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July 18, 2018

The battle between a Northeast Philly bar and neighbors heats up with zoning decision

The return of the patio bar at Maggie's Waterfront Cafe is sure to reignite tensions in East Torresdale

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Carroll - Maggie's Waterfront Cafe Thom Carroll/PhillyVoice

Kevin Goodchild, owner of Maggie's Waterfront Cafe in East Torresdale, poses Tuesday for a photo outside the restaurant and bar. It opened 10 years ago. "The vision I had," he said, "was a neighborhood establishment with great food, great views and a feeling that everyone is welcomed."

The anonymous letter, passed out to selected homes in a pocket of Northeast Philadelphia, was detailed in content, with a side of petty in spirit.

“ATTENTION EAST TORRESDALE NEIGHBORS!!!!!” read the introduction to a list of grievances that an anonymous writer argued should be the focus of the area’s civic association instead of its fixation on Maggie’s Waterfront Café, a topic that’s long divided and galvanized residents of this riverside nook.

The complaints focus on “overgrown weeds,” a “drug rehab house,” “underage drinking and drug use” at the municipal boat dock and a school bus “parked all day along street illegally.” It asks questions like “when did a green tarp become exceptable (sic) window covering?”

Among the more memorable entries is this: “Linden and Delaware abandoned boat dock has ton of cats. Who owns that boat dock? Why aren’t they being asked to clean up that area?”

Its message was as clear as day: The East Torresdale Civic Association and those who attend its meetings need to end their hyper-focus on the seemingly ever-expanding bar and restaurant at North Delaware and Arendell avenues when there is a slew of other issues that need addressing.

“Neighborhood is being held back by this current civic association and board,” it concluded. “They block business growth and private property development. Come to a meeting and demand change, no just complaining about Maggie’s.”

But when you talk to people personally impacted by the restaurant, or to those on Maggie’s side of the bar, you quickly realize the tenor of the conversation won’t soon change.

EXPANSION AND CONFLICT

Kevin Goodchild is the youngest of seven who "all went to local Catholic grade schools and high schools." Three family members have served in the military and in the Philadelphia Police Department. He opened Maggie's Waterfront Cafe on March 1, 2008.

“They hate me .... I can’t get through a week without being a target, but when they bash me like they do, we just get busier." – Kevin Goodchild, owner of Maggie's Waterfront Cafe

"The vision I had was a neighborhood establishment with great food, great views and a feeling that everyone is welcomed," he said. "During the past 10 years, I have expanded from a small little bar to a full restaurant, catering and outdoor eatery. I purchased more property surrounding the establishment to accommodate the expansion."

The latter details is at the heart of a battle between Goodchild and locals which goes back at least six years, as stories in the Northeast Times have dutifully chronicled.

There’s one from 2012 in which the ETCA sought assurances about limiting expansion at the site. Goodchild presented more plans in 2016.

Last summer, the battle escalated when the bar was cited for operating an outdoor deck without a permit, prompting intervention from the city’s Department of Licenses and Inspections.

NoneBrian Hickey/PhillyVoice

The 46-seat outdoor deck area will soon reopen thanks to a recent Zoning Board decision.

While the deck has – depending on who you believe – been closed since then, the issue has lingered until today.

When Goodchild took over, it was a relatively small, self-contained taproom. 

Today, it’s a busy two-story restaurant and bar that hosts numerous benefits, both inside and out. In addition to that outdoor bar area and seating in front of the building, there’s now a parking lot to the south and a plot behind that will soon become employee parking. 

The property is hemmed in by a residential neighborhood near a park that offers gorgeous views of the Delaware River.

After a contentious civic-association meeting earlier this month, the Zoning Board of Adjustments apparently cleared the way for that back-lot project to begin, as well as enable Maggie’s to reopen the outdoor deck that neighbors consider the bane of their once-peaceful existence.

