Chestnut Hill developer Richard Snowden can convert some of his retail spaces over to residential use.
Addressing the question of whether Chestnut Hill developer Richard Snowden can convert some of his retail spaces over to residential use, the Chestnut Hill Community Association’s zoning committee voted to approve five out of his nine requests in a contentious Thursday night meeting.
Snowden is seeking to convert these spaces, he said, because of changing market conditions that demand smaller storefronts for shop owners. He is scheduled to go before the city’s Zoning Board with a formal request on Sept. 20, and is seeking community approval before he does so.
“We feel this is the best way to tackle the vacancy problem in our portfolio,” said Snowden, owner of Bowman Properties.
In a previous meeting on the issue, several people wondered whether Snowden’s vacancies are a likely product of their condition and poor upkeep over time or that they’re not “vanilla boxes,” and ready for nearly immediate occupancy.
This time, Chestnut Hill’s Land Use Planning and Zoning (LUPZ) committee wasn’t ready to give final approval on all nine properties - at least not yet.
“I would just like the opportunity to go and look at them again, to look at Richard's package and see what he's proposed,” said committee member John Landis, who is also co-chair of the community association’s Development Review Committee. “I still have some concerns over the size of the remaining retail space, but at the same time it might be very appropriate. I personally just need more time to consider it.”
In the end, the committee voted in favor of Snowden’s plan to eliminate ground floor retail space at two locations - 18 Hilltop Road, a property off Germantown Avenue behind Cosimo’s Pizza Cafe, and 10 E. Hartwell Lane. It also voted to legalize the current residential use of two others, 8622 and 8624-26 Germantown Avenue, which haven’t been used as commercial space for years despite being zoned for it, and to approve his request to halve retail space at 7928 Germantown Avenue, which sits next to the art store Artists & Craftsman Supply.
The committee did not approve his request to reduce the amount of retail space at the former site of the Under the Blue Moon restaurant from 3,075 square feet to 2,050. The restaurant at the corner of Germantown and Abington Avenues has been vacant for decades.
It also did not approve his request to reduce retail space in three other buildings - 101 and 105 Bethlehem Pike, which are near the Chestnut Hill East train station; and 8532 Germantown Avenue, which is next door to Kitchen Kapers.
At each of those spaces, Bowman’s variances, if approved, would result in tiny storefronts, ranging from 360 to 535 square feet - that’s a reduction of more than 60% of commercial space at each location.
The committee’s vote left Snowden uncertain whether he will have the community’s full support when he goes before the city’s Zoning Board. Despite not voting to recommend the latter four properties, the CHCA zoning committee did not outright oppose it.
Despite the committee leaving the door open for a potential recommendation, the decision to not uniformly recommend all nine variances drew ire from Snowden, who repeatedly referred to the variances as “a package deal” in a testy exchange with some committee members.
“You can make a decision as to whether you want to accept the nine properties as presented or not,” he said. “It is a package deal.”
“If we accept, let's say a majority of the properties, but not all the properties - you'd rather we don't accept any of the properties? Is that what I just heard?” responded Larry McEwen, an architect who is vice president of the Chestnut Hill Community Association’s Physical Division, which oversees its zoning process.
“What I will do is go to the Zoning Board with whatever approvals I have from the community,” Snowden said in response. “We'll roll the dice. If we don't get the variances, we don't get the variances. And we're right back where we are - and I'll tell you, I'm not going to be so receptive to listening to bellyaching about vacancies if that's where we are.”
In response to criticism over his company’s vacant properties at a zoning meeting last month, Snowden said he pored over his portfolio and found that his vacancy rate is 16%, which he said is comparable to some of “the best blocks” on Walnut Street in Center City, which are running at about 17%.
“One thing I don't want to do,” Snowden said, is “replace one unrentable space with two unrentable spaces. There's going to be a substantial amount of capital invested to, I think, improve the vacancy situation in Chestnut Hill, and it's something that we hear a lot about. And we feel that this is the best way to tackle that.”
LUPZ co-chair Steve Gendler argued that Chestnut Hill isn’t like Walnut Street, but more like a suburban downtown.
“You want to look at places like Doylestown, Haddonfield, [and] Cape May,” Gendler said. “Not Walnut Street. I think we'd like to have [Chestnut Hill’s] vacancy rate be far less than 10.”
Gendler said that the committee had done research on similar commercial corridors and found that as commercial spaces become smaller they’re more likely to be rented by service-oriented organizations like insurance, real estate or chiropractors’ offices.
Again, Snowden disagreed.
“Well, that is precisely not what is happening in Chestnut Hill, and we have some of those kinds of tenants in the portfolio and they tend to be in larger spaces because they need more space,” he shot back. “We find that small buildings and small spaces attract galleries, jewelry stores. They attract independent, interesting businesses, so I don't have that experience.”
Kate O’Neill, the Chestnut Hill Business Association’s interim executive director, said she’s found that many retailers are looking for both bigger and smaller spaces, but “a little bit more for smaller spaces,” she said, “which turns out to be a national trend. So I would say it's kind of both, but leaning more towards smaller spaces right now.”
At the last zoning meeting, Snowden refused to turn any of his commercial spaces into vanilla boxes - something Barbara Baumbach, chair of the Chestnut Hill Business Improvement District, said would make it easier to attract retailers.
“Renovating commercial spaces makes them more attractive to a new tenant and more easy to rent,” she said. But Snowden held firm.
“I'm not going to do that,” he said, flatly.
With a Sept. 20 date looming, there isn’t time for the community association’s full zoning committee to vote on the remaining four variances. As a result, members decided to form a subcommittee and pass recommendations onto the Development Review Committee before its next meeting.
“We could empower the DRC to make a recommendation about the other four,” Landis said.