By Wesley Ratko

A scheduled discussion about the proposed relocation of a fitness studio started a larger debate about parking and auto traffic on the Hill at the Chestnut Hill Community Association’s Land Use Planning and Zoning committee meeting Thursday night.

Balance Chestnut Hill is looking for relocate from their current location at 5 East Highland Ave. to a new location at 12 West Willow Grove Ave. The proposal was the only major item on the LUPZ’s agenda but the applicants had not received their zoning permit refusal from the city by meeting time, so the matter was deferred until March.  The committee will only act on an application that has the refusal.

The proposed relocation site on West Willow Grove Avenue has been the subject of controversy in Chestnut Hill before.  Once the home of Good Food Market, which closed in the spring of 2010 under pressure from near-neighbors, 12 West Willow Grove Avenue sits on the border between the commercial zoning district along the Avenue, and the residential district just west of it.

“As a resident, it would be a travesty if they’re not allowed to move in,” said Tom Hemphill, a member of the Traffic, Transportation, and Parking Committee.  “What happened to Good Food Market was unforgiveable,” he added.

Committee member Ned Mittinger suggested that the committee give serious thought to which uses would be most appropriate for the building, which he called “unique.”

“I think we would be doing a service to ourselves and to the committee if this group would meet together…on what that property can be used for,” Mittinger said.  He added that parking and traffic problems would be likely for any commercial use, given the residential character of the neighborhood.  To combat this, he said the LUPZ could consider having the property rezoned.

Committee co-chair John Landis disagreed, referring to the city’s recent approval of a new zoning code.  He said the process of revising its zoning map would begin soon to support the new code, which was written to reduce the number of zoning categories to allow a more varied mix of uses by right.  Landis said that the committee should only look to deal with issues that arise under the new code and leave the old one alone.

“I don’t think we want to be doing any rear guard actions on the old zoning ordinance at this point,” said Landis.

McEwen said that neither the CHCA nor any of its committees can prescribe what is and isn’t an appropriate use there.

CHCA Board member Elizabeth Bales was on hand to support Balance Chestnut Hill.  She was present at last month’s Development Review Committee meeting and said the applicant presented info about their parking needs.  She also said that there is a need for parking on the lower part of the Hill and, she said, that that parking shortage thwarts commercial growth.

 “ [A perceived lack of]parking is used as a manipulative tool to thwart competition,” said Bales.  “If people have a problem with a project, they’ll blame a shortage of parking.”

 John Haak, committee members and planner with the Philadelphia City Planning Commission, said the placement of off-street parking should serve as a buffer between the commercial and residential districts on the Hill.  He added that but part of the problem about availability stems from the fact that there are more cars per household now than there used to be.

“I’m all for planning, but we need to be careful,” Landis said.  He said parking should be looked at through the requirements present in the new zoning code, without too much interference from the CHCA.

Chestnut Hill resident and master’s student in city and regional planning Megan O’Leary suggested introducing incentives for bicycling and walking as a strategy to reduce auto use along the Hill, an idea committee member Larry McEwen was in favor of supporting.

LUPZ co-chair Cynthia Brey said that a traffic study was done a few years ago that suggested “bump outs” or curb extensions along the side streets to shorten crosswalks and calm traffic along side streets.  McEwen noted that the problem with that plan is that bump outs reduce the number of available on-street parking spaces.

McEwen said that the traffic flow in and out of Balance would be different than that of Good Food Market because the average stay would be significantly longer.

Haak suggested that money from the city’s capital improvement fund can be used for sidewalk improvements.  Landis said he would invite Stephen Buckley, the Director of Policy and Planning in the Mayor’s Office of Transportation, to come speak with the group about some of the options available to Chestnut Hill.

Haak told the committee that Philadelphia is in the process of completing a comprehensive pedestrian and bicycle plan.  He said he would present it to the committee at the next meeting.

They took no formal action on this.

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