Editor’s note: The following first appeared in the Weavers Way Shuttle. It was published in the November issue, which was available last week.
by Glenn Bergman, Weavers Way General Manager
Many Co-op members and others in the community have asked me what I think about the project that Bowman Properties and Seth Shapiro (who works for Bowman and is also President of the Business Improvement District, or BID) have proposed to build at 8200 Germantown Ave. (a.k.a. the Magarity site). I have discussed this project with many members of our community, and also with Mr. Shapiro. As Weavers Way’s General Manager, I have an obligation to the members of the Co-op, and a responsibility for our long-term financial health and our community involvement. As a resident of Northwest Philadelphia, I have an interest in seeing our neighborhoods developed in a manner that is sustainable, responsible, and in the best interests of those neighborhoods. Both roles leave me compelled to address several items and to offer some suggestions. Before I do, though, I want to make it clear that, although I love the design of the current building and believe it could have been retrofitted in a more interesting way, I am in no way against a development of the site.
A Little History
Weavers Way attempted to purchase the Magarity property three years ago, bidding a little over $5 million. Our plan was to upgrade and improve the current structure, rent the front section to a restaurant or other retail store, and use the back part for our store. We hoped to partner with a developer to build cooperative housing on the back part of the property.
We lost the bid to Bowman Properties, who bid less than us but were able to close by the end of that year. We continued to look for a site in Chestnut Hill, and when the Caruso’s property became available, I contacted Bowman Properties and met with owner Richard Snowden on two occasions to review with him the scope of our project. We discussed the possibility that Weavers Way would seek a zoning variance to allow a seating area where shoppers could sit and eat. Mr. Snowden told me, “There is a reason the zoning is the way it is on your side of the block,” and that Bowman would fight us if we pursued it. So we did not; we changed the plans so that we no longer needed the variance.
The Bowman Proposal
Residential units are important to the Avenue, and I applaud the effort to build them, but I agree with many of the near neighbors and many architects who feel this project is out of scale with the Avenue. The development is being built right to the property line, with no green space or setback, no community space, and none of the aesthetics or landscaping so in tune with Chestnut Hill. If the parcel is rezoned as Bowman is seeking, there would be no constraints at all on what could be built there; it would have the same zoning classification as Liberty Place or any other Center City skyscraper. It seems totally out of touch with the rest of the Avenue and the nearby properties, many of which have been around 100 years or more.
The additional retail space planned at this site—both on the Avenue and the 20,000-sq-ft grocery store planned for the back—is an amazing redundancy on a street with so many empty spaces (some empty for over 15 years). It is redundant as well to bring in a business that would undermine the businesses already operating in Chestnut Hill, like Weavers Way, but also like the Farmers Market, the Chestnut Hill Cheese Shop, and others. Seth Shapiro says the new store will “increase traffic to the Avenue and Chestnut Hill will become known as a destination place for food.” I disagree. A store of this size will cannibalize sales from the Farmers Market and from Weavers Way. It will take additional sales from Pathmark, as well. (If Fresh Market wants to come to Chestnut Hill, I suggest they speak to Pathmark corporation and see if they can take over its lease. The market is there already, the traffic patterns do not have to be changed, and the parking is in place. Recent reports in the grocery journals report that Pathmark’s sales are down, and they have been closing stores, so they may well be looking to eliminate stores in the area.)
I have suggested to Mr. Shapiro, as President of the BID, that instead of this market and planned retail, we try to bring in something that is missing from our community: helping a bookstore get situated, or a movie theatre. How about a large antique mall that would make Chestnut Hill a center for dealers? Why not focus energy on creative solutions to fill all the already empty retail properties, before adding tens of thousands of square feet of new space to fill? I question whether this development is in the best interests of the Chestnut Hill Business District, and whether Mr. Shapiro, as the President of the Chestnut Hill Business Improvement District, should be serving as broker for a deal that could so negatively impact the existing businesses on the Avenue.
How Would This Affect Us?
One of the questions I am asked most often about Bowman’s plan for the Magarity site is, “What about the Co-op, are we going to be okay?”
After speaking with co-ops in the South who have had Fresh Markets open one to two miles away, my prediction is that a store of this size will take at least 20 percent of the Co-op’s sales, and probably eliminate the poultry, meat, and prepared food sales from the Farmers Market. It will not increase sales for these vendors or for the Co-op, no matter what Mr. Shapiro has been quoted as saying. This would mean we would have to lay off a similar portion of staff at the Chestnut Hill store, as well as some at the Mt. Airy store, which would also be affected. We would also have to reduce the administrative staff.
It is worth noting that Weavers Way jobs start at $10/hour for full-time positions, and that we provide health and dental insurance, 401K, and many other benefits to our staff. As far as I have been able to determine, from websites like glassdoor.com, Fresh Market starts at minimum wage, or slightly above.
The impact will affect the broader community as well. The profits from Weavers Way stay in the community, either reinvested back into the Co-op or returned to members as rebates. Fresh Market is a publicly traded company from North Carolina. It is hard to say what happens to their profits, but I know they do not stay here, and I know that the principals in the company, down in Greensboro, N.C., are compensated very, very well.
Our local suppliers will suffer as well. Part of our mission is to purchase as much local product as possible. When we purchase honey, dairy, eggs, meats, produce, breads, yogurt, and other products from people in the Philadelphia area, your purchasing dollars stay local, supporting local producers, farms, and truck drivers, and in turn supporting the local economies that they support. It would be a shame to see that positive impact on our local economy undermined by an out-of-state company shipping product up from North Carolina, and sending profits back there.
So yes, there will be a negative impact to the Co-op, as well as to the local business community, but Co-op management has already taken steps to prepare for the possibility, and in general, the Co-op will be fine.
What Should We Do?
The other question I hear most often is, “As a member-owner of a business, what should I do?” There is not much you can do when someone wants to go through the appropriate channels to open a business that competes directly with you. But Bowman Properties has decided to circumvent the Chestnut Hill Community Association and the zoning variance process by hiring the law firm Ballard-Spahr to go directly to City Council, seeking a political solution that would rezone the entire property and remove virtually all restrictions on that site. Personally, I think that is wrong, and if you think so too, you should let it be known. Attend the hearings. Write to your City Council representative and copy all of the other Council members about your thoughts. Write to City Hall and the City Planning Directors. Stay informed: read the Chestnut Hill Local, The Inquirer, and yes, the Shuttle. Feel free to contact Mr. Shapiro and Bowman Properties. Express your opinion to anyone who will listen, and offer solutions or suggestions. If you are a resident near the site, please take the time to understand the scope of this project and decide what you think about it. A group of near neighbors has gotten together and hired a lawyer and is meeting with Bowman and City Council representatives (you can contact them at VibrantCH@gmail.com).
Finally, I just want to note that I write this not just as the General Manager of Weavers Way, but more important, as a member of the community. There are many things that trouble me about the specifics of this proposal, but perhaps most troubling is the disregard for the involvement of the community, and the sidestepping of the structures and processes this community has put in place to make sure that development is done in a way that is smart, sustainable, and economically viable in a way that serves the best interests of the entire community, not just a select few. I am always available to talk about this with any member of the Co-op, or any member of the community, as are the members of Weavers Way’s Board of Directors.