by Wesley Ratko

City workers installed the first Big Belly Trash compactors in Chestnut Hill infront of the night Kitchen Bakery earlier this year. The city wants to place another 15 of the solar-powered compactors in Chestnut Hill. Placement of the remaining 15, however, has been met with some controversy community members said they had problems with their appearance and operation. (Photo by Pete Mazzaccaro)

After much discussion and a formal protest from the Chestnut Hill Historical Society, the Land Use Planning and Zoning Committee voted 5 to 1 in favor of accepting 15 “BigBelly” solar-powered trash compactors from the city’s Streets Department to be placed along Germantown Avenue in Chestnut Hill.

LUPZ co-chair Harriet Brumberg summarized the issue as two simple questions: “Do we want these and, if ‘yes,’ where do we want them?”

Linda Raucher from Green in Chestnut Hill (GRinCH) – the driving force behind bringing the BigBellies to Chestnut Hill – introduced Scott McGrath, manager of the BigBelly program for the Philadelphia Streets Department.

McGrath told the committee that there are 856 BigBellies deployed throughout the city – 481 in Center City, 375 along corridors in other city neighborhoods. Chestnut Hill remains the last neighborhood not to have them. The 15 proposed for placement would replace 21 existing cans along Germantown Avenue.

Previous BigBelly placements were made through a U.S. Department of Commerce program that paid to put 220 compactions along various city corridors as part of streetscape projects. A U.S. Department of Energy block grant, received as part of the city’s stimulus money, will pay for an additional 245 – 15 of which may come to Chestnut Hill.

Of the 15 units slated for placement in Chestnut Hill, six or seven have recycling doubles. The appearance of the BigBellies can be changed with a vinyl wrap (which costs $400 a unit) or advertising panels can be inserted along the side (which cost $150 a unit).

When asked whether the BigBellies could be interspersed with the wire baskets now on the street, McGrath said no. Two separate operations collect trash from wire cans and BigBellies – the objective of which is to reduce the number of trash pickups per week.

“It eliminates operational efficiency having both containers along a route,” McGrath said.

Questions about the appearance of the BigBellies dominated the discussion more than the specifics of placement of operations.

McGrath was asked whether the City’s Mural Arts program could become involved in the decorating effort. He answered that they already had – fifty BigBellies now along South Broad Street were decorated by 8-12-year-old school students working with two artists in a program funded through a grant. The product of their efforts was then applied to the cans with a vinyl wrap.

McGrath told the committee that the surface of the BigBellies are designed to be sticker and graffiti-resistant. Those planned for Chestnut Hill are the third generation BigBellies, to date the most resistant to defacement.

The containers now on the streets could be stored by the city for possible redeployment to places like Pastorius Park. Another option included selling the wire cans.

Amy Edelman, owner of the Night Kitchen Bakery and co-founder of GRinCH, presented maps of Germantown Avenue that suggested two potential scenarios for placement locations. One scenario has the cans placed from Mermaid Lane up to the Chestnut Hill Hotel; the other has them beginning at Bethlehem Pike and moving down to the Chestnut Hill Hotel. Edelman favored placement on the lower part of the Hill, to better coordinate with the BigBellies now in place in Mt. Airy.

Jennifer Hawk, executive director of the Chestnut Hill Historical Society, opposes the BigBellies. Hawk said she was disappointed that the questions posed by the Historical Society were “not answered as we’d hoped.”

She began by asking whether they were required by the Streets Department.

“No they’re not required,” McGrath said. “I have other corridors that would love to have them.”

“We have very little choice in strategic placement,” Hawk told the committee. “Our concerns about this particular product remain the same, and that is we enjoy living in a National Historic District … these will have a definite impact on the streetscape.”

Hawk expressed objections both to the size and shape of the BigBellies, estimating their height as shoulder level and explaining that their flat-fronted shape would attract graffiti and stickers. “I’ve personally observed graffiti and stickers on BigBellies in Center City.

Hawk reminded the committee that $33,000 had been invested in the cans now on the street and questioned whether an additional expense (estimated at $7,000) to wrap the cans is prudent. Committee co-chair Larry McEwen asked when the existing cans were purchased and whether they had a service life, but no one present could answer with any certainty.

Raucher asked McGrath whether the Streets Department received any positive feedback about the BigBellies. McGrath said that when units are removed for repairs the Streets Department get calls and emails asking when they’ll be returned.

“In Center City, when the units are removed to be occasionally repaired, we often get calls and emails from residents asking when their BB will be back,” he said.

McGrath added that a group of residents along Pine Street mounted an email campaign to the mayor to get more BigBellies because they noticed there were more of them on the other side of Broad Street.

“In the past two weeks we’ve collected almost 200 signatures in support of them,” Edelman said, noting that 25 businesses were also in support. “No one refused to sign.”

The CHCA board of directors voted to send this issue to the LUPZ at its January board meeting held Feb. 3.

Robert Rossman, present in the audience, stated he’d made the motion.

“All we were really looking for was a recommendation,” Rossman told the committee. “We felt that the expertise lies here, and you can add a lot to the discussion about whether or not we should have BigBellies and where they should go,” he added.

Brooks Turkel, CEO of Chestnut Hill Hospital, opposed the BigBellies, saying the “design is terribly flawed.” Turkel’s concern centered on the need to touch a handle in order to place trash inside and the health hazard that posed.

“It’s exceptionally unfortunate…that you have to open the darn thing with your hands, in a day and age where I’m spending lots of money on things where you don’t have to do that,” Turkel said.

Committee member Toby Horton responded to Turkel’s health concerns by suggesting that any hazard posed by the BigBellies handle would be offset by the benefit of having a closed container in which to safely hold litter to keep it from blowing around and preventing squirrels from getting inside.

Horton also asked whether the historical society had done any research to determine how Chestnut Hill residents felt about the BigBellies.

Hawk replied that they had not.

“Petitions and public opinion doesn’t change the visual impact of the BigBellies, and it doesn’t change what makes up a National Historic District,” she said.

McGrath stated that the Streets Department would work with the community association and any other interested group to find the most appropriate locations for the BigBellies.