sorry Avram, it’s a fence) outdoor dining area.

And then there’s this wrinkle. Right around the block, on the much quieter, less-trafficked 39th Street side of the corner lot the restaurant occupies, William Street Common has placed a row of Adirondack chairs on a platform filled with sand. With no fence or barrier of any kind. And it certainly looks as though anybody is welcome to sit down, whether they’re a customer or not..

William-Street-Common-Adirondack In other words, William Street Commons commandeered a big chunk of one sidewalk, and then enhanced — for public access — another chunk. It’s not entirely clear to me that they have clearance to use those Adirondack chairs, but city-approved or not, they’re clearly a nice public amenity.

Hornik says he’s received no complaints at all from local residents about the fence. “No one has ever said anything about this. No one has ever called us or written us or walked in and mentioned it,” Hornik says. “There’s nothing but overwhelming support and appreciation for what we’re trying to do there.”

So. What do readers think? Is this a dubious taking of public land? Or a case of an entrepreneur improving a block that definitely could use more activity?