by Wesley Ratko
At its Nov.18 meeting, the board of the Chestnut Hill Community Association continued a contentious discussion over who should operate a proposed local Internet portal that began at the board’s October session.
Rob Remus, chair of the special committee set up to explore the portal proposal, updated the board by noting that AOL Patch had already opened a hyperlocal website for Chestnut Hill (chestnuthill.patc- h.com) and introduced its editor, Jon Campisi, who was present to cover the meeting.
But disagreement over who should operate the proposed community associaton’s portal remained the focus of the debate, with two camps squaring off: those who feel the Chestnut Hill Local is the best candidate for the job and others who prefer to see it handled by an outside party.
Remus referred the board to the article “Your Patch Isn’t Big Enough” by James Albrecht, published in the Local on Nov. 18, disputing the five claims the author made. Chief among these is the concern by Albrecht that the same revenue issues that affect the business district will also, in turn, affect ad revenue generated by the Web portal.
“AOL is spending money to develop this hyperlocal,” Remus said. “They must know something that we don’t.”
Board member Stephanie Chomentowski said the Local’s website was the obvious place to feature the kind of local content proposed for the portal. Remus responded by claiming that every paper that ever attempted a conversion to a 24-hour portal has “failed miserably.”
“The Local can’t possibly compete,” he told her. “It’s two different skill sets.”
Gerald Tracy, business development manager for Phillyburbs.com, spoke from the gallery and explained that online ad revenue in the last quarter showed significant growth, while revenue in print ad sources continues to go into decline. While he acknowledged that the Local’s content had significant value, he said that in the case of an online portal, “architecture may trump content.”
The special committee is scheduled to meet again on Tuesday, Nov. 23.
Retail recruiter Eileen Reilly, hired this past year by the Chestnut Hill Business Association, gave the board an update on her efforts to find new tenants for vacant properties on Germantown Avenue.
She recounted her experience working with an unnamed family-friendly restaurant that is looking to expand. She said that over the last six months she has shown the proprietors four properties along the Hill, narrowed these down to two, and focused in on one that has “perfect square footage and zoning.” To date, however, they have yet to sign a lease agreement.
“This takes a long time,” she told the board.
Reilly said it would probably take another six months before the restaurant deal is closed, predicting that there could be an opening sometime in the fall of 2011.
“I’m still amazingly optimistic,” she added.
Board member Kristine Sullivan asked whether getting a tenant to sign a lease agreement was supposed to take as long as she described. Reilly referred to a nationwide retail consulting firm called Downtown Works who, she assured the board, agrees that a significant time investment is needed to land a tenant.
Reilly explained that the demand for space in the retail world leans toward conglomeration – in places like “lifestyle centers” and shopping malls. Main Street environments like Germantown Avenue require more work to attract potential tenants. She explained that for Chestnut Hill, the ideal tenant is a smaller, independent business with three existing locations.
Reilly closed by announcing that she’d had four showings in the last week.
“It’s been a banner week,” she told the board, explaining that in a given week there are usually no more than one or two showings. “When a prospective tenant does show interest in the community, it’s the Avenue that sells it.”
Spa Elysium request from DRC
Community Manager Phillip LeCalsey introduced Wendy Feldman from Spa Elysium, located at 55 Bethlehem Pike. Having appeared before the Development Review Committee on Tuesday, Nov. 16, Feldman told the board that she was seeking support for a use variance to allow for massage services on the premises.
“We’ve been at our current location for 12 years,” she said, “and provide hair, skin, and nail treatments.”
For the last eight years, she’s operated a Yoga studio on the premises.
Feldman explained that the spa is hoping to expand its business to provide massage services. To do so, however, it will need a use variance.
Because massage services are considered to be a “regulated use,” Philadelphia zoning code prohibits massage from being practiced within 500 feet of residentially-related uses like schools or churches. According to Feldman, Spa Elysium is located 444 feet from St. Paul’s Episcopal Church.
Board member Richard Snowden moved to approve the application for a use variance, which the board did by unanimous vote.
Zoning change impact on CHCA
Board president Walter Sullivan began the discussion of the proposed changes to the Philadelphia Zoning Code and the effect they could have on the Community Association’s procedures by saying outright that the matter was not a dispute with Eva Gladstein, executive director of the Philadelphia Zoning Code Commission. Instead, he specified that the sole item of concern was the issue of the new code’s requirement that only one meeting be held between neighborhood groups and developers to discuss new land development projects.
Board member Mark Keintz asked whether Gladstein would appear before the board to explain the proposed changes to better understand what it all means and make an informed decision as to how to proceed. Sullivan explained that she had already appeared before both the LUPZ and the DRC, but saw no reason she couldn’t come address the board as well.
Sullivan said that the purpose behind the changes was to foster agreement and that sometimes it takes more time than a single meeting to do so.
Board member Richard Snowden told the board that he understood this to be a contentious issue in City Council and described the changes as “what happens when a lot of well-meaning people do something about zoning law, about which they know nothing.”
Sullivan left the issue by saying the board would simply “watch it as it proceeds.”