Rethinking the response to the proposed development in Chestnut Hill

by Daniel Hoffman
Posted 4/7/21

The proposed housing developments at the bottom and top of Chestnut Hill have seemingly sparked similar reactions judging from the newspaper coverage and list serve activity that I have seen.

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Rethinking the response to the proposed development in Chestnut Hill

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The proposed housing developments at the bottom and top of Chestnut Hill have seemingly sparked similar reactions judging from the newspaper coverage and list serve activity that I have seen. People are against it in a variety of ways, ranging from the view that these developments need to be completely redesigned; that existing low-density zoning practices must be followed; to virtually all development should be rejected in favor of creating more open space. As one (now retired) who practiced and taught planning in many different settings, these critiques are neither new nor unusual. However, these comments do raise two difficult, but fundamental questions:

  1. Who speaks for the community; and
  2. Who speaks for the future, that is those who are not here presently, but those whose future presence in Chestnut Hill depends on development decisions taken now.

I have not seen the designs of these projects so I have no comments to make in that regard. Like others, I would insist on the best of designs in exterior materials, limiting parking and making it invisible from the street, and borders that integrate these developments into the rest of the streetscape. These developments should support the city and neighborhood goals of improving walkability (and bicycles) and managing stormwater runoff. Good design must be a quid pro quo for community acceptance.

Opposition based on zoning or dislike of density, however, speaks more to the past than the future. Zoning in general represents the aspirations of past and current consensus rather than the interests or needs of the future.

As I look at Chestnut Hill, I see many vacant and near-vacant stores and recognize that the past year of pandemic shopping may have permanently changed retailing. I wonder where the needed future customers for these stores will come from. The residential walkability of Chestnut Hill exists because there are destinations to walk to. Conversely, community-based businesses require and rely upon nearby economically strong neighborhoods.  For our real estate-based retailers these developments represent perhaps hundreds of new customers to serve, and this may be the difference between vibrancy and vacancies on Germantown Avenue.

Gaining new customers will help all realize the shared goal of keeping the business district vibrant; but these projects, if creatively seized, could also be a source of support for other community goals. Specifically, as most readers are aware, whatever these projects are ultimately, the city is prepared to offer substantial tax abatement, no questions asked. As is also known, the benefits of the abatement generally accrue to the developer (a higher price can be charged for the product) and the buyer, who gets a tax break.

Present public policy offers no direct benefit to communities impacted by new development, the commercial value these new residents notwithstanding. I think it is tough to argue that the proposed developments, which are principally high-cost housing, advance some higher public purpose that is worthy, or in need of such subsidy.

Chestnut Hill should seek to change this. As part of the approval process the community should seek to have the developer waive the tax abatement; since the city is already on record as willing to forego these revenues, they should continue this willingness. Instead, have these revenues given to some local institution to use as a ten-year revenue stream for undertaking desired community improvements – making Chestnut Hill greener, or more bike-friendly, or whatever. By doing this, the proposed development can speak to present and future community needs and earn a welcome into the community. 

Dan Hoffman, retired, spent his career working with leaders at all levels of government and as an advocate and university-based researcher focusing on innovative housing, community and economic development programs and policy. Locally, his work can be seen in the state law that enabled the Chestnut Hill BID to incorporate as a nonprofit organization.

development, zoning

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