Commentary: Plans for Magarity site threaten the community

Opinion September 21, 2011 0 Comments

by Terry Halbert

We are near neighbors of the former Magarity Ford. We want to give our not-so-near neighbors a sense of what we think is worth knowing about the plans Bowman Properties has to redevelop the site.

First, let us say this: We do not oppose development. When it is done well, and done with meaningful collaborative input, we love it. We choose to live in Philadelphia, and we understand that Philadelphia is a city. Development can and should happen in our urban community.

A quick sketch of the Bowman plan: Their proposal is for a 60-foot tall, five-story building on Germantown Avenue, a 20,000 square foot supermarket in the middle of the site and a row of 45-foot tall townhouses in the back along Shawnee Street.

Bowman will be going directly to City Hall (not to the Zoning Board) to request re-zoning of the site. They will need two zoning designations (C3 and R10B) which are normally only found in Center City, and a change from residential to commercial use. They will also need exemptions from published land-use guidelines, Germantown Avenue District Controls and zoning setback requirements.

An online discussion group was created in June, a forum for residents to air their concerns. It was announced to be a forum for all opinions. After a neighbor posted a link to a 2002 Philadelphia Inquirer article detailing the developer’s tax delinquency issues, the neighbor who had started the group was directly threatened with a libel suit by a representative of Bowman Properties. She decided to delete the discussion group.

Meanwhile, the CHCA agreed to form a subcommittee to work with Bowman Properties.

Residents have attended CHCA meetings for the past six weeks but have noticed little to no progress on their concerns.

There are many reasons why we near neighbors have concerns. We would bear the daily brunt of the noise, smells, and increased traffic. But since we’ve been following the process carefully, think of us as canaries in the coalmine, bringing news as to what this project will mean for the wider community.

A few reasons why all of us should be concerned: The design is out of scale and out of character with Chestnut Hill: Five-story frontage on the Avenue, a 30-foot wall facing the relatively small houses on Hartwell Lane with almost no setback, and 45-foot high townhouses on Shawnee, a radical departure from what city records presently describe as a “country lane” adjoining the bird sanctuary and Pastorius Park.

A new street will be carved into the middle of the block, called Market Lane, for car and truck entry. No other unit block on the Avenue is developed all the way through, as this one would be. The plans look to us like a chunk of Plymouth Meeting Mall shoehorned into what is otherwise a strikingly beautiful, and beautifully preserved urban space.

We are told that a new supermarket will be an anchor for the Avenue and will have the effect of enhancing all the business activity up and down Germantown Avenue. We think not. We think that after people load up their vehicles with shopping bags from a supermarket, they go home – before the ice cream melts.

We are told to expect 1,500 cars a day. We are told this is a good thing – that more traffic is what happens when development succeeds, end of story. But Chestnut Hill works because it is pedestrian-friendly. On foot, people can take in one another and the variety of shopping experiences here.

Wouldn’t it be marvelous if the many storefronts now owned by Bowman Properties but shuttered – some for years – were occupied?

We are told that Bowman Properties’ appeal to rezone here will be a “slam dunk.” The message: We should all just give up. Once City Council has granted the rezoning, it won’t matter whether the supermarket and the townhouses are ever built or occupied, because the site, now worth a lot more, could be sold and become just about anything. As a representative of Bowman Properties has warned us more than once, if we resist the present plans for the site, we could end up with a Walgreen’s.

It’s true, we are concerned because as near neighbors we will be closest to the noise, the smells, and the increased traffic. But we write to alert the community-at-large: There is something going on that is worth paying attention to here, something deeply worrying. We are going through a process that feels like the ducks were lined up a long time ago.

Ducks, canaries, whatever. It’s time to hire a lawyer, and we have. If anyone is interested in finding out what might be done to make a few peeps, please feel free to get in touch with us.

Terry Halbert, a p

rofessor of Legal Studies at

Temple University

Fox School of Business and Management,

lives on Southampton Avenue and can be contacted at VibrantCH@gmail.com.

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