Subcommittee not designed to reach compromise on 30 W. Highland Ave.

by Beth Wright and Tim Breslin
Posted 4/14/21

We write on behalf of the 30 W. Highland Neighbors, a group of nearly 200 Chestnut Hill residents who are strongly opposed to the proposed development of eight townhomes, with five stories of livable space.

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Subcommittee not designed to reach compromise on 30 W. Highland Ave.

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We write on behalf of the 30 W. Highland Neighbors, a group of nearly 200 Chestnut Hill residents who are strongly opposed to the proposed development of eight townhomes, with five stories of livable space.

As currently designed, it is a townhome development turned sideways to fit a space that is not currently zoned for residential housing. With its face turned toward Kilian Hardware’s backside, it actively discourages interaction with the neighborhood.

Even with the offered compromise of a setback to align the W. Highland facade with those of the adjacent townhomes, it is our group’s majority opinion that the project is too much build for the site and neither compatible nor complementary to our location in the heart of our historic village. We believe that people walking on the adjacent sidewalk will feel overwhelmed by the structure. They will feel the coldness of a street-facing garage, rather than a welcoming front door. Those approaching the block from any distance will experience the development towering above all else.

Most neighbors approve of new development of residential homes but are looking to Chestnut Hill to be a leader in smart development that protects the overall environment and enhances quality of life — that takes advantage of the walk-ability of our area, rather than encouraging more cars and congestion. So far, we have heard no appropriate solutions to address serious traffic vs. pedestrian-safety (except that traffic signage will not be considered). We believe that deliveries, trash removal and guest parking will exacerbate congestion in the existing W. Highland Ave. loading zone, despite the owner’s contrary statement in his application for appeal to the Zoning Board of Adjustments.

According to the minutes of the February 16 Development Review Committee (DRC) meeting, the “hardship” cited by the architect and owner for their variance request is simply, “there is no zoning to support the residential use.”  Their only guaranteed benefit to the community is the development itself. Yes, they promise more trees and plantings, a new sewer system connection to Germantown Avenue (a requirement of the city), more eyes on the street and oddly, improved wildlife. However, the majority of trees and plantings will be heavily shaded and largely obstructed from community view by a wall. The eyes on the street won’t be facing the street and the improved water runoff is a requirement of doing business as much as a community benefit and not worth changing the entire character of the 100 block of W. Highland and, indeed the entire top of the Hill.

The benefit to the owner, however, is significant: a massive profit and a 10-year tax abatement.

Many of us reject the idea that the site’s existing historic building can’t be repurposed or better incorporated into the design if they build lower, build smaller, build fewer instead of higher, bigger and more to achieve maximum profit. Furthermore, the architect’s argument that the “bank building across the street is similar and a better example of that style of architecture” is ridiculous, at best.  Are two legs too many? Ten fingers an overabundance?  It is the aggregate of historic buildings — designated and contributing — in Chestnut Hill that creates its historic charm. Unfortunately, this is now a moot point since we have discovered that the owner received a demolition permit to raze the building even during DRC negotiations to find a way to preserve it.

Our community was led to believe that the formation of a DRC subcommittee would be a good-faith effort to achieve compromise. We recommended three individuals with highly relevant experience to represent us, yet when they presented our written comments to the owner and architect, they were rejected as “lies and propaganda.” Most egregious, our representatives were prohibited from reporting back to us anything about the meetings, under an implied threat of ending “negotiations.”

We decry the lack of communication and transparency. Far from engendering trust, the DRC approval process has felt like a futile exercise toward a predetermined outcome, with the only beneficiaries the architect and owner.

If you would like to join the 30 W. Highland Neighbors and voice your concerns about this project visit: 30westhighland.com/

Editor’s Note: The meeting referenced in the above commentary is a subcommittee formed of neighborhood representatives, the developers and CHCA committee members in the hopes that a series of working meetings can produce a compromise between developers and neighbors on 30 W. Highland Ave.

We asked the CHCA’s Celeste Hardester, who coordinates the Development Review and Land Use Planning and Zoning committees, to address the assertions made by Breslin and Wright that reporting on the committee’s deliberations would threaten the proceedings. Hardester confirmed that she had, by mistake, told neighbor representatives that the proceedings of subcommittee meetings should be confidential but that CHCA representatives said the neighbor reps were free to share anything that happened at the subcommittee meetings.

Hardester suggested the accusation that neighbor concerns were characterized as “lies and propaganda” was likely a misread of comments made during the meetings proceedings that she characterized as “sometimes contentious, but always direct.”

To see plans for the development, visit chestnuthill.org/rco_variance_projects_under_re.php

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