January 7, 2010


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Essay The biggest story in Chestnut Hill: Zoning

Zoning disputes are not new to Chestnut Hill. In fact, the Chestnut Hill Community Association was essentially founded to prevent the grounds of the old Mower Hospital – a parcel that now contains Chestnut Hill Village and its adjacent shopping center – from becoming the new home of Temple University in the ‘50s.

Since that time, Chestnut Hill has had frequent zoning disputes that seem to pit the same interests against each other, over and over again. Residential interests find themselves encroached by business interests. Preservation tries to fend off progress.  Of course, this is not a Hill phenomenon. These conflicts occur in nearly every community, but they certainly hit a level of acrimony in this Zip Code that is, well, um, let’s say, uncommon.

Year in and year out, zoning is the biggest story in Chestnut Hill.  That was evidenced in several stories that began and ended last year year.

The year began with the final chapter of 2008’s big zoning story. The Little Treehouse Play Café found a permanent home on West Gravers Lane. Rachael Williams’ business was finally realized after a very contentious year of bitter zoning meetings. [I was critical of the initial plan, because it required the razing and rebuilding of Williams’ first planned location on the 8500 block of Germantown Avenue, not of the business itself, which is, as any parent who has been can testify, a real Philadelphia gem.]

Then, this fall, the Woodmere Art Museum finally won an exhaustive series of court decisions to move forward with a major expansion designed by the world-renowned architecture firm of Venturi Scott Brown and Associates.

The battle over the museum’s expansion began more than five years ago when near neighbors objected to everything from parking and light to the building’s aesthetics. After the museum won approval from the city’s Zoning Board of Adjustment – the body that oversees the issue of zoning variances in Philadelphia – neighbors appealed. This year, neighbors finally exhausted their appeals – or just got exhausted – and Woodmere will move forward with construction.

Woodmere’s hard-won victory could not, however, overshadow the biggest zoning dispute of the year.

The Good Food Market was previewed in this paper in an article I wrote on June 4. In that article, owner Jennifer Zoga – a Hill resident and mother of two – told the Local, “We want to provide an option for people to get the food they want in a way that is stress-free, enjoyable – it’s posh without pretension.”

What she got, instead, was a lot of stress as neighbors quickly organized a petition and collected 72 signatures (according to an article we ran on June 18) opposing the market. Neighbors wrote to the Local and attended zoning meetings of the Chestnut Hill Community Association to express their fears that the Good Food Market would exacerbate traffic and parking problems on Willow Grove Avenue.

The CHCA and its committees still decided to support the market’s request for variances that would allow it to sell takeout gelato and coffee and to prepare sandwiches to order. But the neighbors, with help from several local politicians, defeated the market’s owners at the ZBA.

The aftermath of the Good Food Market zoning defeat brought those dynamics – preservation vs. progress and business vs. neighbor – into sharp focus. The battle pitted residents against other residents as members of the upstart Chestnut Hill Residents Association took sides with neighbors against the CHCA.

But who was right? Were the near neighbor’s justified in letting their fears of the worst-case scenario dampen the plans of a new business? Or did the Good Food Market take those concerns too lightly?

Business leaders were greatly disheartened by the market’s loss before the ZBA. Former Chestnut Hill Business Association director, Bob Previdi, in a front-page opinion published here worried that the unfounded fears of neighbors were being allowed to harm the general well-being of the whole neighborhood. Members of the CHCA were also alarmed, wondering how their clout could be overlooked. If the CHCA didn’t best represent the neighborhood, who did?

What was left behind is an unsatisfactory situation for nearly all involved. The neighbors might have stopped the market from getting a variance, but the market is in business. If, indeed, the market were to bring along the parking and traffic problems neighbors feared, they’d be a problem right now.

The confrontation was also a pretty effective warning for would-be-developers. How many would-be entrepreneurs with an outside-the-box plan for the Hill have looked elsewhere when they saw what happened to the Market?

As the year closes, two other major issues of land use loom. Borders will close on Jan. 16, leaving the two-story Avenue “anchor” store empty. Chestnut Hill College will also be seeking neighborhood support for an ambitious expansion. The community has an opportunity to be involved with the college’s plan – they’re good neighbors with a leadership that wants very much to be part of and work with the community.

But what of Borders? When the bookstore closes in a little more than a week, what role will the community play in finding a new tenant? Neighbors might not get the chance to have a say if a retailer like Walgreens comes to town (something I still doubt, based on available parking), but if an arts or music venue becomes possible, will Hillers support it? Or will fears of the worst-case scenario drown out the possibilities?

What can make Chestnut Hill the best possible retail corridor and the most comfortable residential community are not necessarily that much different. Perhaps there will always be an area of disagreement between the two – business vs. neighbors, that is – but if more common ground isn’t discovered, everyone might really suffer.

After residents chased Temple away from Chestnut Hill Village, it took years for the property to be developed. And when it was, it was hardly what many civic leaders and planners would have liked (imagine Northwest Philadelphia with Temple here). There’s certainly less at stake in Borders, but a bad outcome for the property could be bad for Chestnut Hill.

I hope the stories of Chestnut Hill College and Borders in 2010 have a better ending.




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