Locals seeking to protect Hill's business district

by Tom Beck
Posted 9/6/23

Stakeholders in the Chestnut Hill community have been quietly working on a plan to manage the density that inevitably will come here.

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Locals seeking to protect Hill's business district


The city’s Philadelphia 2035 plan was created by the Philadelphia City Planning Commission to guide growth, development, and investment in the city, and as its been implemented, Philadelphia residents have seen more developments with increased density, especially near transit stations, constructed all over the city. 

That density has yet to truly come to Chestnut Hill. But given what’s allowed under the current zoning code, it could.

For that reason, stakeholders in the Chestnut Hill community have been quietly working on a plan over the past 10 months to manage the density that inevitably will come by creating a development overlay for the community’s Germantown Avenue business district that would preserve the corridor’s village-like and pedestrian-friendly character. 

“In general the idea of this overlay is to have tools in place to more effectively manage the development and evolution and preservation of the good character we have on Germantown Avenue,” said Larry McEwan, who is part of the subcomittee working on a draft of the overlay. 

The plan has yet to be finalized and no specific details have been decided on, but the hope, according to Landis, is to have a draft of the overlay submitted to the city sometime this Fall. 

The subcommittee tasked with creating the overlay is “still wrestling with a lot of the issues that the overlay entails,” said another one of its members, Richard Snowden, who is also the most prominent commercial landowner in the business district. “It’s not yet time to comment on particulars until full review of all organizations is complete.”

Those organizations include the Chestnut Hill Business Association, the Chestnut Hill Community Association and the Chestnut Hill Conservancy.

“We as the three organizations want to make sure that we have a say in what we would like to see so the city doesn’t come in and say ‘this is how we want to see Chestnut Hill zoned’,” said the business association’s executive director, Courtney O’Neill.

In a survey the Chestnut Hill Conservancy conducted recently, residents were asked what they most loved about Chestnut Hill. Germantown Avenue, the organization’s executive director Lori Salganicoff said, was the most mentioned aspect of the neighborhood.

“There are a lot of reasons why Germantown Avenue is a unique and special place,” Salganicoff said, citing the commercial corridor’s variety in architectural styles, confluence of ‘mom and pop’ stores and its trash receptacles, which are clean and well-maintained. “But we can’t expect that they’ll always be there. We want to encourage growth but also maintain this character that people love.”

The community association’s executive director, Anne McNiff, agreed. 

“The goal is an overlay that can help protect the character defining aspects of our commercial corridor, including historical buildings and other features that are important to the community,” she said.

John Landis, another member of the subcommittee working on the overlay, told the Local that in 2012, the city “liberalized” its zoning code, making it, in his opinion, “too easy” to develop in many Philadelphia neighborhoods. In some ways, the new overlay is designed to counteract that. The new code has led to proposals like the one on 10 Bethlehem Pike, something many in the community, including Landis, have criticized for being too dense for the neighborhood – especially when you consider the lack of parking included in the proposal, which includes only nine parking spaces for 33 residential units.

Landis, along with McEwan, is a co-chair of the Chestnut Hill Community Association’s Development Review Committee. 

“Part of the 10 Bethlehem Pike controversy is that it’s close to SEPTA station,” Landis said. “The city said the developer could develop with very few parking spaces and most of us felt the city was letting the developer get away with too little parking.”

McEwan said the parking issue was “tough.” What’s making it even more difficult, he said, is the city’s push towards transit-oriented development, which is the idea that residential development proposals can sacrifice parking spaces in favor of more units when they’re in proximity to one or more public transit stations.

“All of Germantown Avenue would be considered by the city an area that favors transit-oriented development,” said McEwan. “But the reality that people see when they come to zoning meetings on these projects, the concern is about all these renters would be parking on adjacent side streets,” he said. “We wrestle with that part of it.”

As a result of the zoning code’s liberalization, Landis said, overlays have become a popular way for neighborhoods to get more control over what gets built within their boundaries.

“Lots of neighborhoods have been putting in overlays that restrict lots of things,” said Landis. “But that’s not what we’re trying to do in Chestnut Hill. Instead, we’re trying to create clarity and transparency about the different types of developments that should be encouraged or discouraged and also preserve the village-like form of Germantown Avenue.”

For instance, there’s a zoning overlay in Rittenhouse that bans student housing. There’s another overlay that covers parts of North, West and Northeast Philadelphia that mandates affordable housing be included in parts of new large residential projects in neighborhoods where some residents are being priced out.

In addition to trying to manage new development, Landis said the team that is developing the overlay proposal would also like to find ways that give the community more notice when buildings get demolished. As the zoning code stands, property owners can demolish buildings and replace them with whatever’s allowable under the zoning code without input from the community, as long as the building isn’t on the city’s historic register.

“That potential exists in many places in Chestnut Hill,” Landis said. 

An example of this happening, Landis said, is the now demolished building behind Edward Jones on Germantown Avenue’s 8600 block, between East Evergreen Street and Bethlehem Pike. An apartment building is currently being constructed in its place. 

"That was a house that was demoed one day without anybody knowing what would go in there, and everybody was surprised,” Landis said. “They didn’t have to let anybody know.”

The groundwork for the Germantown Avenue Overlay initially started being laid after failed attempts to enact a separate overlay that would make it easier for property owners to rent their ground floor retail and commercial spaces for residential use, something that “did not have a very favorable response from the business community,” Landis said. “So we decided to stop thinking about that as a partial approach and instead revitalize the Germantown Avenue Overlay.”

In the meantime, the subcommittee is evaluating overlays in other Philadelphia neighborhoods to gather evidence and determine what they think is best for Chestnut Hill. 

“We’re still figuring out what makes the most sense,” Salganicoff said, adding that if development followed the city’s current zoning, it could significantly change the character of the avenue. 

“We don’t want development stopped,” she said, “but we do want to encourage a future that maintains our main street character.”