“They hate me,” Goodchild told PhillyVoice earlier this month. “The whole thing is as crazy as (national politics) are today, with liberals and conservatives not agreeing on anything. I can’t get through a week without being a target, but when they bash me like they do, we just get busier."

NUISANCE BAR OR THRIVING BUSINESS?

Hate is a rather strong word, even if City Councilman Bobby Henon thinks the Maggie's controversy – it preceded his election – has gotten deeply personal between the sides.

Strong dislike was the sense given off by some neighbors who feel that Goodchild bends the rules and expands his operations as he pleases, sometimes before getting formal approval.

People complain about late-night noise echoing throughout the neighborhood, parking availability so limited that people don’t go to Pleasant Hill Park for picnics anymore, and drivers recklessly screeching to a halt on dead-end streets.

NoneBrian Hickey /PhillyVoice

The ground rules are posted on a sign in the outdoor seating area in front of Maggie's Waterfront Cafe.

ETCA Vice President Bill Kennedy said the years-long battle has left some in the community calling Maggie’s a “nuisance bar,” but state Liquor Control Board records list just two citations against the establishment. 

A 2010 complaint about noise being audible beyond the property line resulted in a $1,000 fine and a similar complaint the following year prompted a $400 fine.

According to the Pennsylvania State Police’s Bureau of Liquor Enforcement, there was one warning issued about violating the conditional licensing agreement under which Maggie’s has operated since 2009. (That CLA meant Maggie’s had to end outdoor alcohol service at 10 p.m. Monday through Wednesday and at midnight Thursday through Sunday.)

Deana Gamble, spokeswoman for Philadelphia Mayor James Kenney, noted there are “a series of building permit violations in Common Pleas Court,” issues that have drawn L&I interest and intervention over the years, including as recently as last week.

The recent ZBA decision, which allows Maggie’s to reopen its outdoor beer garden until 9:30 p.m., will likely stoke the long-simmering concerns.

“We don’t know who wrote the letter. It could have been any number of neighbors who live there,” said Kennedy of the ETCA. “If someone is so angry at the East Torresdale Civic Association Board to say these things, though, I think the board is probably doing the right thing.”

NoneThom Carroll/PhillyVoice

The facade of Maggie's Waterfront Cafe on North Delaware Avenue in Northeast Philadelphia. “Neighbors are pissed,” said one nearby resident. “Maggie’s is the neighbor from hell.”

LIFE NEAR PLEASANT HILL PARK

Allan Babnew thinks he knows who wrote the letter, but wouldn’t offer up a name. Still, he was more than willing to discuss the Maggie’s problem when a reporter knocked on his door last week.

“We could talk about this all day if you want,” he said. “C’mon in.”

Babnew lives on Germania Street. From the rear window of his home, he looks out at the back of the restaurant-bar, specifically a shed area apparently built before permits were issued. 

“(Goodchild) says he wants to work with us, but all he really wants to do is make more money.” – Allan Babnew, Maggie's neighbor

To the side of his home is an empty lot where trucks make deliveries that will soon be used for employee parking.

“Neighbors are pissed,” said Babnew. “Maggie’s is the neighbor from hell.”

Babnew spoke about noisy trucks showing up before sunrise despite the business saying it doesn’t accept deliveries until 7 a.m. He said he thinks the political fix is in, and the connected business owner is on the good side of it.

He shared a text-message exchange, purportedly with Goodchild, that he’d saved on his cellphone. It starts with complaints about cleaning crews making noise at 3:47 a.m. and trucks showing up between 4 and 5 a.m.

“You should move,” came the response. “Please tell me a price for your property.”

Babnew is not interested in moving. What he wants is a neighbor who lives up to community standards and promises already made.

And he's not too keen about “having a hole in the side of my house” from people doing donuts in their vehicles on the parking lot next door. Rocks are propelled at such force into the side of his home he has ducked at the sound, thinking it was gunfire.

He also doesn't like dealing with mud and muck creeping onto his front lawn because a delivery truck ripped up the ground.

