President George Washington had a “summer White House” on Germantown Avenue. What would he make of a five-story, 148-unit apartment building across the street?
The intersection of Germantown Avenue and Church Lane in Germantown has a long history. Half-acre market square dates to the early 1700s, when colonists traded wares. By the end of that century, President George Washington would have gazed upon it as he stepped out from his “summer White House” across the street.
Today, the view includes buildings and businesses added in the centuries since: a Civil War monument, a Presbyterian church, the Germantown Historical Society, and Uncle Bobbie’s Coffee & Books. But what would President Washington make of a five-story, 148-unit apartment building?
The proposal of such a building, located at 42-68 Church Lane about half a block from Germantown Avenue, has drawn the ire of scores of local residents during two community meetings held in recent months. It's also a quintessential example of the kind of development feeding a growing anxiety among area residents about the future of development in Northwest Philadelphia.
What are these neighborhoods going to look like in the future: the historic buildings and leafy streets that have long been their main attraction, or something more like the “hip” neighborhoods of Center City, with their taller buildings and higher density? And just who is supposed to live in these newly proposed apartments and condos, and with limited parking, how are they supposed to get around?
“There’s a lot of concern about gentrification in Germantown,” said Rashida Ng, a Germantown resident and associate professor of architecture at the University of Pennsylvania’s Stuart Weitzman School of Design. “Based on my knowledge of the demographics around the area, I’d say there’s no evidence that [the Church Lane] developer is looking to serve the needs of existing residents.”
With all these questions yet to be answered, Church Lane is poised to be either a harbinger of things to come or the place where the rise of dense development finally hits a ceiling.
If Yvonne Haskins is successful, the proposed Church Lane building will never see the light of day.
The longtime community activist and attorney says she is now representing “near neighbors” who are fighting the proposal. First, about 100 residents turned out at an official Registered Community Organization meeting April 26. Then, another 75 showed up at a community meeting held May 25, Haskins said.
As currently proposed by developer Olympia Holdings, the five-story building would contain 135 two-bedroom and 13 one-bedroom units, a gym, and a 74-car parking garage on the ground floor. That has drawn concern from residents who say it would tower over the neighborhood, literally cast shade on nearby residents and add to traffic and parking concerns.
With developer Chagai Bader telling attendees of the April meeting that rents for the one-bedroom units would be priced at up to $1,200 a month and two-bedrooms, $1,600, residents have also raised concerns about affordability.
For Haskins, the problems extend to the neighborhood’s existing character.
“People were basically interested in how we can fight it,” Haskins said. “There’s significance here, for anyone who cares about history and preservation.”
Haskins said the next steps are an official community vote on the proposal scheduled for a June 14 RCO meeting, followed by a city Zoning Board of Adjustment hearing August 9. The parcel is currently zoned industrial so developers need approval for a variance.
Chagai, listed alongside Eliyahu Kantrovitz as Olympia Holding principals on state business filings, did not respond to a request for comment from The Local about whether the company has modified the proposal since the April meeting, when Chagai suggested they would consider reducing its size.
The master plan
The parameters of the Church Lane proposal actually appear to be appropriate when viewed through the lens of some city planning documents – which suggests that the city and local residents may have potentially competing visions for Central Germantown.
As part of a Philadelphia 2035 comprehensive planning initiative, the city’s Planning Commission released a district plan for the Upper Northwest in 2018 and an update in 2022. Among the stated goals is to “direct multifamily housing development to commercial streets and train stations to increase the number of people using public transportation.”
In addition, the 2018 report identified the Germantown Station regional rail stop as a key improvement area. Currently located at Chelten and Baynton Avenues, that stop is about a 10-minute walk from the proposed location of the Church Lane development. But the 2018 document also proposes moving the rail stop slightly east to the intersection of Church and Baynton, which would place it just down the block from the proposed development.
Planning Commission spokesperson Bruce Bohri said the city’s plan generally calls “for greater density along Germantown Ave and near transit stations.”
But that plan does not outline specifics about the proposed Church Lane parcel, or its block, he said – adding that a potential rezoning to residential would come with its own restrictions on development such as “setbacks, lot sizes, and dimensions.”
The city’s 2022 update acknowledged that the development of Germantown Avenue is accelerating and said the Planning Commission is pursuing a strategy to “help manage growth.” That includes new nominations of historic buildings and a zoning overlay to “promote good design and require off-street parking for large residential developments.”
Asked specifically whether the Church Lane proposal adheres to the Planning Commission’s vision for the area of adding density near transit, Bohri declined to answer, saying it was too early and that any input at this stage would be “based on just a preliminary review and incomplete information.”
Bass a “No.”
Local opposition seems to be growing, including the most powerful individual when it comes to zoning: 8th District City Councilmember Cindy Bass.
Fresh off a campaign during which opponents attacked Bass for a perceived closeness with developers, the councilwoman confirmed she is in fact opposed to the Church Lane proposal in a written statement to The Local.
“The neighbors who live near the proposed project… have told me and the RCO that they feel the building plan, as presented, is too dense and overwhelms the streetscape,” Bass said. “As always, I will follow the wishes of those in our community who would be most affected. Therefore, I will not support the proposal in its current iteration.”
Both Haskins and Ng said they suspect the proposal will ultimately fail, at least as currently envisioned. Haskins said she doesn’t believe the community is opposed to any redevelopment of the parcel: townhouses in line with the existing character of the neighborhood would be acceptable, she said.
And for Ng, who says she understands the inherent planning value of increasing density near transit and commercial corridors, the proposal as it stands seems to be too much. There’s no mixed-use commercial, no affordable units, no proposed neighborhood amenities, and nothing that would actually improve public transportation in the area, she said. In short, nothing of benefit for anyone who actually already lives in Germantown.
And that, she said, may ultimately be the determining factor for whether projects like these should get built.
“Is this really truly serving all Philadelphians? Is it even serving the neighborhood?” Ng said. “You’re asking a lot of residents because it changes the character… it’s transforming what it feels like just to walk down the block.”