August 14, 2008 Issue
Chestnut Hill Local
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Treehouse Play Café: the struggle begins
Just when he thought he had the general support, or at least the general indifference, of his neighbors, Jain learned that they were going to take a stand against him. Some who now opposed his project had expressed support for it earlier.
That e-mail, from a group that has dubbed itself the Chestnut Hill Zoning Preservation Coalition, was sent to members of the Chestnut Hill Community Association’s Land Use Planning and Zoning Committee, urging the group to resist granting Jain the zoning variances he sought.
Those variances would allow him to raze a property he owns on the west side of the 8500 block of Germantown Ave. and replace it with a three-story structure that fills 100 percent of the property’s lot.
Eleven people signed the e-mail, representing property and business owners on the 8500 block. The document argues that Jain’s project is a clear exception to zoning law, which does not allow restaurants or 100 percent property coverage in the building’s district (zoned C1).
To get a variance, a property or business owner must show a hardship. Typically, a case for hardship depends upon the needs of a current business or property to change or expand in order to remain competitive or viable. Tailoring a property to the needs of a new enterprise usually doesn’t qualify. In case law, when a property owner says he or she needs a variance to realize its economic potential, it doesn’t qualify. It’s considered a self-inflicted hardship.
So, members of the Zoning Preservation Coalition want to know what business does the LUPZ have approving Jain’s project? If the LUPZ is supposed to enforce zoning and Chestnut Hill’s land use guidelines — a non-legal document used by the association and historical society to guide development — it shouldn’t have granted approval.
But this issue is not that simple. The LUPZ’s mission, laid out in the bylaws of the Chestnut Hill Community Association, is pretty broad. It states only that the LUPZ reviews zoning problems and makes recommendations. It doesn’t have to enforce zoning. In fact, most variances granted in Chestnut Hill are granted without demonstrated hardship. Just about every fence, deck and driveway variance supported is done without any clear hardship to the property owner.
It’s clear from the words of committee members that their approval was related to planning. They decided to recommend the project based on their view that it will revitalize the Avenue. They didn’t have to play zoning cop. Instead, they played community planner. Given Philadelphia’s nettlesome zoning laws, perhaps that’s the way the LUPZ should operate.
I said in a previous column that I don’t think tearing down the building to build a much larger new one is a good idea, no matter how desirable the business is. But no matter what, the final decision, which will come down from the association’s board, will not likely be based on following the zoning code. It just doesn’t apply.
Like most projects on the Hill — especially controversial ones — the Treehouse Play Café will stand or fall depending on the personalities and passions of those involved on both sides. Judging by the appearance of the Chestnut Hill Zoning Preservation Coalition letter, signed by some prominent business leaders, the fight has only begun.
Athletes overshadowed at the Beijing Olympics
The first thing we heard about the XXIX Olympics in Beijing, even before the games began, was the hubbub surrounding the relay that took the Olympic Torch around the world. Protests interrupted its trek, in some cases rerouting it to places where protesters couldn’t interfere.
The next big news about the games had to do with the pollution in Beijing. It seems that a bad air day in Los Angeles or Denver is a good air day in the People’s Republic’s capital.
Next we were told that the folks who had promised open access for the media during the games were actually short-circuiting reporters’ ability to go online and use the Internet.
Last Thursday, the day President Bush arrived in Beijing, the White House press corps was held on its plane for three hours while Chinese and American officials squabbled over how to get the press’ baggage to its hotel.
News of the opening ceremonies on Friday was superceded by word that Todd Bachman, an American tourist and the father-in-law of America’s head indoor men’s volleyball coach, Hugh McCutcheon, was killed by a knife-wielding Chinese national. The man committed suicide after the attack, which also injured two others.
And that was just some of the news about these games, which are, as this is written, just a few days old.
So, what’s this all say about the event that many view as the most impressive and important in sport? It says that maybe the International Olympic Committee, the group that chooses the venues for the Olympiads, should have picked someplace other than Beijing.
At the time of the selection, the Beijing Olympic organizing group, clearly with the agreement of its government, guaranteed that the games would be open to all and that China would in no way restrict travel and reporting during the two weeks the world was watching.
Part of the IOC’s thinking was, it was reported, that having the Olympics would encourage China to become more open, more responsive to human rights and would allow the world’s largest nation to play on an international stage that could do nothing but make it a more participatory member of the world community.
Good idea, I guess, but they got it backwards. I can’t imagine anyone seriously thinking that the Olympics should be awarded to Phnom Penh or Pyongyang or Tehran or Darfur in order to get them to clean up their various evil acts.
While horrible things can happen anywhere (Munich, 1972 proves that), it was clearly a lack of judgment to select a host city and country that would be the cause of predictable distractions and difficulties. China’s reputation preceded the 2001 selection and the IOC knew it, had no realistic hope that anything would change and picked it anyway.
