by Wesley Ratko
A larger-than-average number of residents attended the October meeting of the Chestnut Hill Community Association’s Development Review Committee Tuesday night to vice their opposition to the John Jay institute’s plan to purchase the Copperwood Estate, located at 9002 Crefeld Street, for use as a classroom space, student accommodations and administrative offices.
Because the property is zoned for single-family residential, the institute is seeking a use variance from the city.
The John Jay Institute, a politically conservative 501(c)(3) non-profit organization, wants to use the house for dormitory and classroom space to house classes of 12 and 16 post-graduate fellows. Aided by two full-time faculty members, these students will spend one semester reading and participating in “Socratic dialog.” The property would also house the Institute’s administrative offices.
Founder and president Alan Crippen told the committee that the institute’s mission is one of Christian civic leadership and not an accredited degree-granting institution.
Several Chestnut Hill residents oppose the variance, saying the institute’s proposed use is incompatible with the residential character of neighborhood around Crefeld Street.
Representing those neighbors was Debra Ferraro, who conveyed their shared concerns to the committee. Ferraro said that using Copperwood as anything other than a single-family residence would negatively impact the established character of the neighborhood and was too-intensive a use for the property. She added that the neighbors respect the Institute and its mission, and that opposition to the proposal was not personal but simply a matter of use.
One question the committee didn’t address Tuesday night was whether the proposed use would be educational or commercial. Both Crippen and Primavera argue that the non-profit Institute is educational; opponents insisted otherwise.
“We don’t want to see every house on the market converted to a commercial use,” Ferraro said. “[The Institute] would be welcome in other areas of the city where their needs can be better accommodated.”
Ferraro said that the single-family residential zoning designation is one of the strictest uses on the books, and that the group living proposed here was incompatibly dense and would disrupt the community character. She said the roads are local roads and not designed or intended to accommodate anything more intensive than the single-family residential. Other residents were concerned about parking and the integrity of the septic system that serves the home.
When asked, Crippen said the total number of people on site would include two full-time faculty members, two full-time employees, and 16 students.
“Think of it as a cloistered think tank,” Crippen said. “Almost like a monastery…it’s Downton Abbey.”
Crippen emphasized that what is proposed does not resemble a commercial use in that there would be no food or laundry service.
Representing John Jay, attorney Carl Primavera told the DRC that the home is so large that under current economic conditions it is no longer viable as a single-family residence.
The eight-bedroom, eight-bathroom, 17,900 square foot house sits on five acres of land and has been on the market for four years.
“Our current class has 16 fellows,” Crippen said. “That’s as large as we’ve ever been.”
The Institute currently leases space in Bala Cynwyd and is looking for a more permanent arrangement.
Primavera said the house itself will not be converted into apartments – students would live in the house’s bedrooms and contribute to the home’s upkeep. No commercial food or laundry service would be part of the home’s daily operation.
Founded in 2005 in Colorado, the Institute moved to the Philadelphia region two years ago to be in “the city of the founders.” Crippen said the Institute has entered into an agreement of sale with the home’s owners Michael and Nancy Verruto.
“We want to be in Chestnut Hill if the community wants us to be here,” Crippen said. “If they don’t, then we don’t want to be here.”
Crippen and his family would live in an adjacent home on the property.
The Institute operates on a fall, spring, and summer semester basis.
When asked about plans to grow beyond their current size, Crippen said the program was designed to be small.
“We don’t operate on a tuition basis,” he said.
Instead, the program operates on a stipend basis and not a traditional educational business model. While no specifics were discussed, he did agree to limit the upper scale of the operation. No physical changes to either the inside or outside of the building are planned. Students, he said, are allowed to have cars.
Representing the Historic District Advisory Committee, Patricia Cove was especially sensitive to maintaining the integrity of the home, saying that while it is not on the National Register of Historic Places, it is listed as a significant property on the Chestnut Hill historic register.
One neighbor took note of Crippen’s comment that the organization is not “well-heeled” and asked whether the Institute had the resources to maintain a historic structure like Copperwood.
“We’re not walking into the sale with our eyes closed,” Crippen said. “There are contingencies if this does not work out.”
Resident Brad Beck, who admitted that he is not a near neighbor, expressed his opinion that Copperwood is a “significant, historic house” and urged that it be maintained as a residence.
Several residents noted that when both Penn and Temple owned the property, no one lived at the home.
“Continuous use by so many people will degrade the property more quickly,” one neighbor said.
Claire Finkelstein, a law professor at Penn and next-door neighbor, stated publicly that while she respected the institute she opposed the use. She explained that one purpose of the zoning was to ensure that the character of neighborhoods aren’t eroded when economic pressures force change.
Because this was the first appearance of the proposal, the only action taken by the DRC Tuesday night was to recommend that the plan be reviewed by the Historic District Advisory Committee, the Land Use Planning and Zoning Committee, and the Traffic Transportation and Parking Committee, all of which are scheduled for Thursday, November 7.