Rita’s is coming to town, perhaps

To follow the conversation online at the Local you can get quite a few perspectives. A “chain” – even one founded in the Philadelphia area and headquartered 20 miles away – is a four letter word despite the extra letter, it’s just that bad.

There should be no competition in water ice because, number one, it is an unhealthy goulash of all that defiles, while two, it is also being well supplied by local businesses where the nature of the desert transmogrifies into a local delicacy when prepared at the right street address.

Also “fast-food chain” is taking on a new meaning. Water ice is now fast food because water ice itself is … food? Sort of, but that’s OK – it has to be to fit this emerging narrative. You eat the stuff, like getting reading materials at the newsstand at the top of the hill makes it akin to the Library of Congress. It’s the same thing.

Worst of all, straw men everywhere are running to the hills because they are being ruthlessly pursued in 19118. How did this all happen?

In the fall, at the CHCA meetings and in the Local – Rita’s is looking to move into the spot where the TLA Video store chain was for years. (“chain,” four letter word, located right next to the CVS, which is right next to Staples – Ann Rand wannabes everywhere are writing about these chain contagions emerging).

In December someone thought it was a brilliant idea to have a zoning meeting on a Thursday when the Eagles were playing. The Rita’s proposal was discussed and approved unanimously.

Last week Mr. Thain was in the Local with a complaint. He said that Mr. Weinstein, owner of the Trolley Car Diner was trying to block Rita’s. Asked why and on the record, Mr. Weinstein said this is not about competition, not about his self-interest – neighbors feel Rita’s is fast food and as such is precluded from that space via a zoning covenant – plain and simple. It is not about competition.

The ensuing melee online then became people supporting Mr. Weinstein by taking a position 100 percent at odds with what he said was his concern. He objects to fast food chains violating the zoning covenant. He thinks the CHCA called it wrong and the neighbors need advocacy. The neighbors largely chiming in, however, seem to feel that the Trolley Car needs the advocacy.

Unnecessarily, people were performing a living beatification of this great diner nobody dislikes while calling for the defense/exultation of the owner, whom likewise, nobody holds in anything other than high esteem. He specifically says this is not about competition while those singing his praises the most call for – no competitors.

Chains are especially good villains, as they bring nothing to the neighborhood, like those silent-film, mustache-twirling carpetbaggers that opened Iron Hill, Mica, Heirloom, CinCin, to name but a few – all of whom have multiple locations.

Then the calls for tranquility, buying only local, only supporting places that are civic minded, albeit in a small arena of only a zip code and a half as counting. To patronize the Trolley Car is not enough: Draw up the bridge and no more feeding the alligators in the moat – keep everyone else out.

This is surreal, not what Mr. Weinstein argued for and not what building a community is all about. Fairness is not about picking winners and losers in a free market by zoning tricks. I hope Rita’s comes – I wouldn’t blame them for pulling out after seeing this debate online.

Gerald Tracy
Water ice fan of Roanoke Street

Rita’s doesn’t belong

Ever since I was president of West Mt. Airy Neighbors, I’ve been determined to stay out of disputes in the lovely community northwest of us. For better or worse, communities have their own way of dealing with public issues and generally don’t want or need outside help.

But the dispute about the proposal to place a Rita’s franchise in the old TLA site just above the dividing line between our communities is one on which I must speak.

I was very disappointed to see the Chestnut Hill Community Association, which for years has insisted on following rules of community development to a “T,” overlook a deed restriction it insisted on in 1980, in supporting a fast-food chain restaurant opening at Chestnut Hill Plaza.

The only reason to doubt that Rita’s serves fast food is that, having tasted its product, I’m dubious about calling it “food.”.

I was also disappointed that  the CHCA failed to follow its own rules for notifying neighbors of its decisions.

It is bad policy to override one’s own rules and legal requirements. It’s even worse to support a seasonal, chain fast-food restaurant in one’s community. Good development – the kind of that has made both Chestnut Hill and Mt. Airy so strong – is rooted in locally owned, independent small businesses that take pride in and contribute to its neighbors and that reinvest its profits in the community.

