Despite objections from the Chestnut Hill Community Association, Bowman Properties won city approval to trim the percentage of retail space in three of five properties.
Despite objections from the Chestnut Hill Community Association, Bowman Properties won city approval to trim the percentage of retail space in three of the five properties the company had petitioned officials to reconfigure and can now convert some of that space to residential use. The board also formalized the residential use of two properties that are zoned commercial, but have long been lived in by tenants.
All five of the properties considered by the city’s Zoning Board of Adjustment for retail space reduction last week have in recent years been chronically vacant or rented only to temporary tenants.
Members of the CHCA had sought to maintain the full retail footprint for two buildings on the neighborhood’s central business corridor: the former Under the Blue Moon restaurant at the corner of Germantown and Abington Avenues, which has been vacant since it closed its doors about 20 years ago; and a large ground-floor space further up the hill at the corner of Germantown and Evergreen Avenues, which periodically has been rented for pop-up stores.
The decision left some in the Chestnut Hill business community feeling slighted.
“I was disappointed that the zoning board did not take the community association’s recommendation in what it approved,” said Barbara Baumbach, a Chestnut Hill Business District board member, who also said she was disappointed the zoning board didn’t institute provisions that would mandate Bowman take better care of its properties.
Baumbach said that poor interior and exterior condition of at least some of Bowman’s vacant properties had been a point of concern for many in Chestnut Hill’s business community.
“These buildings have not been in good condition for a while,” she said. “A good neighbor takes care of the property.”
Founding partner of Elfant Wissahickon Realtors, Bob Elfant, who also complained about the condition of Bowman’s properties, said he objected to variances being passed “without any caveat or condition.”
“A year or two from now, we’ll still be sitting on these vacancies,” Elfant continued in a post-hearing phone call. “We’ll find out we’ll still have a bunch of vacancies in lower Chestnut Hill, just like they are now and have been for virtually decades.”
In an emailed statement to the Local, Snowden addressed Elfant and Baumbach’s concerns by saying his company has pledged on multiple recorded Zoom calls that it will “complete any work on these properties according to U.S Interior Department standards for adaptive re-use of historic structures.”
“These are neither the worst or the best maintained properties in any one’s ownership found along Germantown Avenue,” he added. “Among the many properties our company owns, the majority are beautifully restored and nicely maintained, including The Fresh Market, Starbucks, J. McLaughlin, Sara Campbell, among many others.”
Members of the CHCA voted in support of Bowman’s other requests, including two properties on Bethlehem Pike that the ZBA rejected and 7928-30 Germantown Ave., which sits next to Artists & Craftsman Supply.
The ZBA voted in support of the Philadelphia City Planning Commission’s recommendations for all seven buildings. For two properties, this included approving total conversion from commercial to residential use for 18 Hilltop Road, located behind Cosimo’s Pizza Cafe and near the Chestnut Hill West train station, and 10 E. Hartwell Lane, located at the corner of Germantown Avenue and Hartwell Lane. For two Bethlehem Pike properties, which sit across the street from the Chestnut Hill East train station, the vote meant rejection.
“We recommend that the board deny this variance,” City Planner Ian Hegarty said of both 101 and 105 Bethlehem Pike. “There's no unique physical condition of the lot that prevents it from being used in conformance with the [zoning] code.,” said Hegarty, who sits on the planning commission.
Hegarty said Bowman could have cut retail space at both properties by right if it had chosen to participate in the city’s mixed-income housing bonus program – a fact which came as a surprise to Bowman owner Richard Snowden.
“It would have been nice if somebody from the Planning Commission, having seen this on the zoning list, had contacted us before the community groups and my company wasted time on seeking a variance,” Snowden told the Local in a post-hearing phone call. “I had no idea that properties like that had those kinds of bonuses available.”
Going forward, Snowden said he plans to see if participating in the mixed-income housing bonus program makes “financial sense.”
“Then I’m going to evaluate the situation from there,” he continued.
Impact on the corridor
At the former restaurant location, Bowman won permission to reduce retail space from 3,075 square feet to 2,050. At the store on the corner of Germantown and Evergreen Avenues, retail space can be cut by more than a third, from 1,768 square feet down to 535.
The CHCA objected, citing “neglected exterior condition,” and “the diminished space that will remain for retail use in this building, impacting its desirability as a retail space.”
As for the third property on Germantown Avenue, which the CHCA voted to support, the ZBA ruling gives Bowman permission to cut 2,110 square feet of commercial space down to 1,300.
Elfant restated his objections on the record at the ZBA hearing.
“The argument that smaller spaces are more rentable belies the truth of the existing Bowman portfolio, as many of their existing vacancies are 1,000 square feet or less and they continue to sit vacant,” he said. “The other concern we have is that this sets a potentially dangerous precedent for the entire Chestnut Hill commercial district as it could potentially encourage other owners when faced with commercial vacancy to seek additional conversion of commercial space, further increasing the already negative impact on fellow commercial property owners and business operators alike.”
Bowman said the smaller retail spaces would help the company find tenants.
“My client [is] in the business of having full occupancy or almost full occupancy,” said Bowman’s zoning attorney, Henry Clinton. “We don't want empty buildings.”