The bottom line is that the IOC should have demanded that China do the things that civilized nations do before granting them the big prize. The Olympics should be a reward not an incentive.
Last time it was Athens, next time it will be London and, after that, maybe Chicago. That’s all well and good. But what about this year? What about the athletes?
They will be the losers. All of the doctors and trainers and athletes quoted in the press have said how horrible conditions are in Beijing. Not only is it bad for their health, it will likely impact their performance.
While some cynics claim that the Olympics are no longer about athletes but rather about money, the fact is that the athletes don’t view it that way.
One American swimmer, Eric Shanteau, is putting off treating his recently diagnosed testicular cancer until after he competes. In any other year he would have had the necessary surgery right away, he said, “but this isn’t any other year – I have been going after this my whole life.”
These games should be about the athletes, not about all that other stuff. When the first gold medalist (Czech air rifle competitor Katerina Emmons) was announced in the news flash on the New York Times Web site, the flash was about a quarter the size of the one about the murder/suicide.
It would be great if the XXIX Olympiad became a memorable event, filled with great personal and team achievements. It’s more likely that it will be memorable for everything but the athletes. That’s a pity. Which would you rather remember: the air quality in Beijing or swimmer Michael Phelps’ pursuit of an Olympic record eight gold medals (as of press time Monday he’d already won two)?
Personally, I want to remember the 1980 United States hockey team in Lake Placid, Greg Lougainis’ fabulous diving and the various remarkable and courageous feats of gymnasts and figure skaters from around the world. I hope similar memories will be created in the next two weeks, but I’m not optimistic.
GM First casualty of off-base EEOC decision
Sadly, General Motors has become the latest American company to eliminate health benefits for its retirees over the age of 65.
This is just the first major casualty of the federal Equal Employment Opportunity Commission’s (EEOC) decision earlier this year to allow companies to discriminate against older retirees by treating them differently than younger retirees. GM has set a precedent that will likely lead to other employers doing the same.
In recent years, as a cost-cutting measure, some corporations have resorted to canceling or reducing retiree healthcare coverage. These are benefits that were earned by employees and were considered part of their total compensation package.
In the 1950’s - 1980’s these benefits were “Inducements,” in lieu of higher wages. Continued health benefits in retirement were a strong incentive for many to stay with their employer for decades of loyal service.
The current inference that corporate retirement benefits are entitlements or gifts is just wrong. They are benefits earned over careers spanning 30-40 years. Corporations benefited greatly by providing them in lieu of higher wages.
Two bills now in Congress, the bi-partisan Emergency Retiree Health Benefits Protection Act (H.R. 1322), and the Pension Protection Act ERISA Amendments of 2008 (H.R. 6143), would address this issue and make companies live up to the financial commitments made to their employees and retirees decades ago. According to the bills, changes to health benefits would need to be made before an employee retires.
The financial reality of providing healthcare coverage is considered in both bills. They ensure that employers are not burdened with a cost they cannot afford or that does financial harm to the company. Companies may apply for an exemption if they feel compliance would be a substantial hardship. Most importantly, both bills ensure that employers meet their obligations to their long-time employees who earned those benefits through years of dedicated service.
Support from Members of Congress is critical to retirees in this state and across the country, especially in light of the EEOC ruling that allows companies to cut supplemental health coverage to retirees age 65 and over.
Healthcare coverage is a vital issue for all Americans. It is imperative that before the Democratic and Republican conventions both presidential candidates and Congress address these issues — now of crisis proportion — and put into their platform a true plan of action for the protection of retirees’ earned healthcare benefits.
To those holding or seeking office in 2008, I encourage you not to take the retiree/senior vote for granted. They represented 62.5 percent of those who voted in the last election.
James Muldoon lives in Drexel Hill.
Heroes of Reading: Grace Fanelli, dental hygienist
“Oh, and then there’s another one,” Grace is telling me, “Braestrup, Kate Braestrup, something like that …”
I’m tilted way back in the dentist’s chair, the thick, green plastic eye shield hiding the bright light Grace shines into my mouth as she picks and scrapes away.
“Anywaay,” she continued, “this woman, her husband was going to do his ministry. This is up in New England, Maine, maybe, no, Vermont, I think, but anyway he dies, all of a sudden. Oh it was awful, but she decided to finish his work for him. It was so inspirational. I think the book is called Here if You Need Me.”
She segues into using the large rubbery rotor to grind paste into my molars. My mouth is wide open and kind of runny as she asks, “Have you heard of her?”
