Neighbors argue 30 W. Highland development will negatively impact Chestnut Hill

by DB Fromm
Posted 12/31/69

Henry O’Reilly’s plan to demolish his company’s headquarters at 30 W. Highland Ave. and replace it with eight townhouses has prompted one Hill resident to organize opposition to the plan online, with more than 80 respondents saying they were concerned the project would negatively impact the neighborhood.

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Neighbors argue 30 W. Highland development will negatively impact Chestnut Hill

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Henry O’Reilly’s plan to demolish his company’s headquarters at 30 W. Highland Ave. and replace it with eight townhouses has prompted one Hill resident to organize opposition to the plan online, with more than 80 respondents saying they were concerned the project would negatively impact the neighborhood.

O’Reilly needs a variance to proceed and has, as part of the Zoning Board of Adjustment review, presented those plans to the Chestnut Hill Community Association’s (CHCA) zoning committees. After this paper published news of the proposal and an editorial advocating for the preservation of the Wissahickon schist structure as an example of the historically significant local vernacular, a few concerned Hillers joined the Land Use Planning and Zoning (LUPZ) Committee hearing, held over Zoom, to voice their concerns.

In the third sub-committee meeting before heading to the Development Review Committee (DRC,) and over the objections of one member and a majority of attendees commenting, the LUPZ approved the project with a request the developers “explore” (not implement) minor adjustments.

Soon afterward, one particularly concerned and tech-savvy neighbor, Tim Breslin, created a website, 30westhighland.com, to summarize his concerns and host a survey. With some help from like-minded neighbors, a flyer emblazoned with the header “ATTENTION!!” appeared stapled to utility poles and delivered to more than 100 nearby homes.

A Google spreadsheet Breslin shared with the Local shows the campaign garnered 84 responses (excluding 10 repeat responses.) 80 selected “yes, I’m concerned,” and two were “against demolition and construction as planned.” All but a few of those included comments. Only two responses selected the “no, it doesn’t bother me” option. The result is a trove of overwhelmingly disapproving sentiments towards the project.

The campaign also helped attract additional residents to the Feb. 16 DRC meeting, where the Historic District Advisory Committee (HDAC) objected to the demolition and proposed an ad hoc committee be formed to resolve their differences with O’Reilly and his architect before the March CHCA Board meeting. The motion passed, and the ad hoc committee includes three near neighbors, two of which I interviewed for this story: Ross Pilling and Denis Lucey.

Reviewing Breslin’s survey, while some respondents focused on the demolition and others on elements of the proposed townhouses, many cited both as concerns. Whether by loss of a classically constructed building or infilling a spacious lot to-the-max, for many the project pointed to a disturbing trend in the neighborhood. The townhouses, they say, are of a clichéd and formulaic design regrettably found replacing many historic homes in other parts of the City.

The result, they say, is the erosion of those characteristics giving Chestnut Hill its appeal and National Historic District designation: the buildings and their scale in proportion to their lots and neighbors. These aspects create the quaint, “village in the city” ambiance and relatively low density that, along with its gardens, trees and lawns, are Chestnut Hill’s unique draw.

Although 30 W. Highland does not currently have a garden, the plan includes removing a large tree and is seen as not befitting Philadelphia’s Garden District. The Historic District Advisory Committee (HDAC) has cited the need to check whether it is a “heritage tree” - of a listed type and minimum size, and subject to removal restrictions.

Structures harkening back to Philadelphia’s industrial past and mixed socio-economic makeup are also seen as part of that atmosphere.

“It’s a working-class building,” said Pilling, among others near the Avenue, including “the old post office on W. Gravers, the building at 14 W. Willow Grove that’s now a fitness center, and the Artist and Craftsmen building. They’re not the most extraordinary pieces of architecture in the World, but they add to the flavor and context of the community, the texture.”

This points to a trend of “super gentrification” in the neighborhood, said Lucey, who holds a degree in urban planning.

“We don't have very many structures left which relate to the mixed population in Chestnut Hill, in terms of social and economic classes of the last 300 years. Increasingly houses are being built in the $1 to $2 million price range, and sometimes above that. And I'm not talking about the few big estates on the edge of the park. I'm talking about the commercial center of the community and the houses of trade people and working-class people, and school teachers, and professional people,” he said. “We need to retain that if, for no other reason intellectually, to know that we have this history. Germantown and Chestnut Hill both have been mixed from their inception. And there have been very sensitive projects built here of all different scales: clusters of row houses, places like Winston Court and Roanoke Court.”

The second most-cited concerns fall into the urban planning categories of waste, traffic congestion and safety, and even snow removal. There is no centralized waste facility, and each of the eight townhouses would put receptacles out on trash day. Multiple respondents noted Highland Ave. as the only westbound two-way street between Willow Grove Ave. and the top of the Hill, and a primary throughway already suffering from high traffic, especially during rush hour, and delivery vehicle congestion in the 100 block. There is also concern about already over-taxed Highland Ave. water and sewer lines.

The survey respondents also frequently cited a precedent that would threaten many other similar buildings and exacerbate an already disturbing trend. Overall, the import is of a community appalled at the idea of removing a perfectly intact and prominently placed example of quality schist construction, a method likely never to be repeated, and doubly so at the proposed replacement. It is, more than one respondent said, the profit of a few at the expense of many.

Breslin said he sees a bigger picture.

 “My parents saw similar destruction in the ’50s in the Northeast (which was mostly farmland at the time),” he said, “then again in West Philadelphia in the ‘60s when many historic mansions were subdivided into rentals. It’s this sort of shortsighted, politically motivated nonsense masked as ‘improvement’ that continues to deteriorate historic Philadelphia.”

The committee has one month to agree to a plan before making a recommendation to the CHCA Board, who holds the final say on whether to recommend granting the variance to the Zoning Board of Adjustment. The ZBA will make the final decision.

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Karen Pilling

For those concerned about impact of this property and wondering how to register your comments, please complete the survey at:

http://30westhighland.com/

Thursday, March 4