Balancing smart housing policy with preservation

by Pete Mazzaccaro
Posted 3/18/21

In the last month, just as the promise of a ‘return to normal’ following a year of pandemic isolation, Chestnut Hill has found itself the latest point of focus for the city’s …

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Balancing smart housing policy with preservation


In the last month, just as the promise of a ‘return to normal’ following a year of pandemic isolation, Chestnut Hill has found itself the latest point of focus for the city’s relentless push for more housing.

Not long after we learned of a plan to build eight houses on W. Highland Avenue, developers introduced plans to build a 38-unit apartment building at Germantown Avenue and Bethlehem Pike. And now, E. Mermaid Lane neighbors are facing the potential for a 250-unit apartment complex at the former site of United Cerebral Palsy.

Mt. Airy, too, has seen a number of plans for denser housing developments recently. Earlier this year developers shelved plans for a 37-unit apartment complex planned on Chew Ave.

This should not come as a surprise to anyone who has paid attention to the housing market. As numbers of available homes fell to historic lows, prices shot up. While it was a great time to sell a home, finding one has been a lot less easy. There’s clearly a demand for housing in the Northwest and money to be made in providing it.

Neighbors are almost always certain to be opposed to such developments. They argue against density, point to nonconforming architecture and make cases that current zoning regulations don’t allow for portions of the developers’ plans. Often, I feel, the tables are stacked against them as they battle uphill against not only developers who stand to make tidy profits but city officials who see benefits in additional tax dollars.

There are also sensible arguments to be made for dense housing in Chestnut Hill, Mt. Airy and the rest of the city’s Northwest neighborhoods. There are plentiful public transit options, including six regional rail stations in Chestnut Hill alone. Not to mention, Chestnut Hill is already home to the 196-unit Hill House on W. Evergreen Ave. and the 241-unit Chestnut Hill Tower on Stenton Ave. The precedent is certainly there.

And yet, while it’s easy to make a case that opposition to these new housing developments is just NIMBYism, the core argument those neighbors make – that the new will invariably alter the quality of the old – is true. If a place is great in part because of its present density, is it fair to ask people to accept more? The pragmatist in me says yes, but the romantic concedes the point.

The United Cerebral Palsy proposal by Goldenberg Group is remarkably large. If it consisted mostly of two-bedroom apartments, which average 1.8 residents per unit, that could increase Chestnut Hill’s population by 450 residents, roughly 4.5 percent.

Goldenberg Group says it is committed to working with neighbors on its plan. I suspect a majority of E. Mermaid Lane residents are reasonable people who would be a lot more likely to work with Goldenberg if they’re not left in the dark. Perhaps a compromise can be reached. The certain thing is that new housing will be built on the property. The question is whether it can do so reasonably and give the neighbors something more than just a lot of new traffic on their block.


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  • tbreslin


    Get ready for more trash, more traffic, more crime Chestnut Hill... all those tax dollars will be going downtown (not staying here). Also... the additional density will not help the avenues commerce, just make Amazon more busy with deliveries.

    But a few lucky property owners, real estate developers and politicians... they will make out !

    Tuesday, March 23 Report this