September 10, 2009


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College unveils two-campus

A rendering by SaylorGregg Architects depicts what Chestnut Hill College’s Sugarloaf campus will look like when the school’s new master plan is relaized.

Chestnut Hill College will come before the Development Review Committee of the Chestnut Hill Community Association on Sept. 15 to present its largest undertaking to date: a completed master plan for both of its campuses — the main campus across from Northwestern Stables and its newly acquired campus at Sugarloaf.

The college is seeking a zoning variance from its current R-2 status to an Institutional Development District. The variance request is the first step in a just-completed master plan that would allow the college to increase its enrollment to 1,500 students. There are currently 900 full-time students at the school.

“This is a multi-year, multi-million dollar plan,” said Peter Saylor, a Chestnut Hill resident and principal architect of SaylorGregg Architects, the college’s architectural firm for the project.

The price tag could reach a half-billion dollars, and the fulfillment of the master plan could take more than 25 years. Still, the college is forging ahead with its plans, which include a new student center and underground parking lot on the main campus and the creation of a new campus at the Sugarloaf site that includes more than a half dozen new buildings to house classrooms, dormitories, support services and additional parking.

“The purpose of the master plan is to unify both campuses in a way that fulfills the college’s mission and creates a European city on two hilltops,” said Sr. Carol Jean Vale, president of the college.

Becoming an IDD, a common practice among institutions of higher education (i.e., University of Pennsylvania, Temple University and St. Joseph’s University) benefits the college because it allows for implementation of the master plan without going through the zoning variance process at each turn.

Vale believes it will also benefit the community because the master plan will have to be approved by the CHCA before the college can present it to City Council, which will make the IDD determination.

“The nice thing about this for the community is that Chestnut Hill gets to see what the college will do over the long haul,” Saylor said. “There will not be a surprise every year.”

According to Robert Shusterman, a neighbor known for his role in working with near neighbors of the Woodmere Art Museum to oppose its expansion plan, the college is off to a good start.

“We have a good basis for communication with the college,” he said.

The college organized a meeting with near neighbors last week and will hold another meeting on Sept. 14, the day before the DRC meeting, to unveil its master plan to the larger community.

There is one snag, however, as the college’s plan moves forward. For the college to become an IDD, all of the property to be included in the district must be owned by the same entity. Currently, the Sisters of St. Joseph own the college’s main campus and the college owns the Sugarloaf campus. Saylor said the attorneys are working on this issue and he expected it to be resolved favorably, but he noted that the Sisters have not shown any interest in obtaining the IDD designation.

The college seems committed to working with all of the interested parties, fairly and equally. Shusterman said the college approached him and his neighbors even before purchasing the Sugarloaf campus in July 2006. The college had just begun its master plan process at that time and incorporated the neighbors’ concerns into the final plan.

“The master plan addresses what the college said it would do with the [Sugarloaf] property at that time,” Saylor said.

Neighbors asked the college to preserve the green fields along the perimeter of the site in order to maintain the bucolic scenery from Germantown Avenue. The neighbors are also concerned about traffic.

The master plan calls for the razing of all of the existing buildings except the mansion, which the college is renovating. In place of the existing structures, a new series of buildings will be dispersed along a main path. The parking structures will have green roofs and will be wedged in between the buildings to provide grassy quads for the campus, which will hide the underground parking lots beneath them.

SaylorGregg worked with landscape architectural firm Andropogon to create a green campus that is functional, environmentally sound and in line with the neighbors’ stipulations.

“The peripheral land will be preserved in perpetuity,” Vale said. “It can never be built on.”

Vale said the neighbors concerns were foremost in the college’s thoughts as it proceeded. Of equal importance was to maintain the character of the main campus through the Sugarloaf campus.

“We are trying to replicate the ambiance, character and architectural details,” she said.

The idea of the European town on two hilltops is taken from Le Puy, France, where the Sisters of St. Joseph order was founded in 1650. Vale said it was important to the college to restore the mansion and keep it as part of the Sugarloaf property because of its historic significance.

“Three presidents slept there,” she said.

Shusterman said the neighbors had concerns about traffic. He called the intersection of Bells Mill Road and Germantown Avenue “a failed intersection.” The college’s plan would increase the parking capacity at the site from 145 to 600 cars. The college has a strict policy, however, that prohibits students from moving their cars from one campus to the other.

Freshman and sophomores are not allowed to have cars on campus, and juniors and seniors have assigned parking. Once they are there they may not move. The college has 24-passenger vans that shuttle students back and forth between the campuses.

The master plan would also close off the entrances on Bells Mill Road and limit access at the Germantown Avenue entrance to emergency vehicles. Instead, the college will build a new entrance road off of Germantown at Hillcrest Avnue, creating a four-way intersection at the light.

“Its much safer to add a road at Hillcrest,” Shusterman said. “Many neighbors have seen accidents at the other entrances.”

From the college’s perspective, the benefit to the community of the master plan and the IDD, which will bind the college to its plan, is that everything will be spelled out.

“In the back of everyone’s mind is preservation,” said Ken Hicks, vice president of institutional advancement for the college. “This removes doubt. Without this, in 10-20 years there could be a different relationship between the college and the community. Here you get to see what the future will be — now.”

As proposed, the master plan will probably take many decades to complete, Vale said, and the current administration’s successors will be tied into this plan.

And that may be true, Shusterman  said, if the city doesn’t change the zoning code and if the controls in the current zoning code for an IDD really provide for that kind of commitment.

“I would say we are cautiously optimistic,” he said. “We need to see more details, to read the actual wording of the code and see what the controls really are.”

The public will have an opportunity to hear from the college directly at 7:30 p.m. Monday, Sept. 14, at a meeting to be held in the St. Joseph Villa Auditorium, 110 W. Wissahickon Ave., Flourtown. The DRC meeting will be held at 7:30 p.m. Tuesday, Sept. 15, at Chestnut Hill Hospital, 8835 Germantown Ave.