Ken Weinstein, the owner of the Trolley Car Diner, is the epitome of that kind of small business owner. In an ideal world, the CHCA would reconsider its position. Because it hasn’t Ken has, as is his right under the law, objected to this use of Chestnut Hill Plaza. In doing so he is acting not just on behalf of his own interests but those of the near neighbors who object to a Rita’s at this location, and on behalf of the regular process of community development in Chestnut Hill.

To avoid a long legal dispute, Ken has agreed to subject his complaint to arbitration. The proposed owner of the Rita’s, John Thain, having agreed to arbitration, now seems to be retreating from that commitment.

I urge the CHCA to reconsider its decision. And failing that, I urge Mr. Thain to settle this through arbitration.

And let me offer one more word of advice directly to Mr. Thain, who has been quoted saying “it seems as if Mt. Airy is trying to tell Chestnut Hill how to run their businesses.”  I would be careful what you say, Mr. Thain. The site at which you want to open is next door to Mt. Airy. I was in TLA often and half the customers were from Mt. Airy. If your business should open, you are going to need those customers. And in Mt. Airy we don’t take kindly to business people who insult us.

Marc Stier
Mt. Airy

Editor’s note: To be clear, the zoning meetings about Rita’s Water Ice were publicized in the Local and the decisions of every committee were immediately reported in this paper and in other online media outlets.

A good blood drive

A special thank you to Jann Mylet and the administration of Springside Chestnut Hill Academy, Carol Graves of Miller-Keystone Blood Center and dozens of generous individual donors for making this year’s annual Chestnut Hill Community Association blood drive a success!

On Saturday we were host to 71 prospective donors throughout the morning and collected 52 units of blood. This blood will be used by Chestnut Hill Hospital and other area hospitals.

Thanks to the Chestnut Hill Cheese Shop, Top of the Hill Market, Bredenbecks Bakery, Baker Street Bread Co., Balance Chestnut Hill and Indigo Schuy for their support and generous donations of food and marketing to the event.

Thanks also to Tom Hemphill, Marilyn Paucker, and everyone else who helped out on Saturday as well as to Noreen Spota and Celeste Hardester at the CHCA office.

Jay Valinis and Liz Bales
CHCA Blood Drive
Co-Chairs Community

Neighborhood concerns are important

Our community, as is any other, made up of different neighborhoods, each having its own distinctive character which contributes to the well-being, the interest and the beauty of the community as a whole.

No single area is more or less valuable than another.

No single individual or group, can assess more accurately than those living in a given area what impacts the quality of their lives and the environment around them.

The concerns of our neighbors are important not only to them but to us as well.

The CHCA has trivialized these concerns to its own detriment and to that of the larger community. This was evidenced most recently by the summary dismissal of over 1,400 signatures by the co-chair of a committee.

Each neighborhood needs and deserves our support. They should not have to do our work by themselves. They are seeking to preserve that which was created for our well-being years ago and which is now being threatened.

Come to the meeting of the Chestnut Hill Residents’ Association on Feb. 22 at the Chestnut Hill Library at 7 p.m. Learn what is being done and add your support. Help create “com-unity.”

Ann Ward Spaeth
Chestnut Hill


  • Jjennabell1

    It is not for people like Marc Stie o determine what is acceptable or healthy for other people. If you do’t like Rita’s,don’t go there. It is not for you to determine what others should buy or eat. It is a typical Obama Democrat position. “Do what I think is right for you because I KNOW BEST.” The zoning isssue is a legal one which will sort out itself. But the arrogance of those who want to determine what others eat or purchase is just a bit too much. You are like those women who complained about the “noise” of the ice cream truck but later revealed that they just didn’t want the kids to eat ice cream because “it is not good for you.” What arrogance! If you want to eat pasty, bland, all natural products all the time (everything in moderation, my boy) then go ahead. But to oppose Rita’s because YOU don’t think that it is good for OTHERS is beyond controlling.

