Diving for Answers

L&I strikes again, with the usual random demands and bank-breaking requests.

By Brian McManus
Add Comment Add Comment | Comments: 0 | Posted Oct. 3, 2007

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Bar some: Dive owner Jonn Klein has lost two-thirds of his square footage since his run-in with L&I.

One day back in April Jonn Klein was busy doing what he's done six days a week for the last two years--opening his bar the Dive for business. He'd parked his car in the lot of George W. Nebinger Elementary School a half a block away, as he always did, safe in the knowledge that the school's principal Anthony Majewski was fine with the lot being used by the public after 6 p.m.

While he was unlocking the door, a white van pulled up. A man Klein didn't know got out, approached him and began yelling, insisting the lot was not for public use and that Klein and Dive patrons had no right to park there. Furthermore, the man continued, Dive customers were leaving empties, drinking and generally being an all-around nuisance in the lot, making it unsafe.

Klein defended his patrons and his right to park, adding that the Nebinger Elementary lot was under constant video surveillance, and that if Dive regulars were guilty of these things, he'd surely hear about it from Majewski.

The man left, but not before adding something Klein thought odd: "I'm a former city committeeman," he said. "I know people. I'll get you shut down."

That man, Klein would later find out, was a neighbor of Nebinger who lived just behind the Dive, and who does, it turns out, "know people." A month after the screaming bout on the street, Klein was enjoying a rare day off when he received a panicked phone call from his bartender: "L&I is here. They're shutting us down."

Three months and a thousand or so tellings later, Klein still recounts the story with an air of disbelief. The Department of Licenses and Inspections--that long arm of city government that strikes fear in the hearts of contractors, home and business owners, and event planners citywide--had two vans parked in front of the Dive when Klein arrived that day. Three police cars, lights flashing, accompanied them.

"I thought someone had been shot," Klein says.

Five L&I inspectors paced the Dive's three floors and starting writing citations, ticketing Klein for what they deemed unacceptable wiring and fire violations. The Dive, they said, was a fire hazard. It would need to be shut down for weeks while repairs were made.

And those repairs wouldn't come cheap.

Klein knew his building--just about 80 years old--could possibly use some electrical tweaking here and there, but he was shocked by the electrician's estimate.

"You see this box?" he asks, pointing to a beige box with two floodlights attached to the wall in the center of the bar. "Okay. You see that one too? And that one? Those are emergency lights. L&I required that I have three of them on the first floor. My first floor is 600 square feet."

This thoroughness on the part of L&I, Klein says, is why he's spent $33,000 in repairs to bring his building up to code.

"I can't go out anymore. I'll go to a brand-new million-dollar restaurant, and I can't stop looking around. 'They don't have enough emergency lights! That's not up to code! That's not up to code!' I'm obsessed with this now, and I've ruined more than a few meals talking about this kind of stuff when I'm out. I feel bad for my girlfriend," he says with a laugh.

Klein's been doing a lot of laughing lately, saying it's his only choice in the face of what he's dealt with, aside from "curling up in the fetal position, crying and never getting out of bed."

In addition to the electrical work, L&I told Klein he wasn't zoned C2 commercial on each of the Dive's three floors due to a little-known 1985 rezoning of Passyunk Avenue. But legal wrangling to the tune of $10,000 got his first floor open just two days after it was shut down.

"That was odd too," he says. "'Your building is extremely unsafe! Yes, you may have people back before rewiring is finished!' Also, during that time, I got my smoking exemption in the mail from the city," he says, again laughing through the pain. His second and third floor remain closed. Having lost two thirds of his square footage, business is down by a quarter.

Adding to the bureaucracy, Klein suddenly found himself at a meeting with the Liquor Control Board to uphold his right to sell takeout beer, his L&I six-pack application in question.

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