Turf Wars: Neighbors Gone Wild

For Stephen Starr and other Philly entrepreneurs, the biggest hurdle in launching a new project isn’t necessarily city bureaucracy. It’s powerful (and unelected) neighborhood groups out to get as much as they can

The subject of valet parking keeps the crowd wound up for maybe half the session. “Ten dollars!” shouts one man with graying hair. “To park!?”

“Good God!” someone else yells.
“That’s two beers!” hollers a heavyset woman in a flannel shirt.

But the requests made of Starr are what really stand out. Will he hire as many employees as he can from the Fishtown populace? “Sure,” says Starr, who famously told the New York Times it’s hard to find good help in all of Philadelphia.

“Will you donate money for a local park?” asks someone else.

“A garden?”

“Playground equipment?”

Starr nods yes but adds, to his credit, that it would be unseemly for anything like that to factor into the deal. But of course, it’s already too late. Now that the question has been asked and he’s nodded his answer, however squeamishly, a bargain seems struck. Welcome to Philadelphia, where seeking a back-scratch isn’t just for politicians. These sorts of quid-pro-quo deals are something too many neighborhoods expect. “Sometimes,” says former city managing director Phil Goldsmith, “you’ve got community groups asking for money or something in return for approving a project that should already be permitted under the zoning code. People won’t like me for saying this, but it’s pay-to-play politics—on a civic level.”

Perhaps even worse, the controversy isn’t always about what the neighborhood will get in return for supporting a project. Sometimes it’s simply about control, about neighborhoods telling business owners what they can and can’t do with the property they bought—from the signs they hang outside on opening day, to whom they can sell to when they leave.

That’s a lot of power to be invested in anyone, transforming the leaders of neighborhood groups into quasi-public officials. And the question going forward is, how can we rein in the power of leaders we never elected in the first place?

THE NOW DEFUNCT ANSILL, in Queen Village. The Jamaican Jerk Hut and Pico de Gallo, on South Street. The Sidecar Bar and Ten Stone, in the Graduate Hospital area. And Stephen Starr’s Washington Square.

To name a few.

Together, these restaurants encompass four Philadelphia neighborhoods and several different cuisines, but they all have one thing in common: They were, or are, embroiled in one of Philadelphia’s most common development controversies: outdoor dining.

It might seem like a stretch to refer to supping alfresco as “development.” But the restaurant renaissance remains a potent symbol of this city’s economic recovery. And the remaking of Center City is perhaps best embodied by the scene outside Rouge, where diners line the sidewalks across the street from the former “Rattenhouse” Square. After he opened in 1998, Rouge owner Neil Stein seemed to be sending a bold message by placing tables on the sidewalk. But since then, outdoor seating has cropped up everywhere—and faced a challenge at nearly every turn.