More than two years after developer The Goldenberg Group bought property that formerly housed the old Chestnut Hill Friends Meeting House and former headquarters of Blossom Philadelphia, neighbors …
More than two years after developer The Goldenberg Group bought property that formerly housed the old Chestnut Hill Friends Meeting House and former headquarters of Blossom Philadelphia, neighbors are still wondering what, exactly, will happen to the 4.4-acre piece of ground that sits right on Mermaid Lane, a busy thoroughfare and direct traffic route between Chestnut Hill and Wyndmoor.
Talks have stalled between the developer and the Chestnut Hill Community Association since the last meeting between the two parties in late June, and it’s unclear how the company, owned by Ken Goldenberg, plans to move forward with the project. The company has met with neighbors several times over the past year but no formal proposal has been submitted to the Philadelphia Department of Licenses and Inspections.
The future of the site is of major concern to immediate neighbors as well as the CHCA because, as initially proposed, the development is large enough that it could have a significant impact on the character of the entire community. That proposal calls for up to 285 housing units that are six stories high - a far more dense complex than what is currently allowed under the parcel’s current zoning.
“People don’t wear clothes that don’t match,” said Stephen Megargee, one of the neighbors who objects. “Why would you put a gigantic building that’s going to last for decades somewhere where it doesn’t belong?”
Keith Kunz, a near neighbor, said that he’s not opposed to any development on the property. But, like others, he felt the size of Goldenberg’s plan was “way too big.”
“I understand they paid $4 million plus for it,” Kunz said. “But there’s a lot of other things you can do to be creative.”
The CHCA and many other residents who were present in those meetings said that Goldenberg wasn’t seeking a zoning variance for the site, which is what most developers do when they want to build a project on land zoned for a use other than what they want to build. The current zoning of the property is RSA-3, which only allows for single family homes, not apartment buildings.
Instead, neighbors said, Goldenberg was hoping to “spot zone” the project. This is a technique that requires a developer to lobby the city’s corresponding district councilperson, in this case Cindy Bass, to pass legislation in city council that changes the zoning of the individual parcel to one that would allow for the developer’s proposal. This way, the developer wouldn’t have to deal with the zoning board, since the “spot-zoned” code would not require them to obtain a variance.
Luckily for neighbors, Bass told the Local she wouldn’t support such a move.
“We always support what the community wants, and it is abundantly clear to me that this is not welcome to the community, so we stand in opposition to it,” she said. “I told them flat out that without community support we'd be unable to support this project. I think the community has a lot of concern about what this would do to the fabric of the neighborhood. Density is important in the right locations, but it's not required everywhere.”
Assuming Bass holds true to her position, the only other avenue for Goldenberg to build such dense housing would be to seek a zoning variance.
That could get awkward, since Frank DiCicco, head of the zoning board, also runs a lobbying firm, and Goldenberg is one of his clients. When DiCicco took the post back in 2017, he said he would handle any potential conflict of interest caused by his continuing to run a lobbying practice as a public official by recusing himself from hearings involving his clients.
Most of the neighbors who object are not opposed to developing that site, they just want it to be size appropriate and to have enough parking.
“At the June meeting, the majority of us were under the impression that [Goldenberg] was going to show us some plans and take into consideration things that had been raised as concerns,” said Anne McNiff, executive director of the CHCA. “Unfortunately the plans that they showed us did not reflect really any changes as far as density goes from their very first drawings.”
Kunz said it bothers him that Goldenberg told neighbors that the company was “for the community” and that they “want to be long term owners” of the property and still seems to remain committed to such a dense proposal.
“To come out and to show us those sketches and say that nothing else was economically feasible,” Kunz said, “either one you’re not being creative enough with your architects and your designs or you’re just not the right developer.”
Both Kunz and Landis said the developer said the proposed complex wouldn’t need as much parking as neighbors say they want, since the area is a transportation hub. Kunz and Landis both disputed that claim.
“This is a location where in peak periods you have two trains an hour,” said Landis, referring to the nearby Wyndmoor and Mt. Airy train stations. “[TGG] developed a property in Center City which has much better transit service, but this is not Center City.”
“[The] train station is not a transit hub,” said Kunz. “It’s a train station. The 23 [bus] runs along Germantown Avenue, but by no means is that a hub.”
Another point of contention for neighbors is the fate of the old Quaker Meetinghouse, which they say Goldenberg had told them he planned to preserve. But in May, the developer obtained a demolition permit for that building.
Goldenberg “assured everyone numerous times that they had no intentions of knocking down that historic building,” said Anne McNiff, executive director of the residents association. “It hasn’t been put in writing, but that was always on the table as something the community needs them to stand by.”
Like Kunz and Landis, resident Stephen Megargee is “not against development,” he said. “I am against thoughtless development.”
“I get a little bit irked when...developers propose these really soulless large boxes,” he said, “because they seem to be the only things they have the imagination or talent to conceive as financially viable.”
However, Landis, who is also a professor of city and regional planning at the University of Pennsylvania, didn’t quite see it that way.
“They initially said they had no intention of demolishing the meetinghouse,” he said. “That’s not the same thing as giving a commitment...I don’t regard it as promises made or broken.”
Landis, who noted that he “suspects 250 units is too much,” sees an opportunity for the community and TGG to meet in the middle.
“There’s room to meet in between,” he said. “The question is will each side be willing to do that.”
Since the June meeting, McNiff said there’s been communication about the project with neighbors, but not the developers.
“We left it as ‘we’re not happy with this and you didn’t address any of our concerns,’” said McNiff.
The Local reached out to the Goldenberg Group multiple times last week to comment on this story, but representatives for the developer did not respond.