A store that buys gold has opened up across Delaware Avenue from SugarHouse casino, and once again, neighborhood groups and city leaders are fighting it.
“We were promised these kinds of businesses would be kept out, that this would never happen,” said Fishtown Action's Maggie O'Brien, as unhappy as she was when cash-for-gold signs went up on the same store back in 2011.
“I was surprised, and I was angry,” to see new signs advertising the purchase of gold and jewelry, said near-neighbor and activist Jethro Heiko. “I thought it wasn't allowed, and this is not the kind of business people want near their homes.”
Fishtown Neighbors Association's Matt Karp and Sean McMonagle, legislative aide to First District Councilman Mark Squilla, don't like this particular deja vu, either.
“I thought we took care of this back in 2011,” McMonagle said.
As far as the opponents are concerned, this store is a pawn shop, and pawn shops are a prohibited use at the site, which has an Allen Street address although it fronts on Delaware Ave.
The pawn shop issue was raised the first time around, and back then the city determined that the zoning code did not explicitly define cash-for-gold stores as pawn shops.
In response, McMonagle's previous boss, former First District Councilman Frank DiCicco, and Council President Darrell Clarke joined forces on legislation adding cash-for-gold stores to the pawn shop definition. (Clarke's office is also researching the current situation.)
This site had a jewelry store permit before the DiCicco/Clarke bill was introduced.
That permit, which includes accessory buying and selling of precious metals, was updated in Nov. 2013, according to city records.
No one from the Department of Licenses & Inspections was available to comment Friday, but back in 2011, L&I explained that to qualify under such a license, at least 75 percent of a store's floor space must be dedicated to jewelry sales, and no more than 25 percent to buying precious metals. Receipts don't count: Only floor space.
Phila Gold owner Kim Bui said Friday his business will buy and sell jewelry, and neighbors need not worry: “This is not a pawn shop.”
He will not be lending people money in exchange for collateral as pawn shops do, he said after coming out from behind a window with a “speak here” circle to talk. (That window and circle have been in place since the last time.) “There will be no bonds,” Bui said.
There were several jewelery display cases at Phila Gold on Friday, but all were empty.
When asked where the jewelry was, Bui said he didn't want to invest in any until he knew there was a demand for it. He said he was going to see how things went in the next month, and whether customers asked for jewelry. If there was no demand, he would close.
Bui said he's been open for four days, and hasn't purchased any metal yet. Some people have come into the store to ask about the jewelry, and he told them to check back. Others wanted to know if he was a pawn shop or if he would cash a check, and he said he told them he he did neither.
The back of a business card sitting on the counter included the phrase, “Cash for Gold & Pawn.”
When asked about it, Bui showed another card on which he had crossed out that part, and said it was a printer's error. He began crossing the phrase off the rest of the stack, and asked for the card PlanPhilly had with the phrase still on it so he could cross it off that one, too.
Both Squilla's office and Clarke's have received calls from concerned neighbors, and are investigating the situation.
“My boss just shot an email to L&I to ask them to inspect it,” McMonagle said Friday.
McMonagle said Squilla's office would be fighting to close the business.
Back in 2011, L&I found the Cash-for-Gold signs were in violation, and they were removed. That store never opened for business.
McMonagle noted that since the building had not been used as a jewelry store since 2011, the use permit would normally have expired.
PlanPhilly has requested from L&I clarification on the status of the store's permit; what impact, if any, the amended definition of “pawn shop” that includes cash-for-gold stores has on this case; and whether or not it matters that buying gold and jewelry is the business most predominantly advertised by the store's signage. McMonagle is also looking into these issues.
None of the folks in the neighborhood really care how much of the floor space is dedicated to jewelry sales.
Fishtown Neighbor's Karp called the 25 percent floor area stipulation a “loop hole,” since the vast majority of a business could be buying metals. “This is a prohibited use, and they should have to go through the variance process,” he said.
O'Brien's organization has always supported SugarHouse, and Heiko was once leader of Casino-Free Philadelphia. They agreed the store proposed in 2011 shouldn't open, and they agree this one should close.
Heiko said the casino is a predatory business, and it attracted another predatory business to open.
O'Brien said she's concerned people who can't afford to lose money to gambling will cash in items to get money, but beyond that, she's worried such a business would bring to Fishtown “thieves who steal people's jewelry and go down there and cash it in” and people addicted to drugs or alcohol looking for money for their fix.
Karp said FNA members were very concerned about a casino attracting pawn shops, cash for gold, and other business Fishtown would rather not have, but that hadn't happened, at least not until now.
Kellie Patrick Gates writes about planning, neighborhood development and the Central Delaware Waterfront. A journalist for more than two decades, she worked for daily newspapers in Central Pennsylvania, Upstate New York and South Florida before coming to Philadelphia in 2003 to write for the Inquirer. Her work has appeared on PlanPhilly since 2007, and she also writes Love, the Inquirer's weekly wedding column. A native of Elk County, Pa., Kellie lives with her husband, Gary, and their dog and two cats.
Follow her on Twitter @KelliePGates