Commentary: Chestnut Hill needs a reality check

Opinion May 24, 2011 0 Comments

by Bob Previdi

Chestnut Hill is a great neighborhood, but like so much of the nation, it is suffering economically. Yet, while the country is facing one of the worst economic downturns since the depression of the 1930s, we have been presented with some major economic development projects. Unfortunately we have lost two out of these three projects and are in danger of jeopardizing the third if we don’t speak up.

Too often we undermine our development review process and allow bullies and naysayers to take control. It is time for our community and our community leaders to take charge and speak up about the future of Chestnut Hill development.

While some in the community are fortunate enough not to feel the pain of this economy, the reality is that Chestnut Hill needs to reinvent itself to stay relevant in a 21st-century global economy. We can do this by supporting development opportunities such as Woodmere, Greylock, Chestnut Hill College, the former Magarity site and the Good Food Market. Such multimillion-dollar projects can benefit the entire community. While the views of the near neighbors are important to consider, they must not completely derail and defeat progress.

As the former executive director of the Business Improvement District and the Business Association and a former board member of the CHCA, I have seen projects consistently mishandled publicly and have watched vitriolic hostility – instead of facts – control the discussion. I have seen neighbors employ bully tactics and threaten lawsuits, and scream and shout at meetings like children. It’s uncivil and should not be tolerated. We need not be our own worst enemies.

At City Council meetings the pubic is often invited to speak at certain points, particularly during budget season. Each person has to register to speak and is given three minutes to express his or her views. The reason for this is simple: Government is a democracy, and the minority should not be allowed to overrule the majority. Unfortunately, in Chestnut Hill the vocal minority view wins all too often.

Take, for example, the Woodmere Art Museum expansion project. This project was stalled by near neighbors in such a protracted legal action that even though Woodmere won the lawsuit, it lost its will and its funding, and thus Chestnut Hill lost this $11 million dollar project.

In 2009 the Good Food Market was supported through the CHCA process, only to be undermined at the zoning board downtown (the zoning process in the city requires a developer to get community input from the CHCA).

Just recently, the Green Woods Charter School was proposing a $12 million dollar re-investment in a crumbling old mansion. The project would have populated this old building with one of the best science and environmentally focused schools in the city, and now Green Woods is looking elsewhere in the Northwest. The school and the parents of potentially 675 children – who would have spent money on Germantown Avenue – are now gone from our future.

Now, the naysayers have vociferously set their sights on defeating Chestnut Hill College’s SugarLoaf plan, which calls for investing $300 to $500 million in our community. Is our local economy doing so well that we can afford to lose this, too?

I asked local businessman Enzo Mandarano, of Cosimo’s Pizza, what he thought about the college’s expansion.

“Chestnut Hill is a fabulous community, but I’m concerned that not enough is being done to promote business on the Avenue,” he said. “I sure hope they can work things out between the community and the college. They have to meet in the middle. It certainly wouldn’t hurt to have more business at my door.”

I know that most of us are working hard simply trying to take care of our families, and we have little time to spend reviewing all that has been written and said about this expansion. That is why we have a community association – to vet the plans and provide a forum for discussion and compromise. But rumors spread by the opposition would have you believe that the college has been underhanded in this effort. Nothing could be farther from the truth: In fact, the college has come to the table and sacrificed a great deal in an effort to be good neighbors.

Since first proposing the project nearly two years ago, Sister Carol Jean Vale, the college president, has changed the design based on near-neighbor input. When the approval process was stalled, a separate task force, with representatives from the college, the CHCA, and near neighbors, was formed to negotiate a solution for all sides.

This group has been meeting for over 18 months, redesigning the project to concentrate development in the middle of the property and preserving open space around the perimeter.

In addition, the College has spent more than $500,000 providing technical support to this task force in the form of architects, engineers, and environmental designers. Still, the near neighbors continue to badmouth the college and fail to give any credit for this gesture. Instead, they spread false rumors and half-truths to scare people into thinking that this half-billion-dollar project is a bad thing for the community.

For instance, a full-page advertisement taken out by a few near neighbors in the May 12 edition of the Chestnut Hill Local stated emphatically that a parking garage is going to face Germantown Avenue. But what they conveniently left out is that the garage has been reduced by 150 spaces, has been moved underground and is 350 feet into the property and away from Germantown Avenue. That is larger then a football field away. Nobody will see this parking garage through the trees.

In this same ad, the public was invited to attend an open community meeting to “join us for a discussion of the issues” at St. Paul’s Church on May 16. According to a story in the May 18 issue of the Chestnut Hill Local, members of the negotiating group who attended the meeting were not allowed to speak by those who organized the meeting. If this is true, it should raise a huge red flag to everyone in the community about the near neighbors’ true motives.

While I don’t think it is reasonable for anyone to expect to get 100 percent approval on every aspect of this development from all near neighbors, after 18 months and a half million dollars spent on design changes, the college deserves our support – made loud and clear.

Instead of arguing about the merits of such things as the appropriateness of the BigBelly solar trash and recycling cans on Germantown Avenue, the community and the Community Association should be focused on real issues related to this and other developments that speak to our economic viability.

If we want a better Chestnut Hill – one that preserves the essence of Chestnut Hill but keeps it growing in a rational manner – then we must do more to show our support. Call the CHCA, call City Council and our elected officials, send an email or letter, any way you can, let your opinion be recorded – it matters.

Carefully thought-out development, such as the one the college has produced with near-neighbor input, needs our full support. We must keep Chestnut Hill economically viable by allowing sensible growth to occur. Preserving our community does not mean that we should treat the Hill like some museum piece.

Bob Previdi is the former executive director of the Chestnut Hill Business Improvement District and the Chestnut Hill Business Association.

 

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