by Wesley Ratko
Near neighbors of Chestnut Hill’s Engine Co. 37 told members of the Chestnut Hill Community Association’s Development Review Committee at its Oct. 16 meeting that they were fearful that work at the fire station refitting it for newer fire trucks might affect their neighborhood should renovations require the Philadelphia Fire Department to temporarily relocate the station to another neighborhood.
The neighbors were adamant, however, that they wanted the fire department to stay, in large part because they feared a re-purposed building would have an incompatible use with the neighborhood.
Joyce Lenhardt, vice-president of the CHCA’s Physical Division, reiterated the problem of increasing fire truck size and the limitations of the historic fire station building to accommodate them to the committee and the public in attendance.
“The Philadelphia Fire Department came to us in a proactive way,” Lenhardt said. “They want to work with us to come up with a solution.”
Three solutions to this problem are a potential modification of the station building to accommodate wider trucks, relocating the fire house to another nearby (but as yet unchosen) location, or the purchase of custom-built trucks narrow enough to fit into the station building.
There are budget considerations when it comes to buying custom trucks and, according to representatives from the Chestnut Hill Historical Society, any modifications to the station facade would despoil its distinctive architectural style.
“It’s one of the most significant examples of Franco-Romanesque architecture,” said DRC member Patricia Cove, who together with the historical society’s president Frank Niepold, said any modification made to the building would ruin a prime example of historically significant architecture. The historical society wants to work with the Fire Department to save the building’s facade.
Another building in the same style stood next door and was used as a police station, but was demolished in 1967.
DRC member Cynthia Brey asked about a cost-factor in the decision and whether available funding would play a role in the final decision. Philadelphia 8th District City Councilwoman Cindy Bass, on hand for the meeting, said that while there is a shortage of funds everywhere, solutions can be found.
“If there is a city council person that’s interested, and is willing to put capital dollars in and get support from the Mayor, anything can happen,” Bass said. “We should be open to seeing what’s possible.”
“I don’t think it’s too much for Chestnut Hill to ask for a new fire house every 120 years,” said Richard Snowden, who was attending the meeting.
In addition to whether or not the fire department moves its trucks out of 101 West Highland Ave, committee co-chair John Landis suggested that the community association also weigh in on the reuse of the building.
Neighbor preference is to keep the fire station as a fire station or, failing that, to re-purpose the building for a public use that would benefit the community. One such owner, it was suggested, could be the community association itself.
Lenhardt said that the CHCA already owns property.
“This is not a pie in the sky idea,” she said.
Lenhardt also suggested a fourth option in which the fire department simply houses its trucks elsewhere but continues to occupy at least a part of the building and share some of its space.
“The building is quite big,” she said.
“The use question is still an open one,” said Landis.
Ned Mitinger, co-chair of the CHA’s Land Use Planning and Zoning Committee who was in attendance, suggested changing the zoning in order to further dictate future use of the property, something Lenhardt did not oppose.
Ultimately the fate of the building itself can only be decided by Philadelphia Public Property, the owner of the building.
“The fire department knows this will take time and they want to be prepared,” Lenhardt said. No decisions were made and no plans were committed to.