SCHA has removed numerous trees on its property as it began work on its athletic field improvements. This field along Willow Grove Avenue was one of several spots cleared. (Photo by Pete Mazzaccaro)

by Wesley Ratko

The Chestnut Hill Community Association’s Development Review Committee agreed last night to recommend supporting three variance requests made by Springside Chestnut Hill Academy to improve its athletic field but only after a discussion around the school’s removal of trees on its campus. The DRC’s recommendation will be considered by the CHCA board at it’s next meeting, Thursday, July 26.

The conversation on trees began when a Chestnut Hill resident who refused to give her name for attribution told the committee that the sight of so many trees gone missing from her block surprised her and caused her to question whether she was on the right street.

“I became so disoriented that I pulled my car over, because I thought I had made a wrong turn,” she said.

She told the committee that, according to her count, 50 trees had been cut down.

“These were healthy, mature trees,” she said. “Such a lack of creativity that they couldn’t get what they wanted without cutting down these trees. It’s staggering to me.”

Springside Board of Trustee member Henry O’Reilly responded by saying that some of the trees they cut down were not healthy and that as a part of their master plan work would plant more trees than have been taken down.

“The number of trees that we’ve taken down and the condition of those trees and what was required for maintenance and safety, we’re putting back much more than we took down,” O’Reilly said . “What’s on the plan will be the minimum of what we do,” he added, “and we just keep adding as we go along.” He said replacement trees will be selected by a landscape architecture subcommittee and will include only native species. Once the types of trees are chosen, the information will be forwarded on to members of the committee.

Springside Chief Financial Officer Frank Aloise added that the plan for the tree removal has the support of the Friends of the Wissahickon because of the role it plays in a larger solution to a storm water problem in the Wissahickon.

“The project is not just about trees, but about storm water,” said Aloise. “We are solving storm water problems that have existed in this part of the city for over a hundred years.”

Aloise explained that the storm water that runs off the Springside Chestnut Hill campus down into the Wissahickon can erode the soil around tree roots and cause the death of trees within the park. The elements of the work proposed by Springside Chestnut Hill will ameliorate some of those impacts by better treating and removing the storm water coming off the field.

In order to do that, Springside is putting three foot storm drains under Cherokee Street. According to Aloise, the trees have to be removed in order to do that.

“You have to bring pipes across the property and you can’t dig under the roots of trees in order to put those pipes in,” Aloise said.

Aloise also referred to elevation changes on the site. A 17-foot drop from the Commons to the corner of Cherokee and Willow Grove prevents the installation of sidewalks along the road, which are planned along Cherokee and Willow Grove Avenue. Removal of the trees is necessary, he said, in order to regrade that area and install the sidewalks.

“This is a very big-picture plan,” said Aloise. “We’re looking back at what Henry Howard Houston did a hundred years ago and we see this as another hundred year plan,” he said, referring to an early Chestnut Hill resident and railroad magnet who owned large swaths of property in Chestnut Hill and connected it to Philadelphia by rail at the end of the 19th century.

Houston planted trees all throughout Chestnut Hill that, according to Aloise, are now dying and in need of replacement.

Newly appointed DRC co-chair John Landis asked O’Reilly if Springside would consider hosting another neighbor meeting to explain why the trees were removed and to share plans regarding the replanting of new trees. He agreed reluctantly.

“You’re asking me to do something on the project that has been approved already,” O’Reilly said referring to the tree removal. “I don’t have a problem explaining to people … but it’s not what we’re here to talk about.”

“Look at what we’ve done historically on other campuses,” said Aloise. “It’s with respect for this community.” He added that all of the tree removal was allowed by zoning.

A recently completed master plan for the school includes provisions for the replacement of existing aluminum bleachers with a permanent building that will feature bathrooms, locker rooms, and a concession area, as well as a “tennis pavilion,” and a new expanded parking lot.

The pavilion will replace an existing metal storage shed and several portable toilets now present on the field. The parking lot, which is now partially paved and partially gravel, would be repaved entirely and expanded in size. The school also plans to regrade portions of the field.

It is these elements for which Springside Chestnut Hill appeared before the DRC.

The DRC voted unanimously to approve a motion to support all three variances sought by the school, provided Springside meets with conditions set by the LUPZ and the Historic District Advisory Committee. Those conditions include providing proof of neighbor support, a pledge to make the sidewalk along Willow Grove Avenue continuous from the church to the Cricket Club, make efforts to include porous pavement wherever possible, and provide samples of materials for both the buildings and the walkways.