In last week’s editorial spot, we ran Eric Spaeth’s thoughtful essay on zoning matters in Chestnut Hill. I found Spaeth’s words thought provoking. He touched on the truly puzzling question swirling around the Hill when it comes to development. Why is it that wherever a development is proposed in the 19118 ZIP code, there appears a small group of near neighbors vehemently opposed to the project?

Those of us who work or have worked at the Local can grow weary of development stories. They have that all-too-familiar arc of tension between the developer, the community and the city.

For years I have known that Hillers’ angst is not unique. When a group wanted to use part of New Covenant’s campus on the border of Chestnut Hill for a homeless family shelter, the most outspoken and active opponents were the near neighbors in Mt. Airy whose properties abut the campus.

Despite the fact that there would have been a football field between them and the building – only part of which was to hold the shelter and which was to be limited to women and children – the neighbors mobilized in opposition. And they don’t live in Chestnut Hill.

In his editorial, Spaeth offered an explanation for the recurrent strife between neighbors and developers. He suggested that the City of Philadelphia’s zoning process is partly to blame for creating a feeling of disenfranchisement among residents. Philadelphia is known for its back-scratching approach to Council matters, and in an editorial this week, the Daily News took the city to task for allowing zoning to be co-opted by politics:

“But what the community wants too often doesn’t matter when Council members can use their prerogative to take control over land use in their districts, even if it is at odds with the city’s or neighborhood’s interests.”

The idea that Philadelphians are more disenfranchised than urban dwellers elsewhere contains an element of truth for me. Historically we have not been offered clear, fair and equal access to government. As many of us are aware, the Chestnut Hill Community Association was created to give a voice to the residents in zoning matters because of the councilmanic prerogative still prevalent downtown.

Often Hillers are criticized for having a sense of entitlement, as if there is a greater per capita arrogance on the Hill than other parts of the city. I’ve thought about that. Certainly there are times when it feels as though hyperbole could replace water – it is so free flowing from every corner.

A simple Google search for “fights over development,” however, returned 271,000,000 results in .24 seconds. It is hardly a scientific survey. Similarly, the satirical newspaper the Onion published “Town Hall Meeting Gives Townspeople Chance To Say Stupid Things In Public” in 2007, humorously chastising people such as the Hillers we refer to as “near neighbors” for their objections to development.

While it might amuse some to read the Onion’s biting prose on the topic, it struck me as one more sign that these issues are universal.

Spaeth is onto something about us, about how it feels to live in this city and about how we view our ability to affect our surroundings. Chestnut Hill might not be the den of pompous after all and it might benefit all of us to know it.

Jennifer Katz




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