Bass weighs in on new NCO

by Carla Robinson
Posted 6/5/24

City Councilmember Cindy Bass met with Chestnut Hill community members to discuss a proposed zoning conservation overlay for East Mermaid Lane.

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Bass weighs in on new NCO


City Councilmember Cindy Bass met with Chestnut Hill community members via Zoom on Tuesday to discuss a newly proposed zoning conservation overlay for East Mermaid Lane
which has raised some concerns about the process, and the balance between neighborhood preservation and individual property rights.

The zoning overlay, introduced by Bass on April 25 and now on track to become law, would impose design and material requirements for new construction and renovations in the southern portion of Chestnut Hill. The area, which includes 123 homes, is bounded by the SEPTA Chestnut Hill East rail line, Cresheim Valley Drive, Germantown Avenue, Winston Road, Moreland Avenue, Devon Street, Ardleigh Street and Springfield Avenue.

Mermaid Lane neighbors who developed the new district say they have been fighting to protect their neighborhood from what they perceive as a threat of inappropriate development. Bass said she introduced the bill because she thinks neighbors should have a say in what is built in their immediate neighborhood.

Bass noted some specific developments in Mt. Airy and Germantown that she finds concerning due to poor use of materials and lack of harmony with the character of historic neighborhoods.

"I have some blocks in Mt. Airy and Germantown where I drive by and just cringe at some of the things that have been built," she said. "It sends a shock down my spine and I think to myself, how did this happen?

"You wouldn't want it in Chestnut Hill – it's a bad use of materials, and the look and feel of it has nothing to do with the character of what is a very historic neighborhood," she added.

Camille Peluso, a Mermaid Lane neighbor, architect and CHCA board member, explained that the new rules apply to "anything you can see from the street" and would affect any new construction, additions and renovations.

After getting feedback from neighbors, Peluso said, the group amended its original plans to exclude smaller rowhomes zoned RSA5 and focus on the larger twins and detached houses zoned RSA3.

"It was all done in good faith and in compliance with the rules," Peluso said. "We want to make sure we keep our village-like look, that's what we're trying to do."

Doug Martenson, another Mermaid Lane neighbor, said you only have to look at some new construction on Germantown Avenue to understand that the overlay is needed.

"Without it, we're done for. There's no way for us to preserve the wonderful past of this neighborhood, which is what we all moved here for," he said. "And not just for us, but also for the next generation."

During the meeting, residents raised various questions and concerns. Mark Donahue requested a provision allowing owners of existing noncompliant homes to rebuild them without going through an extra design review step.

"I think homes like mine should be grandfathered in. Why is that so hard to do?" he asked. "If my house burnt to the ground, I would want to rebuild it exactly the way it was – and I don't want to have to fight to do that."

Jody Greenblatt inquired about the level of control homeowners would have over theirhouse's appearance.

John Landis, a professional land use planner who does not live in the affected neighborhood but sits on the community association's Land Use Planning and Zoning (LUPZ) committee, expressed his objections to the ordinance, despite acknowledging the well-intentioned efforts of its proponents. Landis described the overlay as an "ad hoc and needless constraint on personal liberties" and voiced concerns about potential "copycat" ordinances and the likelihood of the court overturning it.

"It does not meet its intended purpose – it fails to document what is architecturally distinct about the neighborhood," he said. "These provisions may seem desirable today, but I assure you that tastes change much faster than ordinances do."

According to Landis, the zoning process is the appropriate place for neighbors to have input on land use matters.
Paula Burns, legislative director for the Philadelphia City Planning Commission, was on the call and said PCPC staff recommended opposition to the PCPC board because it did not meet all the required criteria. The board is scheduled to consider the matter on June 6.

Bass said she saw no reason to delay the process and would support any other community that wanted to enact something similar.

“If folks have something to say about how they want to protect their neighborhoods, I’m all ears,” she said. “That’s the purpose of NCOs like this one.”

The NCO was initially developed in response to the Goldenberg Group's 2021 proposal to construct 285 housing units on a 4.4-acre property at 100-102 Mermaid Lane, formerly housing the Chestnut Hill Friends Meeting and the headquarters for Blossom Philadelphia.
Mermaid Lane neighbor Haviva Goldman expressed surprise that Chestnut Hill, despite being on the National Register of Historic Places, lacks historic protections at the city level.

"There's nothing that prevents anyone from doing whatever they want to these properties," she said. "This is just giving us some protection. If some other community in Chestnut Hill, or Mt. Airy, or anywhere, wanted to do the same thing, I would applaud it."