State representative Jordan Harris (D-Philadelphia) last month introduced legislation allowing Pennsylvania bars, restaurants, and other nightlife establishments to extend last call from 2 a.m. to 4 a.m., with hopes of reinvigorating the state’s hospitality sector after the bruising pandemic. Rather than automatically keep all establishments open later, it would give local municipalities the ability to decide for themselves whether they will permit extended hours and to designate zones for that, such as specific commercial corridors. Meanwhile, City Councilmember Isaiah Thomas introduced a resolution urging Harrisburg to extend hours for bars and also increase the number of happy hours a business can operate.
While supporters celebrate the chance to expand Philly’s nightlife industry, critics say extending last call would waste time and resources. The Inquirer turned to a local restaurant owner and a Philly nightlife advocate to debate: Would the City benefit for a 4 a.m. last call?
Yes: With the right planning, late hours will elevate Philly nightlife.
The City of Philadelphia should be a globally competitive center of arts and culture. Central to that vision is a vibrant nightlife. Philadelphia at night offers different possibilities — but as far as City of Philadelphia policy goes, it’s an afterthought. This inattention has consequences. City Council’s Arts and Culture Task Force, to which I belong, found that Philadelphia suffers from an undersupply of creative performance space and lacks the policy and governance frameworks to support the nighttime economy. As hard-hit creative industries try to recover from the pandemic, the City can support them in several ways — starting, not ending, with extending business hours.
Extended hours offer more supply of the creative space our artists and entrepreneurs need. This is especially useful for the next year, as decreased capacity has restricted entertainment businesses. If implemented with an arts-first approach and careful planning, later hours present an opportunity for the City of Philadelphia to create vibrant arts districts and globally competitive nighttime economy, support artists and entrepreneurs, and improve nighttime public safety.
Good nightlife is safe nightlife. Later, varied closing hours are associated with better safety outcomes, shown by 24-hour strategies in Amsterdam and Berlin. Binge alcohol use is discouraged when there is no pressure to end the night early. And a wider variety of closing times decongests crowded nightlife districts where interpersonal conflicts can occur.
Formal business activity and vibrant street life in a well-managed district, with the presence of venue security, is also a safer alternative to darkened empty streets. The City can additionally take up the Task Force recommendations that fund harm-reduction training for venues and non-police safety ambassadors in nightlife districts. SEPTA and the Philadelphia city Planning Commission can emphasize nighttime transportation and urban design to facilitate safer streets for workers and patrons.
Beyond expanding hours, the Council and Administration should follow the recommendation by the Arts and Culture Task Force to create and empower a Nighttime Economy Office and a nighttime governance framework. Such an office is designed to facilitate stakeholder engagement and public coordination on issues of safety, licensing, sound management, harm reduction, transportation, and more. It’s also needed to build trust and move past the civic culture of “no” that has defined Philadelphia nightlife for generations.
Similar offices exist in Pittsburgh, New York, Washington, DC and dozens of cities worldwide. They have performed well during the pandemic — offering business services, health and safety info, and advocacy for workers and entrepreneurs on the brink of economic ruin. Furthermore, they are a crucial tool allowing those who work and play at night to co-exist with those who sleep during those hours.
Beyond expanding hours, the Council and Administration should also create and empower a Nighttime Economy Office and a nighttime governance framework.
This office can also help lead licensing and zoning reform. Current codes make it expensive and risky to create and maintain creative spaces in a competitive real estate environment. Our Task Force’s recommendations will lower barriers to building or maintaining creative spaces, encourage investments in programming (music, food, design and ambiance) that benefit neighbors, protect spaces from gentrification, and diminish cultural gatekeeping by lowering the barrier to entry for Philadelphians of all backgrounds.
The hospitality industries in Philadelphia are reeling from the pandemic. Offering flexibility and new opportunities is crucial. Longer hours should not simply be a way to generate drink-related revenue or tax receipts, but a vehicle to advance a vision for the arts in the City and improve quality of life. The outcomes will only be as good as the governance and planning allow.
Michael Fichman is a music producer and DJ, lecturer and researcher at the University of Pennsylvania’s Weitzman School of Design, an editor of the Global Nighttime Recovery Plan, and founder of nightlife advocacy group 24HrPHL.
No: There are better commonsense reforms to help nightlife establishments.
Allowing all Philadelphia restaurant liquor licensees to stay open past 2 a.m. is not the best way to support the hospitality industry. Philadelphia is a great restaurant city and hospitality is a bright spot for the local economy. It provides jobs and opportunities for business ownership to a diverse group of people and, through their hard work and talent, makes Philadelphia a more interesting place to live.
To thrive in post-pandemic recovery, Philadelphia should think about the hospitality business as Detroit thinks about automobiles or Los Angeles about entertainment: as essential to our economy’s health and a source of pride.
To support this industry, I propose the city and state unite in reforms of government policy and removing barriers to entry to pursue the goal of having 100 new owner-operated non-chain restaurants open in Philadelphia by the end of 2022. Focusing on later operating hours will distract from these commonsense and achievable reforms of Pennsylvania liquor law that would greatly assist this goal:
Create a new “W” class liquor license without an upfront cost and only an annual licensing fee. Small chef-owned and operated restaurants are amazing for diners but not very profitable for owners. Allowing these restaurants to serve only wine and beer provided they close before midnight and do not have bar seating would make them more lucrative, encouraging more chefs to open.
Accelerate the liquor license approval process, which now can take as long as 12 months. Reform the liquor license application process to guarantee approval or rejection within 90 days of application. This would lower the risk for operators and benefit communities by not leaving restaurants empty while applications are pending.
Stop requiring that Pennsylvania liquor licenses be purchased. Buying a restaurant liquor license in Philadelphia typically costs between $150,000 and $200,000. This creates an unnecessary barrier to entry for the new restaurant owners and largely excludes anyone without access to generational wealth. By having a larger annual licensing fee but no upfront cost, more people could open more restaurants and spend more money making them look better. Current license holders have invested capital to purchase their license, but would be compensated for that investment if they are given the current value of their licenses as future credit towards annual fees.
“Not many people are still at the bar when it closes at 2 a.m., and the staff is ready to go home.”
Pennsylvania already has a class of liquor licenses that permit staying open to 3 am. However, these “C” liquor licenses are only issued to non-profit private clubs, where access is restricted to members. Changing PA liquor law to allow these existing licenses to extend operating hours to 4 a.m., to be owned by a business, and to be open to the general public will help achieve better nightlife without major changes to what is currently permitted. Also, ownership of these “after-hours” licenses by for-profit businesses will allow for greater capital investment and stability to create a safer and more entertaining atmosphere for all.
I’ve been in the restaurant and bar industry in Philadelphia for over 25 years. Not many people are still at the bar when it closes at 2 a.m., and the staff is ready to go home. Most people who go out after 10 p.m. are young and only want to be out for a three-hour window, taking them to about 1 a.m. Pushing closing time back would not increase business but just push it later into the night. For that, we should have just some establishments with 4 AM “C” licenses — because sometimes, especially after the year we’ve had, everyone needs to dance until dawn.
Avram Hornik is the owner of Morgan’s Pier, Harper’s Garden, Rosy’s Taco Bar, Crafthall, Parks on Tap, and other Philadelphia restaurants.