by Karen Rile

In last week’s Local, one reader writes of her pleasurable experiences at the “magnificent” Fresh Market store in Williamsburg, Va., and of her excitement at the prospect of a similar store being built  in Chestnut HIll. She writes that “whenever possible” she drives 20 minutes to the Williamsburg store from her second home in Yorktown, Va.

The good news is that during her period of anticipation, she can drive 7.8 miles, just 20 minutes from 8200 Germantown Avenue, according to Google Maps, and enjoy the same “delights” (minus, of course, the “fantastic and affordable display of wines and beers!”).

I made a similar trip recently and visited the Horsham Fresh Market, which is situated behind an expansive paved parking lot and nestled among big box chain stores. Inside, the store was as tidy as Bloomingdales at the start of a business day. Designer lighting and piped-in, baroque-style string music added to the effect of the seasonal display created by visual merchandising artists. Carefully arranged pyramids of waxy fruits and perfect-looking vegetables glistened in the produce aisle.

Other perishables were tucked inside plastic wrappers or behind glass display cases, so there were no disturbing odors of actual food. The centerpiece of the story was large display of faux-antiqued cracker barrels filled with bulk candies. The other customers were well-dressed and affluent-looking. It was like being inside a Ralph Lauren ad set inside a supermarket.
If you want to shop in an antiseptic environment that satisfies your projection of what it means to be an upper class American, and if you want  attractive “organic” foods trucked in from a central distributor, Fresh Market is the place for you.

As for me, I’ve always felt lucky to have the option of walking to the excellent local farm markets, bakeries, and, more recently, to Weaver’s Way. I also buy produce from nearby farmers through a CSA (Community Supported Agriculture) plan. My produce may look less than food-stylist perfect, but it tastes pretty good and the price is reasonable.

If I feel I need more of a designer shopping experience, I can drive 12 minutes up the road to the Plymouth Meeting Whole Foods, 20 minutes to the Jenkintown Whole Foods and Trader Joe’s, or to the aforementioned Horsham Fresh Market.

In the second part of her letter, this same reader writes that “a large new building in the center of the Hill would balance the equally large building at the bottom and top of the Avenue.” Her point speaks to the anxiety that many community members share concerning the eventual fate of the massive structure that would house Fresh Market (which is larger, not equally large as the buildings top and bottom.) Observant readers realize that the building at the top, which housed the former Borders, is empty. The strip mall at the bottom of the hill has struggled with occupancy issues for years.

Both of these troubled properties would be dwarfed in scale by the proposed 8200 building. Given the history of difficulties suffered by local landlords trying sustain commercial occupancy through out-of-town chains and franchises, many of us have little confidence that Fresh Market, if it comes, will remain at 8200 for the duration. It does not take much imagination to look into the future and imagine a massive, empty, deteriorating property, zoned C2 (unlike any property in our zip code), situated in the center of Chestnut Hill.

Any then what? The developer of the 8200 Germantown project has chosen to circumvent the Chestnut Hill Community Association and the usual zoning variance process and has gone directly to City Council, seeking a political solution that will rezone the entire property and remove virtually all restrictions on that site. Interestingly, the developer seeks exemption from the Germantown Avenue District controls that he helped to create.

In the words of a neighbor of mine, who is a city planner: “Zoning is a community’s gift to a developer.” The developer, who has historically positioned himself as both pro- and anti-development, according to where his interests lie, likes to be known as the “gatekeeper to Chestnut Hill.”

Let us remember that, regardless of what happens with the market, he will be vastly enriched because the value of the land it sits in will multiply the moment the zoning changes. And that’s a worth a lot of heirloom tomatoes.

Karen Rile is a Chestnut Hill resident who lives near the Magarity site.