  • Mike

    Apologies in advance for the long comment:

    Aside from the Mr. Tracy’s valid points above, the thing I am most disturbed about in this Rita’s debate is our neighborhood’s ‘armchair businesspeople’ who loudly yell their self-assured disapproval over a new business into our community because it “won’t fit in,” yet are unwilling to either 1) let the market decide whether or not it does indeed fit in, and/or 2) put their money where their opinions are and put their own capital at risk to fill a “need” in CH via a locally-owned business.

    I’m not going to debate the language in the CHCA amendment as it is very clear, nor am I naive to forms of cronyism that are certainly at play to a degree in any Philadelphia development, but I do take issue with many of my fellow CH-ers’ higher-level reasons for keeping Rita’s out that have often superceded the CHCA amendment, and the broader negative implications of opposing every small business attempting to open in our neighborhood, chain or not. I am all for independent, locally-owned businesses, and frankly their presence is a major driver behind why my wife and I bought our first house here last year, but the ferocity behind these anti-Rita’s arguments runs counter to the very existence of our business district. Is Rita’s entering the neighborhood such a significant threat to the Trolley Car, Bredenback’s, or the Pretzel Shop’s water ice to the point they would drive them out of business? Is this really the place to take a stand? Our refusal to wisely pick our battles weakens our attractiveness as a place to invest over time, and each time we refuse to make the slightest accomodation to a new business it sends a message that CH is indeed not open for business, and we are worse off for it…it’s not like we’re debating catastrophic entrants such as the construction of a Wal-Mart anchored shopping mall, natural gas well drilling in Pastorus Park, or opening a landfill…this is just innocuous water ice occupying a vacant, ugly storefront. There has to be some grey zone in the continuum of what we want our neighborhood to be…we have this ideal for the neighborhood, but are unwilling to accomodate reality. Given the current shaky state of Germantown Ave, shouldn’t we broaden our horizons and compromise around the edges? Rita’s may not be ideal, but unfortunately our neighborhood isn’t going to morph back into the small business heyday of 60+ years ago. Many old urban neighborhoods similar to ours have come to this realization and have learned to adapt and thrive by having an open mind towards non-ideal chain stores – I can name several examples: Park Slope, Forest Hills, and Brooklyn Heights in NY, Georgetown and Alexandria in/near DC, Jamaica Plain in Boston, etc. There is no reason we cannot be like any of those successful neighborhoods – even better.

    Mr. Thain at least deserves a chance to invest in our neighborhood, even if his only value-add to CH is occupying a vacant storefront and providing cheaper water ice. He did his research and thinks he can make money here, and, if allowed to open his Rita’s, he’ll likely find out very quickly whether or not his thesis was correct. If you really believe Rita’s is a major threat to the community and our quality of life in CH, don’t patrionize it. Tell everyone you know not to go there. Better yet, raise your own capital within the community and open your own, locally-owned water ice stand to compete against Rita’s by offering better recipes or prices. Or open a specialty retail store. Or a day care. Or gym. Or a book store. Based on the sentiment I’m feeling from many of the letters and comments in the CH Local, there is pent-up demand and any of these would be very warmly-received. I assure you if Mr. Thain doesn’t make money, he’ll shut it down and try something else. So will the new day care, Iron Hill, and the future Fresh Market…the common thread behind their successes will be the strength and value of their offerings, and vice versa with any failures. That’s why Germantown Ave has some long-term winners such as Killian’s and McNally’s, and some losers – both chain stores and local businesses. That’s the beauty of a free capitalist society…we as consumers collectively get to pick the winners and losers, not some higher ‘authority,’ and that is why I’ll continue to buy my own ‘frozen desserts’ from Bredenback’s – not necessarily because they’re locally-owned, but rather the sheer deliciousness of their offerings!

    • Local_Foodie

      Mike…. While I agree that more local residents should put their money where their mouth is and invest in our community, you are missing the point of this discussion. It is a legal issue surrounding the recorded restrictive covenant that CHCA and nearby properties owners agreed to 20 years ago when the CH Plaza was constructed. “Fast food chains” are clearly prohibited. For the sake of credibility, this covenant must be enforced and Mr. Thain should locate elsewhere, if he chooses!

