John Landis

by Diane Fiske

A local column about architecture, city planning, and design

John Landis moved to Philadelphia from California to take a job as a professor of city planning at the School of Design at the University of Pennsylvania several years ago.

He lives with his wife, Bonnie, in Chestnut Hill, where he volunteers a lot of his free time as chair of the Chestnut Hill Community Association’s Development Review Committee.

In an interview, Landis said he “loves Chestnut Hill,” most of all because it is a very walkable community and people walk, not just on the commercial streets but through the residential community.”

Still he sees room for improvement, which is why he contributes so much time to the community.

Recently, he and his fellow community board members asked for a special meeting with Philadelphia Planning Commission members who have been organizing a city-wide plan to improve every district in the city by 2035. The meeting would clarify the project’s agendas in Chestnut Hill and offer suggestions.

The results of the final meeting of the city-wide project last month, this one in Mount Airy, devoted to Northwest Philadelphia, didn’t discuss Chestnut Hill as much as Germantown and Mount Airy. At the last of three meetings most of the results of compiling citizen input and suggested improvements pointed to the need for improvement to the Germantown and Chelten Avenue shopping area and another at Wayne junction.

Landis recognized that one suggestion at the meeting regarding Chestnut Hill would be to offer larger sizes for some lots in areas where a large estate is being divided into smaller parcels after a mansion is being demolished or preserved. This process has produced a lot of discussion and some contention in areas where large estates are being divided.

In general, Landis said, Chestnut Hill is an area where people are “pretty content” and do not feel a lot of changes are needed.

“This is probably a good thing, but some change can be good.” he said.

One word that kept popping up in his interview is “contextual.” Landis said he feels one of the jobs of his committees is to make sure that new developments are “contextual,” which means fitting in with surrounding buildings.

He said before the community approved One West – the large condo and retail development that includes Fresh Market at 8208 Germantown Ave. – was approved, there had to be multiple meetings to discuss variances.

One West was unusual, he said. But if the regulations were specific enough, a smaller project might be able to sail through the approval process with the need for few or no variance requests.

Landis said that one of his committee’s goals is to develop rules that take in consideration the height and depth of existing structures in an area and develop rules for new structures.

“In some cases, if developers match the existing zoning rules they could have an easier time getting approval for projects,” he said

Another subject that needs discussing, Landis said, is “better sidewalks.”

“In some places,” he said, “the owner is responsible for the sidewalk in front of his property, but not here. If there is a problem, the owner can fix a small spot and not deal with the entire sidewalk.”

In the area of large projects, he said, there should be a discussion of finding ways to prevent the current crisis of flooding that occurs when stormwater collects after many large rainstorms.

“All these are small problems in Chestnut Hill where life is pretty good,” he added.

The changes suggested by the city-wide meetings in the Northwest region will be printed and on display in the public libraries in Chestnut Hill, Mount Airy and Germantown. In the fall, the proposed plans will be forwarded to City Council for a vote on whether they will be adopted.

Diane Fiske is a freelance writer writes about architecture and planning for the Philadelphia Inquirer. She lives in Chestnut Hill.