Stalled negotiations to develop the blighted lot at 6717 Chew Avenue, next to Pleasant Playground in East Mt. Airy, appear ready to re-start following a community meeting Jan. 18 where elected …
Stalled negotiations to develop the blighted lot at 6717 Chew Avenue, next to Pleasant Playground in East Mt. Airy, appear ready to re-start following a community meeting Jan. 18 where elected officials voiced support for neighbors, who have rejected initial plans to put 37 apartments on the site.
“This is my neighborhood playground, so obviously I have a very keen interest in what happens here,” said City Councilmember Cindy Bass. “This is the playground for myself and my daughter that we use.”
And Bass brought good news. The developer, Audax Properties of Doylestown, recently requested a meeting with her about revamping the project, which still needs zoning variances to go forward. She declined, referring developers back to the neighbors because she did not want them to “skirt around the community” on new negotiations.
Bass joined City Councilmember At-Large Isaiah Thomas, state Senator Art Haywood, and state Representative Chris Rabb on the community Zoom call. All of them supported a redesign that was informed by neighbors’ priorities.
Lot owner, Audax Properties of Doylestown, originally proposed a four-story residential building that would take up virtually the entire lot. To do this, Audax needed three zoning variances from the Zoning Board of Adjustments because the lot is zoned for commercial use, which among other things, does not allow residences. A ZBA hearing on this point was postponed earlier this month at the developer’s request after it became clear near neighbors, East Mt. Airy Neighbors, and Councilmember Bass all opposed the project.
Typically, the ZBA weighs that kind of opposition in considering variances.
“I think their project is dead in the water at the moment,” said Jeffrey Hayes, co-chair of the East Mt. Airy Neighbors Zoning Committee.
Hayes also said he’d heard from the developer and believed they were willing to be more flexible than the first times they came before the community in November and December. John Thomas of Audax, at that time said he would work with neighbors but indicated no flexibility on the size of the building, which, at 38 feet, would tower over neighboring homes and the nearby public pool and playground.
Thomas did not respond to requests for comment.
Despite a derelict building and environmental contamination, the lot at 6717 Chew has a privileged place on Chew Avenue because it sits at the corner of the playground and the surrounding park—a place neighbors have characterized as a keystone of East Mt. Airy. Audax’s plan puts that in jeopardy, neighbors say.
“The building is far too large in mass and also in density,” said Bonnie Zuckerman at the Jan. 18 meeting. She was speaking on behalf of a coalition of near neighbors. “It is built like a fortress. It is not inviting to the neighborhood, and it feels like it’s not meant to be integrative.”
Describing a survey of hundreds of respondents, Zuckerman tallied things neighbors do not want in any new plan. No shading of the public pool, directly behind the lot. No using nearby Slocum Street for trash pickup, or regular traffic. No building higher than neighboring homes. And no building to the property lines.
Zuckerman also listed the main changes neighbors want. A smaller overall scale. Property line setbacks. A design that integrates the nearby playground entrance. Commercial use on the site. And a loading plan that takes traffic off of the dead-end spur of Slocum Street, which is the entrance to the public pool and playground.
In an earlier meeting, Thomas suggested these kinds of changes would be impossible. He needed the large building to offset environmental cleanup costs, he said. Those costs are estimated to top out at $172,000.
This contamination, caused by underground fuel tanks and other hazards from long use as a gas station, has twice dashed neighbors’ hopes for the lot. In 2017, residents and Bass tried to convince the Department of Recreation to buy the lot and expand the park. But the city agency declined, citing environmental cleanup costs.
Mt. Airy developer Dan Gordon proposed a plan to buy and develop 6717 Chew that neighbors generally liked because it was much smaller and was geared toward community use. But after a two-year effort, the extent of contamination became clear and Gordon had to abandon the plan.
Audax bought the property last summer, presumably with full knowledge of the environmental issues.
Linda Bell, a neighbor and the Communications and Marketing Committee co-chair at EMAN, voiced a common worry. Citing the large amount of new construction clustered in the dense blocks near Pleasant Playground, many of which are historically black, she thought adding a bundle of new residences on the playground’s edge would overwhelm and change the park.
The 37 residences Audax wants to put on the one-third acre lot is roughly half the total number of existing residences on the four streets that border this roughly 4.5 acre park.
Representative Chris Rabb hinted at what such a plan could become.
“Generally speaking I’m anti gentrification,” he said. "There is a difference between gentrification and community advancement.”
Some neighbors worry Audax might represent a slim chance to finally get something fitting at 6717 Chew. Others were encouraged by the meeting Jan. 18, chocked as full as it was with supportive officials.
Speaking about past encounters between an organized Mt. Airy community and ambitious developers, Bass was encouraging: “We’ve had a lot of success getting developers to do what we want.”