      • bournonville

        You have to wonder how relevant this deed restriction really is and how much of it is vestigial turf voodoo that is so much a part of the history of Chestnut Hill.

        In the real world the Barnes moved from Merion to Center City because far more iron clad covenants proved to have outlived their validity.

        • Anonymous

          This deed restriction is from 20 years ago… hardly antiquated!

          If we don’t enforce these rules, why bother getting concessions from property owners when they want to develop their properties. Maybe we should let Snowden build up 10 stories even though the CHCA just negotiated with him to limit his building to 5.

          • bournonville

            20 years ago when all the stores had tenants and people shopping in them. 20 years ago when in all probability other people were involved in an agreement that has turned out to be absurdly under articulated. As noted on another thread fast-food restaurants are completely different enterprises from a busienss such as Rita’s and classified as such by the North American Industrial Classification System (NAICS). If the deed restriction is for fast-food restaurants, there is no prohibition to having an Ice Cream/Frozen Custard/Water Ice business there.

          • Tracy

            Wow, enter straw man number (you pick it, I lost count)… And this one is a doozey…

            Ignoring the fact that the covenant was discussed in public meetings, ignoring that the issue of honoring the covenant was a stated goal of those voting and those attending, ignoring that everyone agrees that covenants like these are vital to every community — you have unleashed a new, irrelevant, doomsday straw man…

            Set aside reality — accept as a given that Rita’s is fast food specifically precluded from this covenant ignored by those charged to examine it — or — get the kids safely inside first — Richard Snowden sky scrapers will invade 19118!!! Protect Mt. Airy water ice sales or five stories of terror will forever defile Chestnut Hill…. Give me a break…

      • Mike

        Local_Foodie, I actually said in my post that I’m not debating the language of the covenant, and I do not agree that that is the heart of the issue here. Although one could argue that the applicability of this covenant to Rita’s as a ‘fast food chain’ is debatable at best, my point is that it appears many opponents are using the covenant as a Trojan Horse to push their absolute opposition to any outside business (i.e., certain ‘chains’) setting up shop in CH. Do you really think that people who are saying Mr. Thain can relocate anywhere in CH that he wants, as long as its not within the restricted distance stated in the covenant, really mean that? It sounds like a straw man argument to me. I’m guessing that if Mr. Thain gave up the CH Plaza site and tried to move further up the Avenue into a storefront near, say, Gravers or Highland, he’d be in for even more opposition than what he’s dealing with now, restrictive covenant or not.

      • Tracy

        “Fast Food Chains” were discussed at the meeting and specifically how Rita’s lies beyond that classification and scope, via the city classification, insurance classifications, and many others. I see your certitude on this but have no idea where it comes from. This is not McDonalds moving in here. An ice cream parlor is no more a fast food chain than a convience store is. You can say “it just is” until the cows come home but Mr. Thain presented the distinction to the satisfaction of those that voted unanimously that it did not violate the covenant you seem to imagine everyone some how forgot about or did not understand… Fast Food Chains are prohibited, so if one tries to open there next to Rita’s — then you can make that statement and it would be accurate…

  • Bournonville

    I think Gerald Tracy got it right and Marc Stier got it wrong – dead wrong. Whatever the merit or lack of merit associated with the take-out food provision written decades ago, when threatening a business or business man Mr. Stier is completely on his own. Contrary to his comments “we” the neighbors of Mt. Airy are not united in any punitive action – at least when it comes to a issues that are as much political and turf driven as this one seems to be. Its just not our way. So, as a neighbor “near” enough to drive by the location and who occassionally wants a large lemon water ice in the warm weather, I will be happy to stop by and patronize Rita’s.

  • Local_Foodie

    Mr. Stier brings up a lot of valid points that I had not considered before…. If Mr. Thain thinks he has the right to locate his fast food chain at the CH Plaza, why did he walk away from binding arbitration? Why is Mr. Thain and others trying to draw a dividing line between Chestnut Hill and Mt. Airy by not allowing Mr. Weinstein, as a nearby property owner, the right to enforce the restrictive covenant on the Property. CHCA should do the right thing by reversing its decision on this issue.

