Hill architects consider retail corridor health after Covid

By Diane Fiske
Posted 10/2/20

Architect Jean McCoubrey who is , chair of the Chestnut Hill Community Association’s Land Use Planning and Zoning Committee, said there is no clear cure for vacancies in the Chestnut Hill …

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Hill architects consider retail corridor health after Covid

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Architect Jean McCoubrey who is , chair of the Chestnut Hill Community Association’s Land Use Planning and Zoning Committee, said there is no clear cure for vacancies in the Chestnut Hill business district since the pandemic started in March.

McCoubrey, who shared a local office with Stanley Runyan for 22 years until he retired last year, has been a volunteer on the Chestnut Hill Community Association’s Land Use Planning and Development Review committees for decades. Both committees consist of design professionals who consider zoning variance requests and work to address the impact of development on Chestnut Hill, both on and off of the Germantown Avenue corridor.

“For sure, some of the retail would have to be changed to residential, but it will take time.” McCoubrey said, “I don't have a planning background like some of the people on the zoning board, but I know zoning and other things would have to be considered before any changes can even be discussed.”

The vacancies in the business district are apparent.

“I was thinking of this today when I walked out on the Hill and saw other than Kilians and the Coop, that there weren't a lot of stores that I know available. It certainly was not like a usual Wednesday on the Hill,” she said.

She is not alone in this view. Walking south along the approximately one mile long Chestnut Hill business district on Germantown Avenue between the “Top of the Hill” and the CVS drug store at the bottom, it seems evident to even the most casual passerby that something is missing.

What is missing, according to local planners, are many businesses in buildings on both sides of Germantown Avenue. These businesses were vacated for a variety of reasons from the lack of foot traffic due to the pandemic to shop-owner retirements and company mergers.

Philip Dawson, Executive Director of the Chestnut Hill Business District, said businesses along Germantown Avenue total more 224, but includes businesses on the first and second floors of buildings. There are about 124 retail establishments on the first floor he said. A total of 30 businesses are empty, both upper and lower floor businesses, in the entire area. It’s a vacancy rate of just over 13%.

According to a Moody’s analysis of real estate data, the national retail vacancy rate in the final quarter of 2019 was 10.2%. Moody’s has projected that rate to climb to 13.5% this year, due to strains Covid-19 has had on retail. The figure puts Chestnut Hill in an unsurprising position, but one planners the Local spoke to would like to see improved.

Now, the question is how are the gaps filled in?

Among the community planners asked about the situation were John Landis, a University of Pennsylvania Weitzman School of Design planning professor and co-chair of the Chestnut Hill Community Association’s Development Review Committee as well as a member of the Land Use Planning and Zoning Committee. He said in a phone interview that residents in Chestnut Hill “assume after the pandemic passes things should go back to normal.”

“Only they won't,” he said. “tastes have changed, and we need to accommodate those changes.”

Landis said that more people are shopping online and “young people are investing more in digital equipment and less in clothing and many large department stores throughout the country have become storage areas for online shopping businesses such as Amazon.”

He said one idea might be changing some first-floor retail buildings to residential but that would have to be established on a “case by case basis”.

Landis said nationally about 30 percent of a typical community is retail and it will have to be determined how much of Chestnut Hill should remain retail and how much residential or business.

There have been many suggestions to him and his colleagues on the CHCA’s zoning committees, but nothing formal.

“We can't just have residents move into former businesses,” he said. “We have to make specific changes such as do we tear down buildings and build new ones or change the zoning of a property?”

All this, he said, will take a lot of work by the committees.

McCoubrey said there are many things for the committee to discuss this fall. She said there are problems that impact traffic to and from Chestnut Hill such as the site of the former Trolley Car Diner that a developer has bought along Germantown area. 

“We are interested in the impact of the developer’s plans on us,” she said.

Philadelphia architect Larry McEwen is a co-chair of the Chestnut Hill Community Association’s Development Review Committee with John Landis. When asked about the prospect of possibly changing some retail businesses to residential on Germantown Avenue, he said the changes can be considered but care in establishing residences is tricky.” Most people do not want strangers looking into their houses or apartments.

He also said any change depends upon how close to the avenue the entrance would be;

“We have to accept the fact that some change is on the way”, he said, “Do we want to change zoning or work with people. It is sometimes easier to work with people. We have to recognize the fact that traditionally the residences are on the top floors. We are concerned about all businesses.” he said, “Repurposing some of the buildings where businesses are closed are some of the things we will have to deal with this fall.”

Diane Fiske writes about planning and architecture and Lives in Chestnut Hill. She writes the regular Streetscape column for the Local and has written for the Philadelphia Inquirer.

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Aj

Isn't this a little rushed? CH is not a traditional strip retail center. Its a destination that has been distinctly crafted over the decades. If CH retail is indeed dead, then perhaps residential zoning could be relevant but we are only 6 months into the pandemic. No one knows what the economic climate will look like in a year let alone a few years so talking about making these rash decisions now is a little extreme in my opinion. Rents are so high that maybe the initial step would be to lower them and give businesses a chance. Malls and department stores may have a limited future due to online sales but the appeal of an afternoon strolling and shopping on Ger Ave for a couple/family who lives in Center City or Mont County is different. These are experience based purchases which will be viable in the long term based on most research i've seen.

Wednesday, October 7