by Jennifer Katz
A couple of weeks ago, Sister Carol Jean Vale, president of Chestnut Hill College, sat in a college conference room surrounded by fellow administrative officers who have spent countless hours working on a master plan. Vale was friendly, courteous, upbeat, professional and cautiously open about the breakdown in negotiations with near neighbors.
As she discussed the college’s revamped master plan, going through each difference between the plan on the table and the plan I had seen in 2009 in the same conference room, she was excited and proud of the work the negotiating group had done. The nine members of the group invested thousands of hours, meeting, walking the sites, looking at data and considering options.
When I asked why the college would agree to this process, which included delaying its application for an Institutional Development District three times, her answer was simple and understandable.
“We want to be good neighbors,” she said. “And no one wants to end up in litigation.”
At a meeting on Monday night at St. Paul’s Church on Chestnut Hill Avenue, a group of near neighbors frustrated Vale’s hopes, announcing plans to sue the college for violating deed restrictions placed on the SugarLoaf property. If the college does not withdraw its application for an IDD for SugarLoaf and its main campus on Germantown Avenue off Roger Drive, the neighbors said they will have no choice but to file a lawsuit.
“The day the city passes the (IDD) ordinance, we will be filing litigation,” said Stacy Mogul, one of the near neighbors who has been part of the negotiating group. “Once they get the IDD it’s all over. They are pushing the neighbors into litigation.”
Mogul said the neighbors, who represent the Northwest-Wissahickon Conservancy and the North Chestnut Hill Neighbors Inc. have retained lawyers and asked the audience at St. Paul’s to consider donating towards the cost of litigation.
“A small group of us have been carrying the water,” Mogul said. “We are hoping at some point tonight you consider making a contribution.”
A crowd of approximately 100 listened to Mogul, a lawyer and Hillcrest Avenue resident who speaks calmly and clearly, effectively underlining the sacrifice of time and resources he has given to negotiations and his profound concern for the college’s proposal. He emphasized that the neighbors want a “reasonable, rational” resolution.
He was joined at the front of the room by Susan Snyder, an architect, and her husband George Thomas, an urban planner and historian, who live in the 9500 block of Germantown Avenue, and Robert Shusterman, an attorney who is well-known in Chestnut Hill from his involvement with the Woodmere Art Museum controversy over its expansion plans, and who lives at the intersection of Bells Mills Road and Germantown Avenue, diagonally across from the SugarLoaf campus.
According to the presentation (which can be viewed online at nwconservancy.org), the neighbors oppose the IDD, the deforestation of the SugarLoaf site, the risk of increased traffic and the impact of development on the Wissahickon Watershed.
The college and other members of the negotiating group agree that most of the issues have been addressed to the satisfaction of a majority of the group’s members.
“It seems that the neighbors have now forgotten that they were part of creating this master plan in this configuration,” said Larry McEwen, who is the co-chair of the Chestnut Hill Community Association’s Development Review Committee and the chairman of the negotiating group.
McEwen and several other members of the negotiating group attended the meeting, but were not permitted to speak. Mogul acknowledged a divide between the near neighbors and the community association, calling it “dirty laundry” and refused to discuss it at the meeting. He further said he felt the community association has its own forum for its members.
In essence, the neighbors denied anyone with intimate knowledge of the plan and the negotiations an opportunity to refute their claims. James Pope, president of the Northwest-Wissahickon Conservancy, announced at the beginning of the meeting that although several members of the negotiating group were in the audience they would not be recognized. Neither patience nor boisterous requests persuaded the neighbors to change their minds.
Maggie Kolansky, of Wheelpump Lane, expressed concern over the hyperbole aimed at the college and questioned the factual basis of the neighbors’ presentation.
“I’m having a hard time with how the college is being demonized,” she said.
The neighbors’ presentation included pictures from part of Holy Family College’s campus in Northeast Philadelphia. Slides shown at the meeting included a picture of an intersection with a gas station, several stores in a strip mall and a modern, austere new building.
“If what you presented as fact at Holy Family is how you are approaching this, I can’t believe anything you say,” she said. “I went to Holy Family, and I’ve been there recently and it doesn’t look like that.”
The neighbors are extremely concerned with the IDD designation and the future of the neighborhood. In both the ad they took out in the Local and at the meeting, they described the IDD as a tool that allows for overdevelopment “the size of two King of Prussia malls” on the SugarLoaf site. During negotiations, the neighbors developed a zoning overlay that would allow the college to develop SugarLoaf within acceptable limitations including a stipulation that if the property were sold, the zoning would revert back to R1.
The difficulty with the disagreement over the IDD is that it would provide an institution the right to build far more than the community would like to see at that location. An IDD, however, is an institutional development tool, not a commercial development tool.
Martin Gregorski, IDD supervisor for the City Planning Commission, said an IDD is far too restrictive zoning for any commercial endeavor.
“You could not build a Comcast tower or a stand-alone mall,” Gregorski said. “No one wants an IDD except a school, university or hospital.”
An IDD allows institutions, such as Chestnut Hill College, to build according to an approved master plan and provides flexibility within the plan.
“R1 zoning does not permit any of the uses the college needs (dormitories, classrooms),” he said. “An IDD allows for freedom of movement. It allows a lot of interior moving around, but you cannot build new buildings.”
Gregorski, a 13-year city-planning veteran, said even with the IDD, the college is limited to what is contained in its approved master plan. Any change – additional development, purchase of adjacent property – would have to go through the same process the original IDD application has gone through.
The near neighbors have expressed doubts that the additional language the college is proposing to add to its IDD ordinance and the Community Development Agreement that describes the limitations (a maximum square footage, conservation easements, the parameters of the development aquariums, etc.) will sufficiently protect the community from future development that violates the agreement.
Part of the problem, Mogul said at the meeting, is the lack of a good relationship with the councilperson that represents Chestnut Hill and a deep-seated mistrust of city government.
“The city wants every institution to have an IDD by the year 2035,” he said.
In fact, the city has been rewriting its zoning code with the goal of consolidating the current code according to some reports by as much as 50 percent. It is also in part why the zoning overlay the neighbors developed, referred to as an IPOD, was rejected by the city. The city is attempting to decrease the number of zoning categories – not accept new ones.
According to Gregorski, development of the site would require the college to obtain building permits as it built according to its master plan. When the college applies for a permit, the city is required to verify that what the college is about to build is on the master plan and in accordance with the IDD.
For Bill Lamb, who has lived in Chestnut Hill his entire life, the time is now to shape the future of the neighborhood.
“Chestnut Hill is changing, and we can be part of it or we can have it shoved down our throats,” he said, speaking at the meeting. “I think there is still middle ground.”
Indeed there may be many points of agreement on the actual plan, but the credibility gap between the near neighbors and the college is growing.
The neighbors have accused the college of lying or doing a “bait and switch.” According to the presentation, the college misled the community, understating the scope of development it planned for SugarLoaf. It is one of the many points of division between the near neighbors and the community association. As McEwen said after the meeting, “I have found the college to be sincere, and the impression I have is that the college is willing to work with the community.”
For Bells Mills Road resident Ann Hozack that is not acceptable.
“I’m appalled that the Friends of the Wissahickon and the CHCA do not understand that the college has been lying,” she said addressing the audience on Monday night. “They can’t be allowed to get away with this.”