“(Goodchild) says he wants to work with us,” Babnew said, “but all he really wants to do is make more money.”

NoneBrian Hickey/PhillyVoice

The lot between Allan Babnew's home, at right, and Maggie's Waterfront Cafe will soon become a parking area for employees. Delivery trucks often approach the back door before the sun rises, according to the neighbor.

'HE DOES WHATEVER HE WANTS'

Babnew is one of the more vociferous critics in a neighborhood dotted with new homes that could fit in in Northern Liberties or other development-heavy neighborhoods, and some older properties seemingly held together with duct tape and strategically placed tarps.

A minute's stroll away from Babnew's house, on a dead-end block of North Delaware Avenue, the responses are more measured.

One neighbor complains about cars that screech to a halt when drivers realize the street is a dead end. One almost hit his vehicle before driving over logs into the park in an effort to get out of the neighborhood. 

His brother also brought my attention to a light in the park that’s been broken since Hurricane Sandy. It’d be nice if the city did something about repairing it, he said.

“There’s a personal distrust between both sides. It’s all personal. It’s not even about the business anymore." – Philadelphia councilman Bobby Henon

Steven and Beverly Armitage also live on this three-home block. They're just one house and a street crosswalk away from Maggie’s side deck, shielded from view by a line of trees.

The noise used to penetrate their walls. Beverly said it hasn’t been as bad since the deck was closed, but it can still be annoying.

Steven questioned why the city hasn’t put parking meters along the street in front of the bar. Goodchild's customers grab up the free parking to go inside and spend money, he said.

“He does whatever he wants,” Beverly sighed. “Whatever he wants, he gets.”

Steven recalled the days when the location was called Mimi’s Lounge (“until it was set on fire”) and said the traffic and parking issues related to Maggie’s is what’s really changed the tenor of the situation in their eyes. They’ve lived here for 36 years.

“A lot of peaceful stuff used to happen over in that park. People driving up and having picnics. People coming to take wedding pictures,” he said. “Now, there’s no room for that.”

NoneBrian Hickey/PhillyVoice

Pleasant Hill Park, across the street from Maggie's Waterfront Cafe, doesn't draw as many picnickers as it used to, according to neighbors.

'BOILING POINT'

Henon said this sort of friction is why he and state Rep. Mike Driscoll intervened. He said the battle – he termed it “mostly political” – festered when former councilwoman Joan Krajewski chose not to get involved.

“It was time to try and bring the community and business together,” he said. “It’s become so personal.”

Henon said some neighbors have valid concerns while others, including the person he suspects as having been behind the anonymous letter, “would like to run for president of the civic association.” (When that resident asked for parking meters on North Delaware Avenue, Henon said he told him to gather neighborhood signatures; that never happened, he said.)

He shared a letter that he and Driscoll co-signed in advance of the recent ZBA decision.

In it, he explains the strained relationship that's reached a "boiling point" and notes that a "successful business on the waterfront in Northeast Philadelphia should be a positive thing."

It called on Maggie's to ensure it maintains and landscapes the new employee parking lot, restrict loud music outside after 9:30 p.m., clean up trash (including cigarette butts) on the exterior, have a security worker "to discourage inebriated patrons from disturbing the peace," restrict deliveries to the hours of 8 to 10 a.m. and try to work with residents. 

“There’s a personal distrust between both sides. It’s all personal. It’s not even about the business anymore. Kevin’s bedside manner isn’t the greatest, but this is all a result of the trust issues,” Henon said. “My job is to make sure that community interests are looked after and the business can operate. Maggie’s was there before some people bought or built houses nearby.”

None

An anonymous list of neighborhood grievances was distributed to some homes in a pocket of Northeast Philadelphia, where the East Torresdale Civic Association has a long-simmering relationship with the owner of Maggie’s Waterfront Café.

WHAT NOW?

