Neighbors think plans for Magarity are too big for the neighborhood. They've hired a lawyer to fight the zoning changes

by Jennifer Katz

Apparently in Chestnut Hill there is no end to the number of times lightning can strike. This week, the Local has published another letter by neighbors unhappy with development. This time it’s about Bowman Properties plans to develop the former Magarity Ford dealership site, and as in previous instances they have engaged a lawyer to fight the development.

Their complaint? The plan is too big for the Avenue, for Chestnut Hill and for the neighbors, whose homes would stand to be dwarfed by the five-story building fronting the pristine sidewalk.

And the Chestnut Hill Community Association, which once again set up a subcommittee of volunteers dedicated to negotiating with Bowman on the issues that concern the neighbors and the community-at-large is being dismissed as ineffective and out of step.

In the letter published this week, Terry Halbert, whose property is adjacent to the Magarity parcel writes, “The design is out of scale and out of character with Chestnut Hill” and “residents have attended CHCA meetings for the past six weeks but have noticed little to no progress on their concerns.” (See the letter on page 4).

To say that Chestnut Hill residents were surprised when Richard Snowden, managing partner of Bowman Properties, unveiled his plan to build a mixed-use commercial and residential development that would include a 20,000-square-foot retail space, four floors of condominiums and nine million-dollar townhomes would be an understatement.

Snowden has long been seen as the guardian of the historic character of Chestnut Hill as much as he has been criticized for vacant storefronts. Far from the forward-thinking visionary of a commercial corridor developer, Snowden’s reputation has been marked by strict adherence to an even stricter palette of acceptable aesthetics throughout the Hill.

“I see this development in the context of doing this for 30 years,” Snowden said in his offices at Germantown and Southampton Avenues last week. “We believe that this building with the proper design and adornments will enhance the Avenue.”
Snowden said he takes his reputation as Chestnut Hill’s gatekeeper “carefully.” Ask any business owners who have had to come before him as a CHCA board member and they will agree.

Yet the near neighbors and the subcommittee members remain skeptical at best that this project, which includes bringing national upscale grocer Fresh Market to the Avenue, is right for Chestnut Hill.

“If you look at it from an aerial photograph, the footprint is much bigger than anything in the 19118 ZIP code currently,” said John Beckman, who has the distinction of being a near neighbor, a member of the subcommittee and an urban planning expert.

It was Beckman’s firm, Wallace Roberts and Todd, that was invited to New Orleans after Katrina struck and which eventually went on to plan that city’s reconstruction. Beckman himself was the project manager.

Beckman shares Halbert’s concerns as to the scale of the project.

“[It is] the sense of mass of the development,” he said. “It is very tall on the Avenue, taller by far than any other building, except the very peak of the hotel, but this is much wider and goes all the way up.”

“Why should we care,” Beckman asked, anticipating the obvious question.

“Because it will change the physical character of the community,” he said.

Beckman disagrees, however, that the subcommittee has been working in vain. He and Joyce Lenhardt, the subcommittee chair, agree that progress has been slow. Yet there have been significant compromises, both said.

Bowman has agreed to set the top three stories of the Germantown Avenue building back from the sidewalk, although the degree of setback still is being debated.

“It’s not enough of a move,” Lenhardt said. “It doesn’t really change the overall mass on the Avenue. It’s a gesture, but we don’t believe it goes far enough.”

According to Snowden, it has gone as far as it’s going to go. There is simply no room to maneuver, he said. Despite repeated efforts from his consultants and project team to present a plan that was larger in scale, which could then be “trimmed” in response to community concerns, Snowden fought to bring this plan forward.

“I don’t play that game,” he said. “I think it’s dishonest. I present the plan I think is best for Chestnut Hill.”

It is a precarious position for Snowden to find himself in, where he is both the guardian of the old and the harbinger of the new. It is brining up lingering issues with his relationship to the community while simultaneously stepping into the cauldron of the community’s relationship with the city.

For months, members of the CHCA development and zoning committees have been working with City Hall zoning officials to retain the prominence the CHCA has enjoyed downtown since its founding more than 50 years ago.

Their efforts have fallen on deaf ears. And while there is still hope among those involved in the process that the city officials will recognize the value the CHCA has brought and continues to bring to the development process, developers have been given strong encouragement from the city to proceed even without the approval of the community association.

It is hard to imagine that this new attitude from City Hall is not informing some of the recent choices that have been made on the Hill. Bowman is applying for zoning relief through City Council’s legislative process, much like Chestnut Hill College, albeit the desired zoning designation is not the same.

The neighbors and the CHCA are equally concerned about this new trend. In her letter, Halbert refers to a feeling of powerlessness to stop Bowman from being able to obtain the zoning change it seeks. From a legal perspective, that is true.

Yet, as with the college, which continues its negotiations with the neighbors to this day, months after obtaining the zoning relief they sought from City Council, Snowden has pledged, in writing, to continue the same process with these neighbors. He has even promised that the CHCA board will have the opportunity to vote on the plan before the City Council will have the opportunity to vote on the zoning legislation for the property.

“That is the biggest misunderstanding here,” said Seth Shapiro, Bowman’s development and project management consultant. “We have chosen to subject ourselves to a longer, more difficult process that has more opportunity for public input than we had to because it is the proper planning route.”

The City Council process requires public hearings where everyone will be able to voice their concerns or their support. Bowman postponed having the zoning legislation introduced until October.

“We had to get the ball rolling,” Shapiro said. “It’s been seven months.”

Unfortunately in Chestnut Hill, along with zoning requirements, aesthetics compliance and community support, there is the inevitable bickering that too frequently turns personal. Halbert’s letter also implies that Snowden has tried to intimidate the opposition.

Some neighbors started an online public forum to discuss the project. A contributor took the opportunity to make allegations against Snowden’s family, claiming they had engaged in back door dealings with the city.

Snowden responded by notifying the group’s moderator that if the allegations, which he said are “false and fabricated” were not removed he would be forced to refer the matter to his attorney.

“It was not an attempt to intimidate anyone,” he said. “It was an attempt to stop people from spreading lies about my family.”

Beckman said he is not in favor of the near neighbors, who he said have not participated in the subcommittee’s meetings, taking legal action.

“It is the responsibility of the subcommittee to do their best to negotiate the best outcome for the larger community while taking into consideration the concerns of the near neighbors,” he said. “We need to make the best of the opportunity we have. We are all going to have to live here.”