Rita’s Water Ice seeks location at Chestnut Hill Plaza

by Wesley Ratko

Chestnut Hill could be the newest home to Rita’s Water Ice, but not before legal restrictions are worked out over who is allowed to set up shop at Chestnut Hill Plaza, 7630 Germantown Avenue.

Representatives and managers of Chestnut Hill Plaza Associates, Alan Roomberg and Jay Strouss, appeared before the Development Review Committee of the Chestnut Hill Community Association to discuss this and a proposed sign for another new business, New Happy Nail Inc., about to open its doors.

The sign issue had been reviewed before by the DRC. Rita’s Water Ice was a new consideration before the committee.

Applicants for New Happy Nail, slated to open in the space once occupied by TLA video, appeared at last month’s DRC meeting to discuss a proposed sign for the new business. At that meeting, committee chair Greg Woodring suggested the applicant contact the current owner of the shopping center to obtain the sign guidelines originally developed for the shopping center when it was first built. Roomberg and Strouss were present to discuss that.

Before they did, however, Roomberg explained that a tentative agreement was in the works with Rita’s Water Ice to be the fourth tenant in the shopping center. Representing Rita’s was John Thain, a Chestnut Hill resident and investor in three other Rita’s franchises. Roomberg said the agreement couldn’t be finalized given language in a restrictive covenant that was set in place 22 years ago when the shopping center was built. The covenant prohibits fast food restaurants as tenants in the shopping center.

Roomberg and Strouss argued that Rita’s isn’t fast food as intended by the covenant. Roomberg said he wasn’t there to ask to have the restrictive covenant lifted, but instead that the DRC agree to accommodate Rita’s, given that their style of business – retail water ice – didn’t exist when the agreement was crafted.

Elizabeth Bales, a board member and near neighbor, said she was concerned that there are vacancies in the shopping center and that that a cold food, odorless operation would be preferable to a vacant property.

Thain told the committee that the Rita’s proposed for this location has been designed to be walk-in instead of walk-up, which is typical of most Rita’s locations. He expressed his conviction that Rita’s is not fast food as there are no heat and smells.

“We’re committed not to upset the neighbors,” Strouss said. “We spend $700, $800 a month replacing filters for the Chinese restaurant.”

Thain explained that the time Rita’s is in operation runs from March to October, and if he has to wait until January for a decision, he would miss half of his operating year. Thain added that he was actively looking at several other locations in addition to Chestnut Hill.

The committee reminded the applicants that they were simply an advisory body and could not make a decision to change the language of the covenant without the board.

Discussion of the shopping center managers’ agreement with Rita’s overshadowed the principle reason for their appearance before the committee – the ongoing discussion about sign standards for the shopping center.

Roomberg said he is open to instituting some kind of sign standards for the shopping center, but he stressed that the businesses in the shopping center are different from other businesses along the Avenue in Chestnut Hill in that they are set back from the street and experience less walk-by traffic.

“I think some consideration is due,” he said, adding that he had no plan for how to proceed. “It was short notice for us to appear here.”

Margaret McCauley, a retail consultant with Downtown Works, told the committee that without signage, the businesses in Chestnut Hill Plaza were doomed to failure, given the shopping center’s lower Hill location. With proper signage, she said, vacancies there could be filled.

“We’re open to reasonable suggestions,” Roomberg said, but told the committee that he wouldn’t ask the current tenants to change their signs.

Roomberg’s partner, Jay Strouss, told the committee that they’ve entered into negotiations with Sovereign Bank for a $100,000 refinancing agreement to spruce up the façade of the shopping center, but explained that the loan wouldn’t be approved with the two vacancies.

“We won’t have that money without tenants,” he said.

The DRC agreed to send the Rita’s issue to LUPZ, with the Chestnut Hill Business Association to decide whether Rita’s is a fast food establishment under the terms of the restrictive covenant. It also recommended that the Rita’s issue be addressed at a special December meeting of the board, scheduled for Dec. 14.

New Happy Nail was referred to the Aesthetics Committee for quick consideration for approval and updated sign standards for the shopping center.

Fresh Market – Update

The Philadelphia City Planning Commission tabled plans for 8200 Germantown Ave. for 30 days, agreeing to consider it again at its next meeting on Dec. 13.

Joyce Lenhardt, chair of a CHCA subcommittee working with Richard Snowden, managing partner of Bowman Properties, said she had hoped for a longer tabling. A special meeting of the Chestnut Hill Community Association board is scheduled for Dec. 14, one day after the next scheduled Planning Commission meeting. Lenhardt said she’s hoping to move the board meeting to the 12th.

Bowman Properties will present an updated “aspirational plan” to the community association’s Land Use Planning and Zoning Committee meeting on Dec. 1, joined by members of the Traffic, Transportation and Parking Committee. Lenhardt said that in spite of the subcommittee’s wishes to have more landscaping, there is serious concern that parking spaces will be taken in order to provide it. The zoning Bowman has proposed for the site does not require any landscaping.

Lenhardt was one of six people to present testimony on the project at the November meeting of the City Planning Commission. Among the issues she said near neighbors have had for months are concerns with the increase in commercial zoning and a corresponding decrease in residential zoning that would remove the requirement for setbacks along Hartwell Lane.

Lenhardt reminded the committee that there was no precedent for a five-story structure in Chestnut Hill. The mass and bulk of the proposed structure is also cause for concern. Lenhardt said her group still is asking for a public space, access to Pastorius Park and a community development agreement that would detail operational concerns about the Fresh Market supermarket.

Lenhardt said some of the neighbors had hired an attorney to represent their interest and that the attorney spoke on their behalf at the Planning Commission meeting.