    • Tracy

      Why is everyone but Mr. Thain to be afforded any type of courtesy here? Undue consideration in fact the way you frame it… Mr. Thain said he initially agreed to arbitration but it was not proceeding with the required speed to open the location on time, he shared his urgency, are we not to take him at his word while taking others at theirs?

      A better and fair question is why is there an arbitration that he should subject himself in the first place on the issue of “fast food”? It was published in the Local and elsewhere that there was to be, and later that a meeting was held, about Rita’s opening up and in that location. In a well attended public meeting Mr. Thain presented the model, and fully addressed any neighbor concerns and the very topic of fast food was fully discussed. The covenant was discussed, why this is satisfied with Rita’s moving in was fully discussed to no neighbor objections while many were in attendance. The local carried the story the next week. Only later, when it is time sensitive has this concern been raised to stop it.

      Mr. Thain did not refuse very public engagement of this business model, others did by simply not showing up, voicing any concerns, and waiting until the last hour –perhaps in good faith and unintentionally — but nevertheless possibly precluding Mr. Thain a years worth of income and the residents here a vibrant business.

      Let us assume everyone is acting in good faith, can we? Let’s not try and suggest Mr. Thain is thwarting process when he fully embraced and engaged it in December and fromm inception here. Let us also assume that Mr. Weinstein too has the neighborhood interest first and foremost and he is not just trying to block competition which you and others think is just terrific to do anyway…

      Mr. Weinstein had the same public process to raise these concerns as did all of us in December, prior, and since. I was at the packed meeting. Why should Mr. Thain loose the season after all his due diligence and efforts because others have come to the issue at the last hour to litigate issues that were fully vetted and discussed already by those elected to do so with the neighbors that cared in attendance?

      You ask them to “do the right thing by reversing this decision”? By what route? After having considered the fast food issue, having questioned all interested parties, having been satisfied that the covenant is sound and met with this approval — what?

      Just say: “Wait, some people that were never at the table discussing this, have presented no evidence or testimony on the matter, might be trying to be in good faith but possibly prejudiced to this business model since it is a competing model despite honest feelings it is not the motivation — let’s throw out our consideration, process, case presented by. Mr. Thain, statements from the business recruiter, land lord, other people close to the model and process… Let’s just chuck it out the window. Those that did not attend would have convinced us of their position and the merits were they there obviously. Those that support the model and went to the meeting to lend support, they too should count for nothing as those that did not would have presented a better case and we would have decided this 100% differently… just because…”

      I don’t like that sense of “right” and certainly it is a decision making process for sheer lunacy…

  • Robinowitz

    Beside the point that Rita’s water ice is nasty, is it a fast food and a chain. Honor the deed restriction.

  • Elise Rivers

    As the owner of Community Acupuncture of Mt. Airy, my focus has always been on how to be of service to community in multiple ways, not just strictly in the realm of business. I’d like to see more of that attitude come to the area, rather than less. To me, the border between Chestnut Hill and Mt. Airy when it comes to these things is non-existent. I see us as one big neighborhood when it comes to patronizing establishments along Germantown Avenue. Chains detract from the business corridor to be sure, but more importantly, are well known to spend far fewer dollars investing back into the community from which they take their dollars. Ken Weinstein and the Trolley Car have a long history of serving and investing in the community and we are all the better for it. I can personally vouch for Ken’s integrity, working with him on the board of the Mt. Airy Business Improvement District. He wants what is best for the community and is willing to work for that, both for profit and as a volunteer. There’s not many business leaders I know who have such an established track record in doing so. I think we can do better than Rita’s. Selling as their only product artificially flavored and colored sugar water, even if people will buy it, is to my mind, no service at all. It seems to me that selling this kind of food (fast or not) does not indicate regard for the health and welfare of the people of this neighborhood. Last but not least, Mr. Thain was given the option to arbitrate and Ken agreed, a process whereby a neutral third party decides the meaning of the restrictive covenant. Why would he walk away from that option? Did he think he might lose the debate?