Neighborhood Opposition Halts Return of Jezabel's Cafe to Fitler Square
Jezabel’s Cafe is no longer moving forward with its new Fitler Square location after neighborhood opposition quashed the zoning variance needed to open the cafe.
Ever since Jezabel Careaga moved her namesake cafe from its initial site in Fitler Square to its current location in West Philly, she’s missed that familiar Fitler charm.
“We were in a great location, right by the park,” she said. “We knew the neighbors, had a strong relationship with The Philadelphia School. It was very neighborhood-like. It was a community place.”
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Her vision was to recapture that magic with a new outpost in Fitler Square. She found what she thought was a great location at 2101 Lombard. “I went to Copenhagen, grabbed all of these ideas, and I was ready to go with an architect to design the space and get it going,” Careaga said.
From the outset, residents voiced apprehensions about the proposed cafe's impact on the neighborhood's character, safety, and traffic flow. These concerns would eventually coalesce into a formidable opposition.
Careaga had not anticipated any pushback from the zoning process. “We were like, this is a go. We went to the first meeting [thinking] ‘this is going to be great,’ people are going to love it.”
A Zoning Hitch
The site at 2101 Lombard is designated as RM-1 zoning, which allows for residential multi-family buildings only. To open a cafe here, Careaga and the building owners would have to get a variance from the Zoning Board of Approval to permit a prepared foods business.
The Center City Residents Association, which deliberates zoning change petitions and gives its recommendation to the official Zoning Board of Approval, opposed the proposed use change in July.
In September, the case appeared before the Zoning Board of Approval at the September 13 public meeting. Alan Nochumson, who represented the building’s owners, presented his case.
“This property screams of being a mixed-use property,” Nochumson argued. “At one point there was a tire shop in here. It was also a gallery at one point in the 80s. It looks like it was a grocery store at one point as well. So the ground floor has a history of non-residential use.” Nochumsom presented zoning permit issuances from 1974, 1975, and 1989 to support his claims.
Neighbors disputed this characterization. “I’m one property away from the proposed property,” said Jo Buyske, a neighbor who appeared at the September 13th virtual meeting. “I’ve been in the neighborhood for a long time. I can say that it has not been a commercial property in living memory of the neighbors.”
Protecting a Residential Oasis
Buyske shared her personal experience living on the block at the zoning meeting: “I moved to this neighborhood with my four children because it was a residential street,” she said. “It’s got a strong residential feel with lots of children, good family relationships, and shared block parties.”
“It’s a residential property. We relied on that when we moved into the neighborhood,” Buyske said. “We actually like Jezabel’s, I used to go there down on Pine Street, but I see no reason to change the zoning here.”
Buyske highlighted the potential traffic dangers of having a commercial enterprise on the block. “It’s a very awkward street corner where two lanes converge into one as you cross Lombard Street,” she said.
A neighborhood petition cited more potential traffic dangers. “This is a busy intersection with frequent car accidents and fender benders,” the petition claimed. “Vehicles blocking either lane on 21st to pick up food, pick up trash, or make deliveries will cause significant chaos at an already busy and confusing corner.”
The petition cautioned that it may be a dangerous place for diners. “Both the light post and the tree on the northwest corner of 21st and Lombard have had to be replaced repeatedly after being knocked down by cars and trucks,” the petition said. “This is not a safe place to put cafe tables or have waiting customers.”
Neighbors encouraged Careaga to find a different site that already had the proper zoning. “There are empty commercial properties on several corners nearby that need a tenant,” Buyske said. “We’re a block away from South Street which also has empty properties.”
Careaga didn’t embrace this argument. “I don’t think my business is a South Street business kind of place,” she said. “I want something a little more cozy, a little more removed from Main Street.”
The Final Straw
In the weeks after the Zoning Board of Approvals hearing, neighbors delivered a petition consolidating their opposition to the project. The petition included dozens of signatures from residents directly surrounding the property.
At this point, Careaga withdrew her zoning variance request and officially halted the project. “We’re not going to change anybody’s mind,” Careaga said. “We can only fight so much when people have made up their mind.”
Careaga has not yet decided if she’ll look for an alternate site for her Fitler Square return. “I do want to open up a cute, quaint little place,” she said. “I’m not interested in opening a business just for the sake of making money. My time is limited. I want to do other projects.”