‘Behemoth’ development stirs controversy in Germantown

by Tom Beck
Posted 5/3/23

About 100 Germantown neighbors turned out in force to express unanimous opposition to a proposed five-story, 148-unit project at 42-68 Church Lane.

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‘Behemoth’ development stirs controversy in Germantown


About 100 Germantown neighbors turned out in force to express unanimous opposition to a proposed five-story, 148-unit project at 42-68 Church Lane in a contentious community meeting last Wednesday, which was inexplicably held on a night when many would have preferred to attend that evening’s debate between City Councilmember Cindy Bass and her challenger, Seth Anderson-Oberman - the first featuring the two candidates. 

But this project, located less than a block from the historic Market Square, would have meant a potentially disastrous change to their neighborhood, said residents who felt the meeting was too important to miss. The development team is seeking a necessary variance to put housing on a lot that’s zoned for industrial use, right next to the bustling heart of the neighborhood’s business district. 

The proposed apartments would include 135 two-bedroom units and 13 one-bedroom units, a gym, and a 74-car parking garage on the ground floor. 

Chagai Bader, a representative from developer Olympia Holdings, said that the proposed two-bedroom units would be rented for somewhere between $1,400 and $1,600 a month. 

“I can tell you that nobody that I've talked to is in favor of this project,” said Jim Dragoni, a near neighbor. “It will block out the sky. It will block out the light. It will block out the tree line. It is massive.”

Dragoni’s sentiment was echoed by several other neighbors at the meeting. Germantown resident and historic preservationist Oscar Beisert called the project “a behemoth,” “completely out of scale” and said that it “does not speak to the historic context at all.” The proposal “really does not speak to the neighborhood that you're putting it in,” said Donna Drake, the rector's warden at St. Luke's Episcopal Church, Germantown, which is located on the same block. A smaller scale development, said another near neighbor named Anna Albrecht, “would satisfy everybody here."

The development team took note. 

“We're getting the message here about the size of the project, the massive size of the building,” said the development team’s attorney, Zhen H. Jin. “We do hear you on that.”

Jin said he and the team, which included development company Olympia Holdings, would regroup to see what can be done to reduce the size of the building.

Scheduling questions

In addition to being worried about the proposed project, neighbors say they’re also angry the RCO that held the meeting refused to reschedule it - forcing residents into choosing between the RCO meeting and the council debate. 

The reasons for that are unclear. 

When multiple RCOs are affected by a development proposal, the district council member decides which RCO holds the community meetings. In this case, Councilmember Bass chose Faith Community Development Corporation and the 12th Ward Democratic Committee.

The coordinating RCOs decide the date. When two of the four affected RCOs asked for the meeting to be rescheduled, citing a late notice of only 10 days, they say they were rebuffed. 

“We have no idea as to why there is a rush to have an RCO meeting for a project that's not scheduled to go before the zoning board until Aug. 9,” said Yvonne Haskins, an attorney who represented neighbors in the meeting. “That clearly raises suspicions.”

Representatives from the two affected RCOs who asked for a date change - Joe McCarthy, head of Baynton Hill Neighbors and Allison Weiss, of SoLo/Germantown Civic Association - also say they were not consulted on the date in the first place. 

McCarthy, who asked Bass’ office to reschedule, got a return email from Bass’ director of zoning and land use Charles Richardson that said scheduling is handled by the convening RCO, which in this case was the Faith Community Development Corporation, led by Ines Love. His office “has nothing to do with” it, the email said. 

But when the Local reached out to Love, she said she was not responsible. 

“The only thing that I can say is that you can talk to Charles Richardson,” Love said. She refused to answer any follow-up questions. 

The Local reached out to Bass’ office, which declined to comment. 

Whoever is responsible, the dispute has gotten the attention of the City’s planning department, which oversees neighborhood RCOs. Bruce Bohri, spokesperson for the city’s planning and development department, said his office “has received many inquiries regarding the timing of this meeting.” 

While his office has no power over scheduling, he said, it does oversee the groups themselves. 

“If an RCO is deliberately excluding near neighbors, we rely on complaints to hear about it,” Bohri said, “after which the Planning Commission staff will reach out to the RCO to understand what is happening and remind them of what is expected.”

Depending on the situation, Bohri added, the RCO may be decertified. If a resident has a complaint about the process, he said, they should email the details to  rco@phila.gov.