by Jennifer Katz

A rendering of a proposed promenade at Chestnut Hill College's SugarLoaf campus

After more than 18 months of negotiating with neighbors and community members, and despite a lack of much-sought-after support from near neighbors, Chestnut Hill College is moving ahead with plans to obtain Institutional Development District status for the two parcels of land that now comprise its campus.

The college won approval for its master plan from the Philadelphia City Planning Commission but has failed to close the negotiations with neighbors, sparking a public feud.

Members of the negotiating group were surprised at the April 19 PCPC hearing to learn that the college’s master plan was up for approval. According to group member and near neighbor George Thomas, the college made misleading statements about the nature of the planning commission hearing. Sister Carol Jean Vale, president of the college, disagreed and said she thought the college had verbal approval for the plan.

Thomas and Vale have been meeting regularly as part of a negotiating group, which is comprised of members of the Chestnut Hill Community Association, Chestnut Hill Business Association, Friends of the Wissahickon, Chestnut Hill Historical Society, representatives of the Houston family and near neighbors. The group was established by resolution of the CHCA in 2009 and empowered to work with the college to address the community’s concerns.

The group has spent countless, volunteer hours looking at the college’s master plan proposal.

“I think we have significantly protected the community,” said the group’s chairman Larry McEwen, a Chestnut Hill resident, architect and co-chair of the CHCA’s Design Review Committee.

McEwen points to several major changes the group was able to negotiate with the college. To preserve view corridors, both for near neighbors and as traffic enters Chestnut Hill, the college agreed to move development on the SugarLoaf site 350 feet from the road.

“As you drive in, things will look as they do now,” Vale said.

The bulk of the new campus will be built on the crest of SugarLoaf Hill.

The college has also agreed to build its performing arts center on the main campus and not on SugarLoaf as it had originally intended. Plans for additional dormitories and 150 parking spaces have all been moved to the main campus to diminish increased traffic at Germantown Avenue and Bells Mill Road.

“The neighbors wanted every end tied up before taking any action on any aspect of the IDD,” Vale said.

Vale said the college needed to move forward and was urged by its legal counsel and its board of directors to move on from the negotiations.

“The 18 months of intense planning has made it impossible for us to move forward with fundraising,” she said.

The college agreed to extend the deadline for its application several times during the negotiations, which are ongoing.

“I have complete faith that everything is moving in the right direction,” Vale said. “Our neighbors are important to us, and we are committed to doing what we have to do to make them comfortable.”

Down the hill, Thomas categorized the college and the community association as implacable and self-serving.

“There was no agreement on the master plan,” Thomas said, although he left some room for improvement. “The general tenure of the plan can be made tenable if and when the college gets serious about listening to the major issues.”

According to McEwen, the negotiations were divided into four parts – the master plan, the zoning district, the Community Development Agreement and the easements.

All seem to agree that the discussions and changes to the master plan are the farthest along. The college has made major concessions including the removal of a walkway and pedestrian bridge on the SugarLoaf campus as late as last week.

Thomas said he remains concerned that the plan calls for building in excess of the 20 percent Wissahickon Watershed restriction. McEwen explained that only one part of the property is restricted to 20 percent development (the other allows for 100 percent). He also noted that the portion to be developed has already been disturbed and that the college’s construction will not be the first development on that particular site.

Robert Vance, president of Friends of the Wissahickon, released a statement supporting the ongoing negotiations and said he felt “very optimistic about the outcome.”

Further, the college has agreed to limit its new construction using an innovative method designed by the group. In lieu of creating a plan that defines what the college will build, the new plan designates “aquariums” that define how much they can build. The aquariums denote the building volume and massing, height and site placement, effectively limiting the college to a total footprint of 370,000 square feet of new buildable space and preserving the view corridors.

“We are trying to be as sensitive as we can to the site, the environment and to the neighbors,” Vale said.

Thomas and other near neighbors vehemently disagree that the college is being sensitive. He and Robert Shusterman continue to advocate for a zoning overlay and remain fundamentally opposed to an IDD designation (see page 7).

“It is outrageous what an IDD permits,” Thomas said. “At any time City Council can amend the master plan.”

Thomas and the neighbors fear an IDD would eliminate their ability to intercede in future development. It is a main sticking point for both sides. When the negotiations began, the group agreed to write a CDA, community development agreement that would outline specific stipulations for the college’s development. It would become part of the IDD legislation.

Thomas said the document in its current form, which was written to protect the community and the college, is an agreement that “no one would sign.” In return for the college’s assurance to act within the agreed upon stipulations, the college is seeking assurances that none of the parties involved will change course and file grievances down the road.

For Thomas, that means he must trust the entity entrusted to negotiate and enforce the agreement – the CHCA.

“It’s like having your idiot uncle in charge of your community,” Thomas said. “The agreement is only good if the CHCA is willing to fight for it.”

The college heads back to the planning commission on May 17 to discuss the remapping of the site, which now includes both campuses, for an IDD. (Initially the Sisters of Saint Joseph, who own the college and the main campus did not consent to the IDD for the main campus, but have since reconsidered and have joined the proposal.)

McEwen said he believed that the group could conclude its final negotiations on the easements of the site. The college is prepared to add additional easements to the portions of the SugarLoaf property that will not be built upon, according to the new master plan.

The bulk of the parameter is already restricted by the Pennsylvania Growing Greener program through which the college received $1 million towards the purchase of the property.

The college has indicated its willingness to create easements for up to 85 percent of the non-buildable land over time in return for the community’s cooperation. In order to do that, however, the college must be able to convince its bank that the property is worth the amount of the loan with limited ability to develop the land.

If the college were able to promise the additional easements, the CDA would allow an additional 130,000 gross square feet of development on SugarLoaf Hill and a total of 300,000 gross square feet on new development on the main campus. The stipulations would become part of the college’s IDD legislation controlling the maximum build out – far below what is permitted under a standard IDD.

Thomas remains unconvinced that the college is acting in the interest of the community and even more so that allowing an IDD in Chestnut Hill is in the best interest of any community in Philadelphia.

“If Chestnut Hill College gets an IDD, then every institution is going to have this tool, every community is going to be under attack and Chestnut Hill, the character, the charm, will disappear,” he said.