by Brendan Sample
When they first decided to build a new three-story house on the empty space that sits on 250 E. Evergreen Ave., property owners Janet and Matt Stern could not have anticipated the amount of negative backlash they have received thus far regarding the project. Neighbors have accused the Sterns of withholding information about the construction, such as the actual plans, in an attempt to keep them in the dark until it is too late, though the Sterns insist that is not the case.
“I really do care about being transparent,” Janet said. “We want to be good neighbors, but we also feel that it’s not fair for us to continue to keep that lot empty. … This isn’t something we feel we need to ‘win’ or get into a fight over.”
The Sterns own the property that contains both a house on 248 E. Evergreen and the empty lot on 250. After years of the lot remaining empty, and with their daughter moving back home with their grandchild, they decided to finally do something with the space.
“We felt that maybe this was the time to get some return on our investment,” Janet explained. “This is an asset we’re allowed to develop, and it’s not a matter of ‘if’ we do something with it but rather ‘what.’ I’d be interested in hearing suggestions from the community for what they feel should go there. … I don’t have any ego tied up in this.”
“We wanted to do something we thought the whole neighborhood would embrace,” Matt said. “We’re actually able to add onto the property at 248 by right, but we didn’t do that because we didn’t think it would look good. … I think this is something that’s really beautiful, and when people see it, I’m convinced they’ll agree.”
On the other side, an increasing number of neighbors have raised concerns not only over the proposed house itself, but also in the way that the applicants have been handling the planning process to this point. Complaints have been made over timing this process while many people are on summer vacation, not providing enough information in public meeting agendas and the idea of building a new structure instead of expanding the existing one, among other elements. The Sterns did inform their neighbors about the proposed project and upcoming zoning meetings through both email and physical letters meant to be received by early August.
“The Sterns’ real estate agent claims that this may enhance our property values, but I’d much rather have my agent make that determination,” said Eileen Reynolds, a resident of the 100 block of East Evergreen.
“I realize that constructing a house would be in the best interest of the property owners, our neighbors, but feel that it’s not in the best interest of the neighborhood,” said Larry Goldfarb, a resident of the 200 block of East Evergreen. “They could expand 248 onto the space in question without a variance. That would be a preferable idea since the mass would almost certainly be smaller, and not create two 8-ft, three-story alleyways on either side.”
Some neighbors have also questioned the fact that the lead architect of the project, Larry McEwen, is himself a member of the Land Use, Planning and Zoning Committee, which provides direct input to the Chestnut Hill Community Association about zoning projects like this. Though McEwen is not able to vote as a committee member on any projects he is directly involved in, some neighbors feel that this still presents a potential conflict of interest.
Further skepticism has been raised regarding the comments of committee member Joyce Lenhardt, who said she felt that there were no “real strong objections to this” at the July LUPZ meeting. Lenhardt made that comment specifically in regards to the other LUPZ members, as no neighbors were present at the meeting.
The two sides will have several chances to come together and talk about the issue in person at upcoming community meetings. The LUPZ will hold a rescheduled meeting on Thursday, Aug. 15, the Development Review Committee will meet on Tuesday, Aug. 20 and the CHCA board of directors will gather on Thursday, Aug. 22. This particular issue is on the agenda for both the LUPZ and DRC, and discussions are expected to continue with the CHCA.
“We have a responsibility to provide an open and inclusive forum for discussion, and we will do that to the best of our ability,” said LUPZ chair Bradley Flamm. “The members of the LUPZ are committed to listening respectfully, adhering to committee guidelines and deliberating openly.”
As the schedule currently stands, the applicants are set to wrap up the review process by the end of the month ahead of their hearing in front of the Philadelphia Zoning Board of Adjustment on Wednesday, Oct. 16, to gain a variance for the project. Given neighbors’ complaints about not having enough time to review the project, however, it is possible that the process could be pushed back through September. The Sterns have said they are open to that possibility, which will likely be discussed in further detail at the upcoming meetings.
“We [the neighbors] need an adequate timetable to respond to and review this,” Reynolds said. “Even though it’s a private property, it just doesn’t seem large enough to accommodate a three-story building. We’re ultimately not sure because we haven’t seen the plans in any sort of close capacity.”
Brendan Sample can be reached at email@example.com or 215-248-8819.