“Uh-uh,” I gurgle. I can handle her simple yes/no questions by now, after 20 years of these quarterly teeth cleanings. But now she goes into that other gear, the Grace gear, where she asks questions that require elaborate answers despite having her hands and a bunch of metallic objects in my mouth.
She asks, “What are you reading lately?”
My mouth is too full to articulate. Does she expect an answer? No, I guess not, because now she’s saying, “Probably something good. You read a lot, don’t you? I try to, I don’t know where the time flies.”
She gives me a small paper cup of rinse ‘n’ spit and I comply.
Before I tilt down again, I ask her how her husband is. Grace and George have been married long enough to have nearly middle-aged children. They were a loving couple, enjoying life together, when he developed Alzheimer’s. Now he’s in a residence facility. Grace lives in a 55 and older community and visits him regularly.
“Oh, good thing you asked me that today,” she said. “Yesterday was tough. It was his birthday. So when I first came in, he was glad to see me and see the cake and all that. And then, it was like you flip a switch, and he was wanting to fight with everybody. Well I got him to calm down and eat some cake. And then I showed him his birthday cards and I read them to him. One of them was a musical card that plays a tune when you open it.
“‘Get that out of here,’ he said. Well, it wouldn’t stop playing. And now he’s mad and he wants to fight this other guy again. ‘I’m gonna punch him in the mouth,’ he said. Oh it was awful. I said to this other lady … she’s visiting her husband too, ‘Oh well, we tried. We’ll try again tomorrow.’”
I’m lying there, thinking, Why is Grace always so pleasant? How would I be in the same situation? Excuse me for the selfish thought, but I guess I’d be sad and lonely.
And while we’re on the subject: Is there anything so kind and noble we humans do for our fellow humans as to visit people who have Alzheimers? Our lives are so busy and yet we visit, have conversations, do some caretaking that may not be acknowledged while we’re there — and almost certainly will be forgotten when we leave.
Why bother? Yet, we do. Love, loyalty, a need to keep the residence staff on their toes and remind them that this person has others who still love him, or her. Payback. An inability to shoulder the guilt of not going. Sometimes the sheer fun of knowing that you’ve brought a temporary (sometimes very temporary) smile to someone’s face. Very complex, this human need of ours.
Grace is flossing my teeth now and praising how pink I’ve kept my gums.
I touch her hand for a second to get her to stop and ask her what else she’s reading.
“Well, The Last Lecture was good. Sad, but it gave you so much to think about. And then I also read that one by Jimmy Buffet, A Salty Piece of Land. Now that was funny. I just think he’s great. And then there was Le Colonial, or something, about three people who leave France for Asia and don’t really realize what they’re getting into. That was good. Let me see, what else?”
I’ve done my final rinse‘n’ and Grace is rummaging in the cabinets to get a new toothbrush and some sample paste and flossing brushes for me.
I say, “Grace, I have to ask you something and I hope you don’t mind that it’s kind of personal.”
“No, go ahead,” she said. “I won’t answer if I don’t like the question.”
“Well, Grace,” I said, “it seems to me that you have a hard life — in effect it’s like you’ve lost your husband, but you’re still taking care of him.”
“Tell me about it,” she replied.
“So how is it that you read serious books about serious issues?” I asked. “People always say they need to escape from the harsh realities of their lives. That’s why they watch TV or just read light books.”
“Oh, don’t get me wrong,” she said, “I like other kinds of books too. I love those Shirley Russo Murphy books, the Simon Gray ones, where the cats help solve the mysteries. I’ve read every one. And Jan Karon, the Mitford books. And Quilter’s Homecoming and that whole series that involves quilters.”
I’m still curious though. I asked her, “But you seem to balance your reading with some quite serious themes also.”
“Well, you have to,” she said. “It’s hard. Sometimes I talk to God. I say, ‘Yo, God.’ I complain. I ask questions. But other times I need to read books that are about what’s really happening in the world.”
I nod, encouragingly.
She stands, holding the toothbrush she is about to give me, and looks out the window, remembering.
“Sometimes I get sad when I read these books about things that happened to people,” she added. But they don’t depress me. They’re uplifting. They broaden my horizons … people who have lost a partner … it’s sad, but it’s uplifting to see how they moved forward, how their spirits overcame their problems, how if something happens, you feel like you can handle it. I might sound a little funny saying this, but I feel like they’re talking to me, the authors, and saying if I can do it, so can you.”
Then she tells me she is retiring this Christmas. She doesn’t want any big farewell party. I feel glad for her, sad for me not to have any of these chats to look forward to after my next one on December 8. I’m glad I was paying attention when I had the chance to know her and learn from her.
That’s why I’m nominating her as #1 in an occasional series I’m calling “Heroes of Reading.”
Contact Hugh Gilmore at firstname.lastname@example.org.