Commentary: Chestnut Hill does need ‘a reality check’

Opinion June 2, 2011 0 Comments

by George L. Spaeth, M.D.
Bob Previdi, in his May 26 opinion piece “Chestnut Hill needs a reality check”, argues for more development, larger institutions, more students and more trust in the Chestnut Hill Community Association (CHCA) as the way to assure the well being of Chestnut Hill.

His thesis appears to be based on a belief that (1) the health of the Chestnut Hill community depends on enlarging its business district, (2) the success of the business district lies in attracting more people to Chestnut Hill, and (3) those who disagree with these types of changes are “naysayers and bullies.”

Regarding point number 1, the health of Chestnut Hill primarily depends on the health of the Chestnut Hill residential community, which is primarily related to the quality of life of the residents, including economics. Increasing traffic congestion, introducing mega-schools and chain stores, decreasing the viability of the wonderful specialty stores that characterized a well functioning business district, destroying ancient trees, decreasing property values – these and similar changes decrease the quality of life for those living in Chestnut Hill.

Regarding point number 2, greatly increasing the volume of people who come to Chestnut Hill is probably counterproductive. Our small streets are already overcrowded. The reasons for coming to Chestnut Hill to shop and for living in Chestnut Hill will disappear. Consider places like Cambridge, Mass., or many of the small towns in England, very similar to Chestnut Hill, which have evolved beautifully.

They are increasingly pleasant places to live, in which the businesses and institutions flourish BECAUSE they are small and special; they and the residents all prosper together. They have succeeded because they have meticulously controlled “development.”

An unnecessary tragedy of urban evolution in the United States is the transformation of lovely, viable cities and towns into ugly, stereotypical urban/malls where few, if any, people prefer to live, and where the businesses then fail, leading to a blight. If congestion increases – as it certainly will if institutions and businesses try to bring more people to the area – the Chestnut Hill stores will probably suffer, not flourish.

Providing excellent goods and services that a community really needs and wants and lowering overhead is often a more successful route to greater profits than becoming broader and increasing expenses. Chestnut Hill has shining examples of this.

Chestnut Hill is a small community, where people have chosen to live because it is quiet, green, with easy access to churches, a good hospital, public transportation, parks, stores and services they need. Chestnut Hill is a mature, low density, community with narrow, sunny streets, low buildings and a wide variety of happy residents. People love living in Chestnut Hill because it is quiet and NOT “where the action is.”

Change is inevitable, but it can be for the better or the worse. How change is controlled is crucial. Consider the expansion of Chestnut Hill College. The community has little idea what is happening because –instead of open discussions – the president of the CHCA imposed a total news blackout.

The original plan submitted by the college when it was considering buying the Greenfield property seemed appropriate. I and many of those now concerned supported the expansion with words and money. In fact, we were the YEA-Sayers. Change that is likely to benefit the community needs support. Change that results in deterioration of the community must be resisted. Thank goodness there are those willing to endure the insults that are frequently the result of opposing powerful people intent on having their own way.

Economics are important. There are many sections in Philadelphia that were once lovely places to live but are now unpleasant places to avoid. That is the natural evolution of communities that do not take care of themselves, that do not have a vision of what they want to be and how they can make that happen.

The Chestnut Hill Community Association was developed to try to have that vision arrived at democratically, rather than as the consequences of developers, wealthy people, or businesses or institutions the community does not want. Unfortunately, we no longer have a Chestnut Hill Community Association, but rather have a Chestnut Hill Institutional/Business Association that often considers the residents its enemies.

There are many different visions of the American way of life. They include Donald Trump, megamalls, strip malls, and lovely quiet towns where the economic value of real estate (the small homes, the large homes and the businesses) increases because it is not destroyed by deteriorating forces.

Yes, Chestnut Hillers do need a reality check. Specifically, in what kind of a world do the residents of Chestnut Hill wish to live, and how willing are they to work for that, recognizing that when they do they will be called naysayers, bullies and anti-American? I consider those who do want to preserve and enhance what this small, quiet “Greene Countrie Towne” offers heroes, not bullies.

Yes, Chestnut Hill does need to change. It needs to change in a way that will make it a better place to live by preserving and enhancing those characteristics that make it such a wonderful place now. It does not need to change in a way that will force many of those presently living here now to move somewhere else where they hope to find what Chestnut Hill has to offer, but may squander.

George L. Spaeth, M.D. is a past president of the Chestnut Hill Community Association and a founder of the Chestnut Hill Community Fund.

 

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