The proposal will go for final vote before City Council Thursday
by Pete Mazzaccaro
The NBC 10 news truck in front of Chestnut Hill Hospital suggested that the Chestnut Hill Community Association’s special board meeting Monday night to vote on Bowman Properties’ Magarity development might be big news – a high-tension debate pitting business interests against historic character and residential comforts.
A sizable crowd of nearly 100 residents was packed into the hospital’s Lea Auditorium, but the two-and-a-half-hour meeting inside was anything but tense.
After a long discussion in which both the pros and cons of Bowman Properties’ plans to convert the former car dealership at 8200 Germantown Ave. into a mixed retail and residential development anchored by a 20,000-foot grocery store, the CHCA board voted unanimously (22-0) to approve the project.
The final agreement, in which the CHCA voted to endorse a bill before City Council to change the properties, was won by Bowman Properties agreeing to a Community Development Agreement and a number of concessions on design, including a slight reduction in height, a 3-foot setback off of Hartwell Lane and an agreement to make the commercial portion of the property C2, which conforms to much of the commercial zoning on Germantown Avenue.
John Landis, a member of the association’s Land Use Planning and Zoning Committee and a special subcommittee that negotiated the deal with Bowman and three near-neighbor representatives, said the process that produced the agreement had been very successful, even if the committee didn’t get all the concessions from Bowman it would have liked.
“This process really brought out the quality of design, “ he said. “This is a very good precedent. This is a very good building. These were tough negotiations. Yet neither side misled the other. Both sides dealt with each with integrity and honesty. At the end, this agreement represents a hard and fair negotiation with all sides operating with purpose and integrity. I think the notion that you can’t do business in Chestnut Hill will be reversed.”
Though many congratulated the work of the subcommittee, some of its members said they would have liked to get more. Neighbor John Beckman, who served on the subcommittee, said he ultimately supported the agreement because of a “calculus of political reality.”
“We were working with a deadline,” he said, adding that he had heard that Bowman’s managing partner Richard Snowden had called the project a “slam-dunk” when it came to votes before the CHCA and City Council. “I had no reason to disbelieve any of his assertions that this rezoning would happen. It was the best thing we could do given the political calculus. Others had different opinions.”
The final agreement the CHCA voted to endorse comes down to several zoning changes to be voted on by Philadelphia City Council on Thursday, Dec. 15. The specific bill will convert to C2-commercial, the portion of property on which the market sits and will change to R10B-residential, the portion along Shawnee Street where six town homes will be built.
Those changes, according to Bowman attorney Matt McClure, were necessary for the firm to build anything on the property. He addressed charges made by opponents of the plan that the zoning bills are “spot zoning” or designed to circumnavigate the regular process. Zoning variances, he said, were not an option.
“You can’t do anything [with the property] without seeking relief,” he said. “Our options were to go to the courts for judicial relief or go to legislation. Large scale relief cannot be done by variance.”
Some near neighbors who oppose the project addressed the board, and most had the same concern. All said they supported the principle of mixed retail and commercial for the site, but were concerned that the 60-foot tall building on the Avenue was too large and out of character for the neighborhood.
Cynthia Brey, a member of the LUPZ was among many who questioned the need for such a large building. She was also concerned that abutting neighbors were not apparently polled by Bowman, a requirement for any project that asks the CHCA for support.
“What bothers me most is the fact that there are Germantown Avenue design guidelines [that require 3-story limits and narrow storefronts],” she said. “By ignoring that, we’ve set a process moving.”
Other questions to the CHCA board addressed a petition opposing the project signed by 1,500 residents of Chestnut Hill and Mt. Airy.
Shawnee Street resident Eric Spaeth said he was concerned that the process and the vote before the board was flawed and wondered how the CHCA could reconcile its support for the project while so many in the community are clearly not happy.
“What is it going to mean for an association when such a major portion of its constituency speaks out against a proposal, and it doesn’t seem like it’s being listened to?” he asked, referring to the petition. “There are 600 [names] plus or minus from Chestnut Hill and another 900 from Mt. Airy. I’m concerned about that, and I think you should be concerned about that too.”
The voices of concern, however, didn’t outweigh a great number of comments – some from residents and others by business people – in support of the plan.
“I want to just lend my support to the project,” said Larry Goldfarb, an architect and resident of Rex Avenue.
“We don’t have many planning tools in urban America,” he said. “All this noise about spot zoning – zoning is planning. Who makes a plan and doesn’t revisit it? It’s a perfect opportunity to revisit. I think this is a project that will lend new energy to a community that needs it.”