It's one of those age-old questions: Who decides what's tacky?
In East Falls, concerns about the appearance of temporary stenciled signs at the In Riva restaurant led the East Falls Community Council's zoning committee to bring the eatery's owner in for a little talk at Wednesday night's meeting.
[Actually, In Riva owner Mark Sherman and Paul Camillo, who owns Franklin's Pub & Grill, found out they were being summoned to the meeting when an announcement appeared in a recent issue of The Fallser -- an accidental oversight for which committee chairman Barnaby Wittels apologized, saying the EFCC is pro-business. So, slightly awkward.]
The zoning committee often reviews business signs and their appearance, but usually when a property changes use, expands or needs a variance and wants the EFCC's approval before going to the city.
In fact, earlier in the meeting Wednesday night, committee members and a few dozen residents heard from the developers of the Bakers Centre shopping plaza, who need a zoning board approval for one of four signs planned for locations along Fox, Roberts and Hunting Park avenues.
The Bakers Centre signs application is scheduled for a zoning board hearing on Feb. 4. Before that, community members will get an update at 6:30 p.m. on Jan. 31, at Muriel Dobbins High School. View the plans for the signs here.
The In Riva situation is different.
The temporary signs in question
The restaurant is open and operating at 4116 Ridge Ave., Sherman isn't seeking permits from the city for the signs and there are no code violations against the property. So what's the problem?
"What I heard was that the signs on the front and back of In Riva were tacky," Wittels said.
Some perspective: The signs in question are actually several painted words, including FAMILY and PIZZA, done in a cargo-style stencil a foot high and at various spots on the property. Not exactly digital building wraparounds or blinking neon. Still, they are a jarring visual contrast to the restaurant's other more delicately-rendered signage.
That, Sherman said, was exactly the point: Something straightforward, just enough to catch the eye and plant a basic message in the heads of potential customers who might be driving, walking or riding by on their bicycles.
"They see 'bikes and beers,' they know what they're getting. That is the draw, and that is working," Sherman said.
Sherman said this is the third try at making a go of a restaurant on the site, and so far, In Riva has had good buzz and is creating a name for itself with chef Arthur Cavaliere, a veteran of restaurants by Stephen Starr and Derek Davis.
He also said the painted words were always meant to be temporary, and some will be covered by flowering plants in the spring when the outside patio area announces the restaurant better than any sign could. And Sherman said he'd look at a draft of alternative signage, if the committee thinks it can do better.
The leaders of the East Falls Development Corporation suggested the civic group was overstepping its authority. Gina Snyder, the EFDC president, and chairman Matt McClure both appeared at the meeting and questioned the fairness of the process.
"I think it's probably the best looking property on Ridge Avenue," Snyder said. "I'm really disappointed that this conversation is even happening right now.
In an email, Snyder said the zoning committee was trying to exert control over something it shouldn't.
"This process should set a priority on violations of laws and rules. Businesses should not be brought for public criticism for matters of taste," Snyder said. "The process should give the business some notice that there might be a problem and should give them a chance to talk with the committee to see if it can be resolved."
As for Franklin's Pub, and issues related to noise, trash, a stinky sidewalk, and large crowds of drunks behaving badly at closing time, Camillo said he has been open to neighbors' concerns and has been in contact with them over the issue for several months.
While Franklin's does cater to young families and the dinner-time crowd, Camillo said his clientele has become more heavily based in area college students on weekends. He's cracked down successfully on would-be underage drinkers. He said he has installed more security cameras, and is paying for a city police car to sit near the bar at closing time to keep patrons from urinating, vomiting and fighting in the neighboring streets.
Amy Z. Quinn developed an interest in planning and land use while covering rapidly-developing South Jersey suburbs for the Philadelphia Inquirer, and later wrote extensively about urban and beachfront redevelopment for the Asbury Park Press.