Economic Impact: The PHS Pop-Up Brought over 50,000 People to South Street West
No doubt about it, 2014 was the year of the pop-up. Center City was well-covered with these still rather new interventions into Philadelphia’s public space. No less than 4 pop-ups breathed new life into spaces largely devoid of it prior to their arrival (not including private outdoor gardens like Fergie's and Opa). And though multiple groups and stakeholders planned for and executed these pop-ups throughout the city, let us not forget who jumpstarted the trend just a few years back.
In 2011, the Pennsylvania Horticultural Society began an outreach and community building program near their offices at 20th and Arch. With a simple name, “PHS Pops Up,” the organization created temporary public spaces as a means to build awareness for all the various programs they are involved with. Groundbreaking is set for 1919 Market, their first Pop-Up site. They repeated the endeavor in 2012 on the northwest corner of Rittenhouse Square in another disused lot. Yet those two years formed testing grounds for greater success to come. Though they were both beautiful build outs that engaged Philadelphians outdoors in a new way, 2013 really changed the game.
That year the PHS Pop Up brought thousands of new faces into a disused, but strategically located plot of land on Broad Street. What lured them in? Booze and food of course. PHS found a very clever and totally legal way to bring both to the space. Buzz, foot traffic and heavy demand for the space meant success for PHS and a new incarnation of an old Philadelphia tradition, the beer garden.
The key difference between the moderately successful 2011 debut and 2012 years of PHS’ Pop-Ups and the resounding successes of this and last year’s Pop-Ups is clear: opportunity for refreshment. Food and drink helped activate public spaces that otherwise may have little more to offer than plantings and furniture. Food and drink provided a missing social ingredient that allows people to linger for hours at a time in a public space. Appealing weather offers a strong lure to be outside and all 4 of Philadelphia’s beer gardens this year hosted thousands of people in spaces they ordinarily would not be occupying.
Yet in the jump from having 1 beer garden in 2013 and 4 in 2014, you’d be forgiven for thinking perhaps all these different spaces may have cannibalized each other a bit. But if we compare PHS’ tracked attendance numbers between 2013 and 2014, this assumption doesn’t hold water. This year PHS almost doubled their attendance numbers over last year. Reinventing a vacant lot on the seemingly ever growing commercial corridor of South Street West, PHS formed partnerships with eager nearby neighbors that paid dividends for the organization and those nearby.
Matt Levinson, owner of The Quick Fixx at 1511 South St nearby, attributes much stronger sales numbers this summer to the PHS Pop-Up. “I saw an 30-35% increase in my eat-in business,” he says adding “Prior to this summer, the weekly exodus of Philadelphia shore folk would slow business. I didn’t feel a slow-down at all this summer.”
Similar sentiments were shared by Marcus Ferreira, board member of South Street West Business Association. Both he and Levinson alluded to millennials living in the area, less keen on the costs of renting shore homes and more likely to stay nearby for the summer. “When well-designed green spaces are integrated into the fabric of the street people may find reason to not leave the city during the traditional summer slow season. Why leave when there are cheaper, easier options nearby?”
Ferreira went on to state the importance of the space saying “the tens of thousands of additional patrons The PHS Pop-Up Garden brought to our corridor generated significant additional foot traffic providing immediate economic impact to our member businesses.”
Yet despite these successes, our beer gardens captured the attention of our legislators as well, and not in a good way. Lobbying pressure from the Bar & Tavern Owners Association tried to strangle the permitting process that allowed PHS to offer alcohol, the key ingredient to success of their pop-ups. The claim levied is remarkably similar to the reasons why the Philadelphia Parking Authority is blocking ride sharing companies like Lyft from operating here. That claim is that incumbent license holders should be protected from new developments. More specifically, in the case of pop-ups, bar owners who paid at least 5 figures for their liquor licenses should be shielded from organizations, even non-profits, who use club licenses to create pop-up beer gardens.
Thankfully, the public reacted, a change.org petition was circulated and State Legislators backed off. Crisis averted, but the fundamental reasons behind legislators’ initial calls to change laws was and still is fundamentally flawed. We need look no further than attendance numbers at this year’s PHS Pop-Up on South Street. PHS closed their doors for the season a little over a week ago. Over the course of the season 52,200 people enjoyed the PHS Pop-Up on South Street. This is almost double the amount of people from last year when their location on Broad brought in 28,000 people over the summer.
If we approach this 52,200 number with the mindset behind the aforementioned legislation attempting to shut down the temporary liquor licenses, we’d say that 52,200 potential patrons of standard indoor bars with standard liquor licenses were pulled away from these bars and did not support them, instead supporting PHS, creating an unfair advantage. Yet that mindset is flawed. There are upfront and ongoing costs associated with creating a temporary space. This includes the tangible build-outs of plantings, furniture and equipment. It also includes staffing and costs associated with even temporary permitting.
Even if we ignore the increase in sales from restaurants mentioned earlier like The Quick Fixx, the PHS Pop-Up even helped nearby bars with traditional liquor licenses. Bob & Barbara’s, a staple on South Street for many years, saw better numbers this summer than years past. "The first two weeks it was open it was like gangbusters for everyone, people were flooding into the space," says Jack Prince, owner of Bob & Barbara's. He continued by saying:
"Once things calmed down it was still a great addition to the neighborhood because it brought so many new people to the space and made it so attractive. Something that was missing was the connection of the open spaces. The Pop-up did that and brought people from outside of the neighborhood."
As for business, he added that
"this past summer was definitely better than usual.”
Bob Dix, the manager of the Bob & Barbara's also echoed his support for the Pop-Up:
"It created a destination for people and each night when the space would close [10pm weekdays, 12pm weekends] our doorman would see a bump of new patrons. This was an economic engine for the neighborhood. I would love to see something like that again in the space."
As for the quality of space and it's effect on the neighborhood Dix continued:
“It felt like we were looking at the future of the neighborhood. Middle of the summer, people didn’t have to go down to the beach. It was like a mini-vacation. It jumpstarted a lot of new connections in the neighborhood, including for Bob & Barbara's"
Successful retail clusters have a sort of magnetism. Success of a neighbor magnifies the other. We saw this in clear view in PHS’ 2014 Pop Up. It’s a lesson worth remembering for Philadelphia, especially considering the amount of vacant land the city is grappling with. We won't be able to build on it all immediately. Our new Land Bank should help develop this land thoughtfully in the years ahead. In the meantime, creative approaches towards regulation and committed non-profits like PHS can provide strong assets to the community in the form of Pop-Ups and beer gardens. Where would you like to see 52,000 more people walking around and spending money next year?
[Special thanks to PHS for their granting of use of imagery and graphs.]