Historic center inches toward renovation

By Tom Beck
Posted 8/17/23

About seven years after the Chestnut Hill Community Centre’s board began exploring potential buyers for its building, it is poised to return to its former glory.

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Historic center inches toward renovation


About seven years after the Chestnut Hill Community Centre’s board began exploring potential buyers for its building, which was in an asbestos-laden state of disrepair, the cherished community building is poised to return to its former glory, according to the CHCC’s board chair Will Detweiler. Or at least it seems that way.

That’s because the group is just one major financial donation away from having the financing in place to finish the building’s restorations, which first began in 2021, Detweiler said. The final plan, he said, is to provide a reduced-rent space for several nonprofit organizations in Chestnut Hill, including the Chestnut Hill Community Association, the Chestnut Hill Business Association and Friends of the Wissahickon. All three organizations confirmed with the Local that they’d spoken to Detweiler about possibly moving to the location.

The cost of the nonprofit spaces, as well as a Chestnut Hill welcome center, a joint meeting room for the nonprofits and a community garden, would be offset by additional commercial spaces that will be rented at full market rates. 

The CHCC board already has made some progress in rehabbing the Woodward Community Centre, which is the official name of the building, located at 8419 Germantown Ave. So far, according to Detweiler, the building has had its asbestos fully remediated and a new roof installed. It also had some basic exterior painting. Between that, some survey work and necessary expenses for engineers and architects who helped design the building’s planned addition, the CHCC has spent about $650,000 restoring the building. 

“That’s in a nutshell where we are,” said Detweiler, who has spearheaded efforts to renovate the building. “As I look back at it, it really is a miracle because everything that could have been thrown at us was thrown at us.”

The biggest challenge Detweiler and the board had to contend with was COVID. Because of the pandemic, the building lost tenants, and thus revenue, to fund the repairs. Adding insult to injury, increases in construction costs meant the project’s $1.75 million estimated price tag ballooned to between $3.5 million to $3.7 million, Detweiler said.

Since that time, however, the group has raised additional money. To date, the board has raised more than $2 million, which includes the $650,000 already spent on renovating the building. If the CHCC can raise another $750,000, Detweiler thinks that sum should get the board close enough to paying the restoration project’s total cost. The funds left over, Detweiler said, will be small enough that it can be financed.

“We’ll probably end up with a small-but-manageable mortgage,” he explained in a phone call. “It’s a combination of mostly equity, but some long-term debt.”

A big chunk of the more than $2 million raised came from the Maguire Foundation, which donated $1 million. The William Penn Foundation donated an additional $500,000 and members of the Haas family collectively donated another $500,000, according to Detweiler.

Luckily, all the necessary permits for future restoration work have been acquired. The only thing left to do is start construction. The biggest portion of the restoration work would go towards building a planned addition on the Ardleigh Street side of the property behind the building. The addition will create more rentable commercial space for future tenants – something that Detweiler said is necessary for the project to be financially self-sustaining. 

Plans for the addition also include an elevator, which would make the building ADA-accessible. The renovations also include updating the building’s bathrooms and stairwells, which are also currently in violation of ADA regulations. 

If the funding was acquired today, Detweiler said, construction would be completed in six to eight months. 

At present, the building is about 50% occupied. The most visible tenant, the toy store Villavillekula, sits on the ground floor. Several counselors and an architect currently rent space on the building’s upper floors. 

The board has been reluctant to take on new long-term tenants, Detweiler said, because the exact timing of when the money will be raised and restoration will take place is uncertain. But he’s confident that once renovations are complete, it will attract tenants – both nonprofit and for-profit. 

“There’s a tremendous demand for space at the top of the hill along Germantown Avenue,” Detweiler said. “We have people calling and saying they want to rent commercial space for a shop or an office.”

Friends of the Wissahickon, for instance, has expressed interest in renting long-term once renovations are complete.

“Friends of the Wissahickon is aware of and remains interested in the potential of office space in the building and continues to watch the project as it progresses," the organization’s executive director, Ruffian Tittman, said in a statement to the Local.

Anne McNiff, executive director of the Chestnut Hill Community Association, said in an email that the CHCA has had “preliminary discussions” with Detweiler.

“But until the building plans are finalized, it’s unclear if the space would be appropriate for the CHCA’s needs,” she continued. “We’ll have to wait and see. We wish the Community Center’s board good luck with their fundraising efforts.”

The board has also been in talks with Night Kitchen, which has a location at the bottom of the Hill, about opening a second location on the Avenue. 

Jenny McHugh, who sits on the CHCC’s board, said the building’s restoration would be a “real game changer for the community.”

“I view that building as the keystone for our collective efforts and support for Chestnut Hill,” she continued. “When you collaborate and work together you can accomplish so much more and I think that’s what this building would do.”