Rhawnhurst hookah bar drops zoning case

Neighbors who showed up to a Zoning Board of Adjustment hearing about a Castor Avenue hookah lounge were happy with the result.

Tenth District Councilman Brian O’Neill speaks Sept. 19 at the Rhawnhurst Civic Association during a discussion of Friends Cafe, a Castor Avenue hookah bar. TIMES FILE PHOTO

For the second time in less than 30 days, Rhawnhurst residents clapped during a Zoning Board of Adjustment meeting.

This time, it was after an attorney for Friends Cafe, a hookah bar where police have been called 166 times in the past year, dropped a zoning application that would have allowed the Castor Avenue business to remain open.

Tenth District Councilman Brian O’Neill gathered neighbors together following the Sept. 25 hearing outside the ZBA’s 18th floor Center City meeting room.

“This is monumental in terms of what you all accomplished,” O’Neill said.

Friends Cafe, 7632 Castor Ave., was applying for a special exemption that would have it to stay in operation after being cited by the Department of Licenses and Inspections in May.

O’Neill credited neighbors with forcing the decision to withdraw the application.

Friends Cafe operator Mazin Mukhtar could not be reached for comment. 

It’s the second recent zoning victory for the Rhawnhurst Civic Association.

On Aug. 28, Rhawnhurst and Bell’s Corner residents packed a hearing about a proposed hotel at 8430 Bustleton Ave. (at Tustin Street). In that case, the attorney also withdrew the application.

Among those who attended the meeting to oppose the hookah bar were Democratic ward leader and attorney John Sabatina, 2nd District Community Relations Officer Mark Mroz and the owner of Broncos Brazilian Steakhouse, which is next door to Friends Cafe. 

Mroz said Sept. 19 at the Rhawnhurst Civic meeting that the hookah lounge has been a major disturbance to the neighborhood.

A majority of the 911 calls have been for loud music, according to Mroz. Other times, he said, officers have responded to break up disorderly crowds and, in one case, to a report of a person with a gun.

Mukhtar, in a July interview, defended his business, saying it was “the safest it could be.”

O’Neill told residents the goal now is to make sure Friends Cafe shuts down. 

“I will stay on top of it,” he said. “All of us have to be watchful.” 

Hookah bars have been a frequent topic of discussion at Rhawnhurst Civic meetings and elsewhere in the Northeast, though changes could be coming to how the establishments are zoned in Philadelphia.

Critics have said some hookah lounges in Northeast Philly operate as BYO nightclubs by using loopholes in zoning laws.

Sixth District Councilman Bobby Henon introduced a bill in June that would create a specific category for “smoking lounges” in the zoning code. It also would force potential hookah bar operators to go before community groups for special exemptions or variances in most instances.

The legislation is scheduled for a committee hearing Oct. 16. If the bill makes it through, it could be considered by the full City Council shortly thereafter. ••

Jack Tomczuk can be reached at jtomczuk@newspapermediagroup.com.