ZBA hears 30 W. Highland Ave. proposal, continues hearing for June 23

by Walt Maguire
Posted 4/29/21

The hearing resumption is scheduled for 2 p.m., June 23.

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ZBA hears 30 W. Highland Ave. proposal, continues hearing for June 23


Though the 30 W. Highland Neighbors group did not get the delay it sought from the Chestnut Hill Community Association, they did get a continuance from the Zoning Board of Adjustment. At a hearing April 28, it was decided to resume on June 23.

The neighbors, represented by lawyer Henry Clinton, were granted more time to meet with the property owner, Henry O’Reilly, and his architect Larry McEwen, in hopes of reaching an agreement. A representative from Councilmember Cindy Bass’s office was on hand to relay her support for the continuance, noting that the CHCA committee might have been convinced but 220 neighbors were still reviewing the new information presented at the CHCA Board of Directors meeting April 22.

Because the continuance was granted early on, the hearing focused on reviewing the timeline of the project and what might be addressed in the additional weeks.

Over 60 people registered to testify, but because of the continuance, ZBA Chair Frank DiCicco limited debate, on the theory that many objections and disagreements might be resolved by the time of the next hearing.

Elizabeth Wright, representing 30 W. Highland Neighbors, acknowledged that they did not expect the current building to be saved, and cited the known concerns about density, height, and the owner’s perceived “failure to demonstrate a need for this scale.”

McEwen pointed out that the new townhouses, at 38’, while taller than the two neighboring townhouses at 18 and 20 W. Highland – 35’ – are in line with the next two houses at 14 and 16 W. Highland. A rooftop pilot house, or door to the roof garden, brings the height up to about 48’. The city does not count pilot houses or roof gardens when registering the height of a building, but the plans presented April 22 moved the garden to the edge of the third floor and eliminated the pilot house on the house adjacent to Highland Avenue, while moving the third floor back further from the front.

Wright noted the communication issues that have dogged this project. While the plan was proposed in October, she said the neighbors did not see a blueprint until February. The CHCA has made missteps, at one point saying a DRC subcommittee could not share information with the neighbor group, only to state later communication was permitted and there had been a misstatement. At the same time, some of the concerns presented at the DRC meeting on April 22 were based on a survey in March, and a few of those concerns had been resolved. For instance, a study showed traffic congestion would drop 32%, not increase, as neighbors feared. For many of the 220 objectors, the DRC hearing was the first time they were aware of the new information.

There has been some neighborhood support for the project, such as a letter from Kilians Hardware nearby, but there was no indication any of the 220 neighbors on record as opposed had been persuaded by the DRC meeting. Density, and repeated charges of being ignored by the CHCA, have been cited consistently since the neighbors saw the early plans in February.

Philadelphia  attorney Carl Primavera represented O’Reilly. To the charge that the owner had not demonstrated a hardship to justify a variance to build townhouses, Primavera responded that “the hardship is that it’s a residential block but a commercial building.” 

Clinton questioned O’Reilly about the feasibility of keeping the existing building and finding a commercial tenant. O’Reilly did not seem closed to the possibility, but pointed out the existing stock of available commercial space along Germantown Avenue, the parking lot being awkward for customer traffic and the work needed to refurbish the 1903 building for a modern business all made this unlikely. He also said that he was planning to be one of the new townhouse residents.

The hearing resumption is scheduled for 2 p.m., June 23.

The design materials are available for review on the CHCA website, chestnuthill.org