by Pete Mazzaccaro
Last week, in three separate votes, three institutions – the Chestnut Hill Community Association’s board of directors, the Philadelphia Planning Committee and Philadelphia City Council – gave Bowman Properties the permissions and legislation it needed to transform the former Magarity Ford site at 8200 Germantown Ave. into a mixed retail and residential complex anchored by a 20,000 square foot Fresh Market grocery store.
Those approvals will put Bowman Properties to work on the new 5-story complex on Germantown Avenue and a set of new town homes along Shawnee Street. The final action – a unanimous vote Thursday by City Council to provide the zoning legislation Bowman needed to proceed – changes the front two-thirds of the two-acre parcel into C2 commercial and the rear third to R10B, allowing the construction of homes along Shawnee Street.
The CHCA will continue to work with Bowman to see that a Community Development Agreement is finalized and followed.
After the City Council vote, Bowman Properties’ project manager Seth Shapiro said the plan would now enter the design phase.
“We are excited to embark upon a design process with the community association to further flush out what the building will look like,” he said.
Shapiro said preliminary site improvement work would likely begin in spring or summer. By some time in 2013, the entire site should be transformed entirely.
Although the approval process was smooth for Bowman Properties, neighbor reception was not. To be sure, there are many in Chestnut Hill who are excited to have the Fresh Market coming to town. Business owners said they welcomed the additional foot traffic, not to mention the residential units that Bowman will put right on the Avenue.
Many near neighbors to the project said that they were not opposed to a mixed retail and residential development on the property, but instead believed it should have conformed to Germantown Avenue guidelines that suggest buildings to be three stories tall and have storefronts no wider than 30 feet.
At the Dec. 12 meeting of the CHCA board, near-neighbor Thomas Beck asked CHCA’s Land Use Planning and Zoning Committee member Joyce Lenhardt, who led a negotiating committee of neighbors and professionals who met directly with Bowman Properties to get concessions on zoning and design, why Bowman was getting away with blowing right past those requirements.
“I and a few of my fellow citizens agree this project is essentially way to big too be imagined by anyone to be appropriate to the context of Chestnut Hill,” he said. “[The Germantown Avenue Urban Guidelines] recommend residential not be converted to commercial use and calls for no more than 3 stories. Bowman’s scheme is 5 stories. My question is why didn’t the Community Development Agreement respect those recommendations?”
Lenhardt told Beck that the committee worked within the guidelines of Bowman’s proposal.
“The committee didn’t feel it had the latitude to demand or expect that those guidelines would be followed,” she said.
John Beckman, a near neighbor and planner who was on the negotiating subcommittee, said at that meting that he felt the committee had little choice to make demands. With or without the CHCA’s blessing, Bowman was free to go ahead and request the zoning change from the city. The best the negotiating group could hope for was terms it could live with.
“We were working with a deadline,” he said. “I had no reason to disbelieve any of his [Bowman managing partner Richard Snowden] assertions that this rezoning would happen. It was the best thing we could do given the political calculus.”
The legislation route had been roundly criticized by opponents as “spot zoning.” In a letter to the Local on Dec.8, Hill resident Ben Brown, who earlier this year was granted a zoning variance to keep bees on his property, questioned the way in which Bowman was seeking zoning relief.
“We now have a situation in our community, granted, far more momentous than my own endeavor, in which the person needing a zoning variance has decided to totally bypass the protocol we have in place,” Brown wrote, referring to the zoning variance process in which the CHCA endorses those seeking zoning relief to the Zoning Board of Adjustment, which grants variances.
“I would implore the CHCA board to reject this attempt to circumvent the system and recommend to City Council that they vote no on the ordinances before them,” Brown wrote.
Bowman Properties lawyer Matt McClure addressed the charge of spot zoning at Monday’s meeting of the CHCA board and at nearly every other pubic meeting at which the matter was raised. The zoning situation of the Magarity site and the mixture of C7 and R5 zoning had a “perverse effect,” McClure said, rendering the property impossible to develop.
It was a matter, he said, that was far too complicated for the usual zoning relief by variance. The CHCA typically hears zoning proposals that seek variances, often for things far less dramatic than the sweeping changes Bowman needed to realize its plan.
“The zoning variance is for ‘nips and tucks,’” McClure said at the Dec. 12 meeting. “Large scale relief cannot be done by variance.”
Others at the Dec. 12 meeting agreed with McClure and said Bowman’s plan, while not in keeping with the Germantown Avenue Urban Guidelines, was solid and that a positive decision by the Philadelphia Planning Commission or City Council was not evidence of spot zoning, but rather sound planning. Both the Planning Commission and Council hearings allowed for public input as well.
LUPZ member Steve Gendler said at the Dec. 12 meeting that Magarity’s plan was exactly what a study by the Delaware Valley Regional Planning Commission – Mobilize to Thrive – called for.
“Success in Chestnut Hill is people living over the shops,” Gendler said. “What’s being created in design is the embodiment of walkable urbanism. These things create property value for everyone. All of our interests are served by having this mixed use.”
Hill architect Larry Goldfarb agreed and said zoning by legislation was a legitimate zoning tool.
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?”
A tough process
Despite eight months of CHCA meetings and an established negotiation method in which neighbor representatives worked with the developer and members of the CHCA’ s Land Use Planning Zoning Committee (a group of professional architects and planners), neighbors and others who did not support the project say they feel disenfranchised. Not only were near neighbors not polled, they say, but a petition signed by some 1,500 residents of Chestnut Hill and Mt. Airy was ignored.
Speaking at the City Planning Commission, which also unanimously supported Bowman’s proposal on Tuesday, Dec. 13, neighbor Terry Halbert said as much.
“We really feel process itself has been deeply flawed,” Halbert said. “When the developer first rolled out this idea, his team made it very clear to all of us that their plan was to go to City Council and get zoning legislation to enable their plan to exist just the way they wanted it to.”
Hill resident Marion Frank, who also attended the Dec.12 meeting of the CHCA board, said she felt the entire process was “a farce.”
“Serious questions and concerns about the massiveness of the building, the appropriateness of the tenant, the future potential impact on the community, the 1,500 concerned signers of a petition – all of these went unacknowledged … and unanswered,” Frank said in an email to the Local. “In fact, not one serious discussion focused on a specific, particular possible change to the previously agreed upon plan. The results of negotiations were already determined and were obviously not up for further real discussion.
“I have to admit that I left before the meeting officially ended, which was way past the official termination time. I just saw no point to being there.”
Those involved in the process, however, did not feel that way. Land Use Planning and Zoning Committee co-chair John Landis, who worked on the subcommittee that negotiated several key concessions during the negotiating process, said the meetings had been a success.
“We didn’t get everything we wanted,” Landis admitted at the Dec. 12 meeting, but added, “This process really brought out the quality of design. This is a very good precedent. This is a very good building. It will be special in many ways despite its mass.”
The concessions achieved in that process included getting the more restrictive C2 zoning instead of C3 for the retail portion of the property, a 3-foot setback from Hartwell Lane and further setback for the fourth and fifth stories of the building.
Larry McEwen, co-chair of the community association’s Development Review Committee, said he understood that people felt disenfranchised. He said he would like to see neighbors involved in the process.
“Going forward, I know we will be looking at ways to improve our own process, how it coordinates with the new zoning code, what remapping might occur in Chestnut Hill,” McEwen told the Local in an email. “I don’t have specifics for you right now, but CHCA will be responsive as to how we can better communicate our consideration of balance between the needs and rights of the residents, businesses, and institutions that together constitute our community.”