Neighbors oppose 250-unit development for E. Mermaid Ave. property

by Walt Maguire
Posted 3/17/21

Neighbors to the property at 100-102 E. Mermaid Lane met representatives of the Goldenberg Group recently and came away dissatisfied with the proposed development.

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Neighbors oppose 250-unit development for E. Mermaid Ave. property

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Neighbors to the property at 100-102 E. Mermaid Lane, the former home of United Cerebral Palsy and the Chestnut Hill Friends Meeting House, met representatives of the Goldenberg Group recently and came away dissatisfied with the proposed development.

In letters to the Local, several residents expressed concern that Goldenberg’s plan “showed a sprawling, 250-unit behemoth of an apartment building, plopped on a property zoned for residential use. Their rendering had almost nothing neighbors said they wanted and everything we feared,” said one letter from Kristoffer Jacobson, who lives across from the property. Neighbors Corry and David Sterner wrote “Their proposal stretches far beyond the limits of what this property can sustain, while externalizing the burdens and costs of their plan to the near neighbors and the Chestnut Hill community at large.”  They cited traffic and parking as some concerns.

The Blue Bell-based real estate developer purchased the property in May 2019 for $4 million after Blossom officially closed its doors on Dec. 31, 2018.

At the time, Seth Shapiro, chief operating officer of Goldenberg, said “We appreciate the significance of this parcel to Chestnut Hill, and while we have not finalized our plans, we are committed to developing the site with respect for the surrounding community.”

Neighbors say there was very little communication from Goldenberg after that. By late 2020 the property seemed neglected and vandalized. In December, after the neighbors initiated contact, the issue was corrected with foot patrols and security cameras. In February they noticed demolition notices posted and requested another meeting.

Like many businesses, the pandemic forced the Goldenberg Group to reduce operations and slow plans. According to the Chestnut Hill Community Association, public meetings had been scheduled for March 2020, but then canceled as coronavirus precautions shut down physical meetings and Zoom meetings were not yet common. In a statement, Goldenberg Group Vice President for Communications and Impact Teri Yago-Ryan admitted the group had not maintained communication with the community but recognized the problem.

“As we at The Goldenberg Group (“TGG”) emerge from this dormant period during COVID, we recognize that the frequency of our communications with the neighbors has been less than our usual protocol,” she said. “We have been and remain committed to engaging the community in a process that includes the near neighbors (E. Mermaid lane neighbors), the Chestnut Hill Community Association (CHCA), and other relevant stakeholder groups.  Following recent meetings, the CHCA is developing a framework for future community discussions and we look forward to this collective process.”

One decision that has been made is to hold future meetings with all stakeholders, instead of separate meeting with neighborhood parties and the CHCA.

Celeste Hardester, the coordinator of the CHCA’s zoning and planning committees, told the Local that the Goldenberg group had met with the CHCA’s Land Use Planning and Zoning committee, which is composed of design and planning professionals. That meeting produced a plan that the CHCA hopes will get neighbors and Goldenberg Group on the same page.

“The result of the meeting was a discussion about how to proceed, which will be that all interested parties agree to meet together with The Goldenberg Group and not hold separate meetings,” Hardester said. .”We want everyone to be on the same page with the same learnings and understandings, so concerns and ideas can be ongoingly shared.”

Based on the concerns of neighbors, however, the gulf between what Goldenberg is proposing and what the neighbors want is significant.

One of the concerns repeated in the letters from the neighbors was that the site is zoned RSA-3, putting it in the same category as their houses and in contrast to the building plan unveiled in the February 3 meeting. This allows single family and duplex residences with prescribed setbacks, minimum property area, and 38’ height restriction reflective of the historic Victorian Era houses on the block. M. Cynthia Brey, AIA, attended the February 3 meeting and was another neighbor who contacted the Local. In her letter, she wrote “This proposal largely ignored the Neighbors’ concerns expressed at an earlier meeting with Goldenberg just two weeks prior, again convened at the Neighbor’s request.” She pointed out the parallels with an earlier development project just a few blocks away. “Goldenberg's proposal is a shameless disregard for the integrity of our historic neighborhood and of Chestnut Hill at large.  Goldenberg used the travesty of the Morgan Estate’s 1970s development as the context and justification for their development approach.” The Morgan Tract of land was developed in the 1960s into what is now the Market Square shopping center and the surrounding apartments. The final phase, in the 1970s, was tearing down the Morgan House and building more condominiums, eliminating the last public space on the original parcel and increasing the population density. It also led to the creation of the Chestnut Hill Community Association.

“The Morgan Estate development destroyed the northeast section of Chestnut Hill and was integral in CHCA's establishment of the development review process that now exists,” wrote Brey. “Goldenberg's proposed development of the former Yarnall estate will repeat the sins of the 1970s and destroy the unique qualities of our collection of early-mid Victorian houses along Mermaid Lane.  It is a lane, not a street, avenue, or boulevard, and the scale of development should respect its character and present zoning prescribed to do so.”

Jacobson also argued that the Goldenberg proposal would fail to fit in to the fabric of Chestnut Hill and questioned how the developers could justify getting zoning approval.

“The Group may argue in the abstract that its project is dazzling, cutting edge, well-intentioned, a sure benefit to the community.  But it is a grotesque proposal for this neighborhood,” he wrote. “It will cause irrevocable harm.  It will devastate my immediate community and likely the communities on surrounding streets.  It will harm the greater Chestnut Hill community by depriving its variance process of credibility.  One must show hardship to get a variance.  What possible hardship can the Goldenberg show proving that this project, and only this, is possible on this site?  A variance of this magnitude, if granted, will say to every homeowner around, ‘This can happen to you the next time someone with deep pockets suddenly appears.’”

In their letter, the Sterners pointed out the contrast with another recent project. “We near neighbors have experienced what a best-case scenario looks like with the construction of the Chestnut Hill Quaker’s Meeting house at 20 E. Mermaid Lane several years ago. The Quakers approached their project with a community spirit, open to our input and with a sense of long-term investment in our community. In the end, they built a site that is a jewel in Chestnut Hill. From start to finish, they have simply been excellent neighbors. The Goldberg Group seems to be approaching our neighborhood with exactly the opposite approach.”

Yago-Ryan stressed that the proposal shown to the East Mermaid neighbors was still under development.

 “This project is still in its early stages and we continue to explore several redevelopment options,” she said. “We are excited to work with the community to bring a beautiful, contextual project to this unique Philadelphia neighborhood.”

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Tim Breslin

Who can help? Who can save Chestnut Hill?

If not now, when? If not you, who?

Wednesday, March 17