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The Water Ice Storm

Rita's imminent arrival piques NoLibs purists.


From the June 6, 2007 Philadelphia Weekly

Northern Liberties, long touted as the city's next great neighborhood, is getting a Starbucks coffee shop. And a Pottery Barn. Maybe even a Banana Republic, a Ben & Jerry's ice cream shop, a Restoration Hardware and a CVS pharmacy.

Well, none of those chain operations has formally announced plans to open in the burgeoning condo wonderland that was previously occupied by scrawny, bearded artists and their pierced and tattooed girlfriends.

But the once-edgy 'hood is getting a Rita's water ice stand - the first national franchise business in the heart of the community - and some residents are saying the "Manayunkization" of Northern Liberties has begun.

Other chains will surely follow, if you believe the people posting on the neighborhood's online messageboard. Small businesses will be shuttered. Hummers will become ubiquitous. And high-end martini bars will sprout up on every corner.

"I have a deep hatred for corporate CEOs who lust to make a dime off of water-ice-craving yuppies," one anonymous poster wrote. "What's next, I ask? A Wawa? A Gap? Starbucks?"

The writer goes on to mock the "antibusiness hipster crowd" who fear the tight-knit community will lose its bohemian flair. But the reality is that the area has already evolved - $400,000 condos are commonplace, artist spaces have been eliminated and the legendary hipster hangout the Ministry of Information is becoming a French bistro.

Things will never be the same.


"I thought everyone would love a Ritas moving in," says Chris Thude, owner of the water ice stand at Second and Brown streets that's expected to open next month.

The 22-year-old Northeast Philly native has purposely mussed blond hair and diamond-stud earrings in both ears. On this steamy day he's wearing white pants, a pale green Polo shirt with blue stripes, and a pair of black Nike sneakers.

He bought the 900-square-foot corner unit rather than leasing it. It cost him another $30,000 to get the franchise license. And he's dropped about $50,000 renovating the space. When it's completed, the shop will have indoor seating - 15 red, green and white barstools, and a 42-inch plasma television. There will also be outdoor tables.

"I think this adds to the neighborhood," Thude says. "Not too many Rita's have 15 barstools and a plasma TV."

The Archbishop Ryan grad attended Temple on a golf scholarship but flushed out during his sophomore year. He made his money flipping real estate. This is his first time running a business, but he'll have family working with him, he says, and they have years of restaurant experience.

The neighborhood association asked Thude to cooperate with their design committee, and the result is that the shop won't have ostentatious signs, and there won't be the traditional tricolor awning.

"They're very careful," Thude says. "I don't blame them. I try to be respectful of the community."

Thude works out at the local martial arts studio. He has an account at the neighborhood bank and he's a regular at a nearby family-owned convenience store.

He's currently living in Manayunk while waiting for his new condo to be built at Waterfront Square on the Delaware River.

"I'll be living close by, so I'll be here every day," he says.

He hasn't seen the messageboard, and he's flabbergasted that anyone would be upset to have the Pennsylvania-based chain offering Philly favorites as a neighbor.

"It's just water ice," he says.


"It's an illusion to think chains aren't allowed in Northern Liberties," says Jennifer Lewis, president of the Northern Liberties Neighborhood Association (NLNA). "But we do want to remain a unique corridor."

The neighborhood's zoning committee can't reject a business because of ownership. But they can use existing zoning laws to restrict the kind of businesses that set up shop in the neighborhood. They can make the zoning process onerous to businesses they'd rather not have.

When a 24-hour Dunkin' Donuts was proposed at American Street and Spring Garden last year, the association argued that the drive-through would be a noisy late-night nuisance. The donut shop wound up opening a block away in an existing commercial strip, without the drive-through window and with conventional hours.

"There are certain things that are out of our reach of decision-making," says Nina De Costa, branch manager at Third Federal bank and an NLNA board member.

She says they found no regulations that would prohibit Rita's, and Thude met the aesthetic demands of the association. He's since joined De Costa in guiding the fledgling neighborhood business association - there are more than 200 businesses within the neighborhood boundaries.

De Costa isn't a fan of chains, but she'll take them over the alternatives.

"Do you want an empty, dilapidated, trash-strewn, rat-infested lot or a viable business?" she asks.

"Both big chains and tacky establishments should never be allowed in NLs," another messageboard poster writes. "But in addition to that, it seems NLs should prefer establishments that are both original and offer something new and diversifying to NLs."

Board members say they do prefer local businesses, but that the recent real estate explosion priced out many small businesses. And scores of artists who once rented space in the area have moved to less-expensive Fishtown or South Philadelphia.

Young professionals - many with children - have taken their place. It's part of the cycle of city life - much like what happened in Old City and Manayunk. With the new crowd comes gated communities, high-rise condo towers, upscale eateries and, inevitably, chain businesses.

"For the first 22 years I lived here there was nowhere to go out to eat or get a gallon of milk," says artist Ira Upin, who moved to Northern Liberties in 1977. "Now I walk out my door and I have six or seven great restaurants to choose from."

Upin doesn't see the neighborhood being overrun by chains anytime soon. Residents don't want franchises, and the big-box businesses don't see the foot traffic they want.

"To think that Rita's opens the flood gates is absurd," he says.