Over the past few years there has been a series of conflicts between residents and developers in Chestnut Hill. To some extent this is normal and can be taken as a sign of a healthy, engaged community. But what continues to be unsettling is a persisting uncertainty that the overall system of structures we have to deal with them is working as it should, particularly when times are tough.
Sometimes it has felt like the kind of Wild West film where it’s clear at the outset that the action is not going to settled by the small town sheriff or judge, but rather by hired hands, viewed in trepidation from behind second floor windows.
Recent developments in Chestnut Hill that have sought few or no exceptions for their development plans have proceeded smoothly. The Iron Hill Brewery and Weavers Way are cases in point. The new Rita’s Water Ice appears likely to be another.
But where zoning changes have been involved, conflicts have arisen as well as doubts about process.
The old model was that if you wanted a zoning change, you typically had to show an unusual hardship, or at least get the support of your neighbors. Under constant pressure in recent years, however, these criteria have been yielding to economics based criteria, sometimes casting neighbors as naïve, selfish and against progress. Can it really be that wherever there happens to be a development plan in Chestnut Hill that requires zoning modification, there is also a concentration of naïve, selfish neighbors?
In the present case – the proposal of Bowman Properties to transform the former Magarity Ford site into a mixed use retail and housing development anchored by a 20,000 square-foot grocery store – neither the current nor the pending zoning code would authorize construction of the scale that is proposed.
Chestnut Hill’s own Land Use Guidelines, though without legal force, also proscribe it. In a well-documented petition, 583 residents of Chestnut Hill, including a high percentage of near neighbors, oppose the plan, as do some 1,400 from nearby neighborhoods, even while many acknowledge that the current zoning is not ideal and welcome the prospect of development.
Questions as to why the mix of modestly sized residential / mixed-use building that characterizes most of Germantown Avenue in Chestnut Hill should be infeasible in this location have not been fully addressed. In different times, it would seem relatively uncomplicated: Build what’s allowed or get neighbors’ approvals.
This, however, is a time of economic fear. If the current proposal does not go ahead there have been warnings of dire possible consequences for Chestnut Hill. Some of these warnings seem substantial and others perhaps overblown. Either way, this climate of fear risks introducing something effectively irreversible into the heart of our community based on a short-term rather than a long-term analysis.
Our zoning codes and our local design guidelines were created for the long-term health of our community. They provide flexibility to developers, predictability and security to neighbors and would-be purchasers, and they protect and guide the overall form of urban development.
If we’re going to deviate from these guidelines, let’s do so because we want to do something even better and more farsighted, something about which progressive urban design journals will want to publish articles, something that the community is strongly behind, and something that visitors will admire and remember.
Architecture is the most overt symbol of community, and people love to visit and live in places where architectural harmony inspires the sense of an underlying harmony in the community. It’s not an easy place to get to, and there will be differences along the way, but it seems like the right goal to be working for.
Eric Spaeth is a Chestnut Hill resident
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