Beyond the wood-fired pizzas and lambic beers, the ivy-wrapped trellises and twinkly lights, a battle is a-brewing in Chestnut Hill.
Residents who live directly behind the neighborhood’s beer garden have sued its owners, contending that the al fresco spot has become a nuisance that is causing property values to plummet and residents to lose sleep. A popular recent expansion, they contend, violates a 1981 covenant, between neighbors and the deed holder, promising that the lot the garden is now built on would be used only for parking.
“Everybody says, ‘What’s wrong with you? What’d you not like beer?’” said Jay Overcash, who has owned a house next to the beer garden since the 1980s. “We all love beer. What we have a problem with is turning the whole place into a loud beer festival every weekend.”
The garden is located outside Market at the Fareway, a miniature Reading Terminal Market, of sorts, with restaurant vendors, butchers, and bakers. While most vendors close in the late afternoon, Chestnut Hill Brewing Co. continues serving pizza and beer until 9 p.m. Wednesdays, Thursday, and Sundays, and 10 p.m. on Fridays and Saturdays.
The lawsuit, filed in May by 25 residents on Ardleigh Street and Hartwell Lane, seeks damages of more than $50,000 and contends that the beer garden has caused “increased and excessive noise, light, odors, fumes, disturbances, parking problems, diminished privacy, interference with sleep and quality of life, deterioration of the residential neighborhood, and depreciation of property values.”
A countersuit was filed by the owners, Glengarry Properties, on June 28.
For younger families, many of them Center City transplants, the beer garden is no nuisance. It’s an easygoing, dog-friendly watering hole in an area better known for stuffier, sit-down restaurants, as Tiffica Benza put it.
“There’s a lot more people in Chestnut Hill with families, younger children, who want family-friendly places to go,” said Benza, nibbling on a margherita pizza last week with her 3½-year-old son and husband. “We have younger people who used to live downtown, in Passayunk or Kensington — real food destinations. You move out here and you still want good food and places you can enjoy a beer and pizza and walk home, just like folks downtown do.”
“And it’s good pizza,” Benza stressed. “It’s hard to find good food in Chestnut Hill.”
On a Wednesday evening, when the garden holds a Quizzo tournament, by 7 p.m. the parking lot was full. The crowd was mostly families sitting at picnic tables eating pizzas and sampling flights of beer.
“I just don’t understand,” said Robyn Watkins, who lives in Chestnut Hill with her husband and kids, ages 1 and 3. “It’s not a place you go when you’re 21 and you’re going to hang out and get smashed. It’s a place where families with kids who are in bed by 9 p.m. are going.” She said the market had struggled, but the pizza-and-beer combo revitalized the place.
This is hardly the first time neighbors have contested an outdoor spot in Philadelphia. As pop-up gardens have gained popularity, made possible, in part, to a legal loophole, neighborhood concerns have flowed. Proposed beer gardens in Point Breeze and Fishtown were both abandoned in recent years after community outcry.
Several neighbors said the lawsuit wasn’t so much about the noise, but mistrust stemming from feelings that they weren’t included in plans for the beer garden’s expansion.
“I think there’s the mentality of we’re just the whiny neighbors in the backyard,” said Greg Yaeger, a 32-year-old accountant for Urban Outfitters. “But for me, this is a community where people who own businesses live and work together, and this feels like we got the one bad apple. [The owner is] not playing by the rules that Chestnut Hill has always seemed to have.”
Owners Ron and Abby Pete also own the hotel next door. They declined to be interviewed. Their lawyer, Ralph Wellington, said the couple has worked to soothe neighbors’ concerns. When a refrigeration truck was too loud, another was purchased. When neighbors complained about kids running around, they built more of a contained outdoor space.
Wellington said he does not believe his client is violating the covenant, which when drawn up in 1981 also banned pornography stores, auto repair shops, and pinball arcades on the premises.
Quaint Chestnut Hill has been home to some high-powered fights over challenges to its time-honored ways of life. The group of neighbors fighting the beer garden includes architects, lawyers, and Realtors well-versed in the city’s zoning laws. They put together a detailed, 59-page PowerPoint presentation to lay out their concerns and allegations.
Martha Hill, a local real estate agent, lives in a brick rowhouse directly behind the beer garden. On a recent sunny afternoon, she was baking granola and wrapping gifts for clients. Hill said she sees new people as key to Chestnut Hill’s growth, but she worries about the development that could follow.
“The old guard is dying out,” said Hill, a plaintiff in the lawsuit. “The old, WASPy biddies, they’re still around, but the flavor’s changing, and there’s a lot of people who want to live here, and those gargantuan homes that take a lot of money to maintain, they’re being sold and they’re either torn down or turned into condos.”
Her biggest issue with the beer garden is the apparent violation of the covenant. If the owner can tear it up, she said, what becomes of the space in the future? The property is zoned for up to five stories of commercial space.
“We’re thinking about the next round of homeowners,” Hill said. “He could sell to anybody, and they can tear up that whole parking lot. Maybe they’ll put up apartments, maybe they’ll put up a five-story hotel. All of us feel like the flavor of Chestnut Hill is kind of cutesy, small, low, not big.”