Bike rack, or beer rack?

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 café.”

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 café” 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 café. 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 café 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 café.

The Philadelphia Code defines a “sidewalk café” 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 café 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 brademaekers@bsmphilly.com