Next week, Chestnut Hill College will present a deal to the community it hopes Chestnut Hill can be excited about. After two years of negotiating with neighbors and neighborhood institutions, the College wants to grant an open space easement on 19 of 32 acres on which its SugarLoaf property sits. In exchange, it wants all parties in a nine-party negotiating group to sign a Community Development Agreement.
Sounds easy enough, but that Community Development Agreement may still be as far away now as it was when the negotiating group first sat down to talk two years ago. One of the things the college wants is the withdrawal of at least four lawsuits filed against the college and the City of Philadelphia for zoning changes granted the college to move forward with its development.
Two groups composed of nearby neighbors responsible for the lawsuits, The Northwest-Wissahickon Conservancy and the North Chestnut Hill Neighbors, have so far shown no sign that they are willing to sign off.
When the negotiating group’s chairman, Larry McEwen, called a meeting to vote on accepting the CDA, both groups declined to attend, insisting that their absence would nullify anything the group accomplished because the meeting would fail to have a quorum.
That remaining members voted unanimously to accept the CDA. Of course, the vote and its ultimate support by the CHCA will not mean a thing to the near neighbor groups, which have challenged the group’s legitimacy throughout the last two years.
Though the members of both groups have insisted that they are not opposed to the colleges plans to develop and expand at the property, they have been opposed to nearly every step the college has taken, including its decision to seek and receive an Institutional Development District that gives it flexibility to pursue a pre-approved master plan. Those neighbors have openly criticized nearly every aspect of the college’s proposal, from the number of students it plans to house on the property to its financial ability to fund long-term development at the site.
So now, the college clearly hopes that it can persuade residents in an open and public meeting at 6 p.m. Thursday, Oct. 27, to voice support for the expansion. It’s not hard to imagine that many in the neighborhood would support the college’s plans. A growing college would not only be a benefit to local businesses (exhibit A1, last weekend’s busy Harry Potter event) but would likely benefit the community as a whole by providing public meeting spaces, facilities and jobs. Small college towns are not the nicest places to live by accident.
Yet, the neighbors, as is their right, remain unconvinced. Underneath what may seem like selfish concern only for the view out their windows are legitimate concerns about precedent and what might happen to the property if it is sold, particularly now that the IDD zoning has greatly increased the value of the land.
It’s too tough to predict human behavior, but based on what I’ve seen and heard, I don’t expect the neighbor groups to be moved by the college’s presentation next week. I don’t think the college expects different results after two years, either. The wild card here is where public opinion in Chestnut Hill falls, whether it’s ultimately supportive, dismissive or indifferent.
Who knows if public opinion will sway the college or neighbors one way or the other. But what is important is for some sense of public opinion on the matter to take shape and help guide decision makers on what is best for the community.
Be sure to attend next Thursday. There really is no bigger development facing Chestnut Hill than Chestnut Hill College’s expansion proposal.