Henon said part of the ZBA approval involves Maggie’s committing to limited hours of operation of the 46-seat outdoor deck area, cleanup and other caveats. There’s talk of creating a “Maggie’s advisory committee” composed of representatives of the business, community and his and Driscoll’s offices.

“We’ve got to hold Maggie’s accountable,” he said. “I have no problem going back (to the ZBA) and, if they aren't, saying they’re not being good neighbors, but they can’t be subject to selective prosecution.

“For every horrible thing they say about him, he does three things that benefit the neighborhood." – Maggie's manager Tracie Schmidheiser, of owner Kevin Goodchild 

"We’ll hold the business accountable and listen to the community. That’s why it’s an open-ended community benefits agreement.”

Some of the neighbors don’t hold much faith in that.

Kennedy, of the civic group, hearkened back to a track record of violating previous agreements.

“In order for him to come up with an agreement that the neighborhood would like, it has to have teeth,” Kennedy said. “What he's said doesn't offer anything substantial. We’ve asked him to put money into an escrow account in case the agreement was violated, that he’d have to forfeit to the civic (association) if he does. He doesn’t offer anything that would hurt him if he violates it.

“When he opened up, he said it would be a nice family-friendly restaurant and neighborhood bar. It was really misrepresented. We’ve had problems there ever since.”

NoneBrian Hickey/PhillyVoice

Among the neighborhood complaints listed by an anonymous East Torresdale resident was an abandoned dock that's been overrun with feral cats.

'THEY JUST WANT TO BEAT US'

The whole mess is something that Tracie Schmidheiser can’t wrap her head around. The Maggie's manager remembers heading to a civic association meeting on behalf of Goodchild and barely being able to set foot inside before neighbors beset her with accusations.

“They just want to beat us,” she said. “The most messed-up part about it is that Maggie’s gives back more to the community than any other bar in Northeast Philly. I grew up here, so I know that.”

Employees have pooled their tips and given them to people in need, like the underprivileged girl who wouldn’t have been able to afford her prom without a $700 donation, and not long ago giving a percentage of total daily sales to support autism awareness.

“For every horrible thing they say about him, he does three things that benefit the neighborhood,” Schmidheiser said. “Do they want a scumbag bar owner or someone who’s working to make it look better all the time?

“It’s a shame that they only want to promote negativity. We’re doing the best we can to make sure it’s a family-friendly environment," she said. "Sure, on Friday night it can turn into ‘Club Maggie’s’ but we’re doing a good job of controlling that. They complain about us blocking the streets even when we’re blocking them for a good cause. We really do try to be charitable and philanthropic. I don’t think anybody sees any of that.”

Of the haters, she said, "It’s a bunch of old guys who have nothing better to do."

Goodchild said that he's "donated hundreds of thousands of dollars" during the past decade to "police, fire, military, autism, cancer, organ-donation (causes) and any family that has fallen on hard times due to medical conditions."

"I feel like I lost the support of the civic group and some neighbors when I started to do the block-party type benefits to raise money for different charities," he said, noting that his ties to some of the groups for which funds are being raised explain, in part, the spirit of giving back. "We did raise a lot of money, but we also did create some chaos in the neighborhood due to the great turnout for the events, which was usually two times a year."

He came off as frustrated by the criticisms but ready to move forward with future plans.

He said the civic board is stacked against him and defended his business.

“I’m always the target. They say I lied to them. Maybe I did things I shouldn’t have done, but they were ‘no, no, no’ people. They just don’t want me to be able to do anything,” he said. “At one meeting, I told them I’ll let the bar go away if you let me put condos on the land. Well, one of the people on the board said we don’t want multi-family homes there. It’s just crazy, dude.”

In all likelihood, it'll continue being crazy, which is why L&I's Karen Guss offered some measured words for a case that is quite familiar to her department.

"We've done a lot of work on this," she said, noting that L&I issued the cease operations order for the outdoor deck last year. "People should let us know if there are continuing violations. People shouldn't assume we know about everything that's going on there. Call 311. Let us know. We will follow up."

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