by Robert J. Shusterman

Editor’s Note: The following letter was sent to Chestnut Hill College President Sister Carol Jean Vale. We run it here at the request of neighbors unedited.

Dear President Vale:

At this moment when we are moving toward confrontation rather than negotiation, it is appropriate to make clear to the college and the community what we have offered and the context of our offer.

We have worked over the last eighteen months to find a way to accommodate the college’s expansion.  As with any battle, before shots are actually fired there is often a chance to stand down and consider the potential losses to each side. This offer to reach a global agreement with the college remains on the table – only if the college slows the pursuit of its legislative re-zoning route so that a permanent agreement can be reached. If negotiations are truly going well, then it should be possible to slow the legislative course with the knowledge that there is all next fall to proceed. If this is merely a stratagem to run out the clock, then there will be other venues and costs for both sides.

I am writing to you on behalf of North Chestnut Hill Neighbors, Inc. (“NCHN”) and the Northwestern-Wissahickon Conservancy (“NWC”). We want you to know that despite the ongoing difficulties in negotiations we continue to support a new campus for CHC at Sugarloaf, and we support the addition of a student center and other academic facilities at the college’s main campus. You and your negotiating team were told that on March 11, 2011 at the meeting with the NWC representatives and Jim Kise representing the Houston heirs. Although we support growth of the college, because of inherent difficulties with the proposed zoning method and environmental issues inherent in the current masterplan, we strongly oppose both the current IDD Zoning proposal and Master Plan that CHC submitted to the Philadelphia City Planning Commission on March 11, 2011, which is currently Bill number 110302 before City Council. We also oppose the current masterplan that is attached to the zoning Bill. (That masterplan can be found at http://legislation.phila.gov/attachments/11388.pdf.)

While we still support CHC development at Sugarloaf, what is now being proposed is not consistent with the negotiations we have had over the past eighteen months. The surrounding neighbors have offered substantial concessions to the college in exchange for reduced elements in its 2008 master plan. Under the present zoning, only about 19 single-family houses could realistically be developed on Sugarloaf because of the inherent difficulties of steep slopes and limits created by the Wissahickon Watershed Ordinance. As you will see below, our organizations, collectively the Near Neighbors, are willing to accept and welcome the new campus being negotiated for Sugarloaf but only if there are suitable safeguards for the community.

NCHN and NWC, as well as the rest of the negotiating parties, have always required that that permitting the change of use and the increased density for the Sugarloaf property must be based upon a global resolution of a number of items. These items include: 1) An acceptable Community Development Agreement that gives standing to the near neighbors and protects the community’s rights as well as those of the college (“CDA”); 2) An acceptable form of zoning that can be reversed in the event of future changes of ownership; 3) An acceptable development plan that is in accord with the Wissahickon Watershed Ordinance; 4) An acceptable agreement with the Houston heirs that protects their goals and values and 5) Perpetual conservation easements on portions of Sugarloaf that are held by an acceptable and professional easement organization with the will and ability to enforce the easements. Moreover, contrary to your letter of March 11, 2011, the insistence on perpetual easements is not new. The request was made from the beginning by a number of people/groups including Richard Snowden, Friends of the Wissahickon and by me on behalf of NCHN and by the NWC.

Subsequently, in the negotiations between CHC and the community, the college decided to include additions to its main campus in the zoning and masterplan. The community agreed to support additional growth on the main campus but again requiring the same type of global agreement governing that can be developed and an agreement to manage and limit the impact.

We are not unreasonable. With a global agreement, we have indicated that we would accept 370,349 gross square feet of buildings that has been agreed within the negotiated masterplan and an additional 89,365 gross square feet of parking garage structure. That is a garage bigger than the Chestnut Hill Hospital parking garage and the complex of college buildings is far larger than the hospital.

Similarly, with a global agreement we would accept a new academic building and new student center on the Main campus of 141,000 gross sq. feet, as well as a 72,000 gross square feet of structured parking.

However, we oppose any increase in the development beyond the limits previously stated for this fragile site that is designated the as most sensitive category of land in the Wissahickon watershed, the source of Philadelphia’s water supply. We further oppose any variance you might seek to the Wissahickon Watershed Ordinance that would allow you to disturb or build on steep slopes, increase the impervious coverage of your development, have an adverse impact on the contiguous cover of the tree canopy for migratory birds and other species in this ecosystem or in any way create an impact on the Wissahickon with your stormwater system. Offers that have been made of additional square footage were based on the college slowing the process so that we could reach a global agreement before any final re-zoning bills were offered to city council. The college has refused that offer and therefore we are not able to agree to the additional square footage which can only damage the site and the Wissahickon.

We continue to encourage you to seek options such as car share programs or limiting the number of cars allowed on campus that will reduce the number of parking spaces, garage development and increased traffic this entails.

Further we oppose any attempt to circumvent the spirit of the Houston Deed Restriction that limits the use of the property to residential by building garden apartments and calling them dormitories. We support building with the lightest impact on the land and not inflating a dormitory room into an apartment or building against the spirit of the single family residences that are the referenced community.

In addition we oppose the zoning mechanism of an IDD unless there are development-limiting protections for the community that are held by an independent easement holder and not a City Council ordinance that can continue to be changed/increased at any time by a political body. We remind you that we wrote a zoning overlay tailored to your development that you supported in place of the IDD.

What is proposed is a great deal of development that far exceeds what has existed for a century and that is referenced in both the Greenfield and Houston deeds. Such development will certainly aggravate the existing traffic congestion and noise. We are not saying build it elsewhere. We are saying you may build it here, but when you do, build it in strict accordance (not variances) with the Wissahickon Watershed Ordinance controls, build it in accordance with an agreed upon Community Development Agreement that will enable the college and community to manage change over time, use a zoning mechanism that can not turn the property into a development the size of the King of Prussia Mall, and place perpetual conservation easements over the land that is not planned to be used.

You have told us that CHC will not be ready to build on Sugarloaf for about 5 years. There is no need to rush into this IDD zoning. We once again urge you to stop the CHC request to change part of our neighborhood to IDD zoning and to find a means that protects both the college and the community.

The level of compromise discussed above is contingent on your having the IDD rezoning withdrawn from City Council and formally deferred before May 18, 2011.