Too often, our culture obsesses over the present. What is now is all that matters.
Too often, our culture obsesses over the present. What is now is all that matters. And I am not talking about TikTok, selfies or pop culture, although media and technology incentivize general behavior choices of questionable long-term value.
What I am referring to is our relationship to the planet we occupy, and specifically the small corner of it we happen to call Chestnut Hill. The obsession with the present appears to be infecting decision-making with respect to land use changes that disavow our neighborhood’s past and imperil its future. Recently, proposals to develop imply that what is appropriate for Northern Liberties or Fishtown (wonderful neighborhoods, but ones also facing development pressures of their own) is just fine here, too. Hogwash. What is proposed at 30 West Highland might fit in quite well in some of our beloved downtown neighborhoods. It’s a swank multi-unit building. But have you seen the renderings? Elevator towers that top out at 47 feet above ground, and an overall mass that bears no relationship to its immediate neighbors, or Chestnut Hill at large. Two car garages for each unit, despite numerous amenities and public transportation within footsteps. Apparently zero stormwater retention. Nada on the solar panels.
Perhaps even more appalling are the proposals for the former Sunoco gas station (34 apartments in the size of a postage stamp) and a 250-unit soviet-era style apartment block on East Mermaid Lane.
What stitches these development proposals together? Not Chestnut Hill’s history or future. Just profit.
And while some landowners may naturally have only profit in mind — they don’t have to care about our neighborhood — it is our prerogative to challenge whether the proposals are sufficient. Equally important, it is our government that is supposed to represent us and to provide for thoughtful, careful planning decisions, not merely those that might generate more revenue for government. It is their job to reject each one of these proposals as currently envisioned because the owners are not within their rights under our zoning laws and because, boiled down, the projects are designed to extract personal profit from our community, not add value to it.
Are we at an inflection point here in Chestnut Hill, Philadelphia and the country at large in terms of how much denser we can develop? Maybe, maybe not. I suspect for the 100 plus years of Chestnut Hill’s existence, there have been tears shed over lost farmland, woodlands and meadows. But what is clear is that when our town was built, and during the decades since, when others took their hand at shaping the future, a balance of sorts was struck that is largely still reflected today. A pallet of housing and business that manifestly kept to a theme wholly absent in the current proposals — lots are not filled to the brim.
Is infill housing desirable, and can Chestnut Hill accommodate more residents and more revenue for the City’s coffers? Absolutely. But do we really have to throw away more than a century of thoughtful planning in the process? I think not.