A new organization forms to combat Chelten Plaza development

In the fight over a controversial state-subsidized development in Germantown, some residents in opposition to the project have created a virtual protest.

The website, GermantownCares.org, is run by a loose knit group unified by one idea – to stop the Chelten Plaza development at the corner of Chelten and Pulaski avenues. But some group members say their impetus to act was at least partly due to a sense that the organization entrusted with the community response to the project, Germantown Community Connection, was acting too slowly.

Rebels with a cause

Chelten Plaza is a plan of Pat Burns, the president of the supermarket chain Fresh Grocer, which has gained notoriety for locating many of its stores in urban neighborhoods where poor access to good food can be a major health issue. But a very vocal group of Germantown residents has opposed Burns’ plans at Chelten Plaza since the plans became public in February, chiefly because they feel it uses $3 million in state subsidy to intentionally locate low-end stores with limited selection in their neighborhood.

The anchor tenants planned for Chelten Plaza are a Save-A-Lot discount supermarket and a Dollar Tree.  Community members packed two meetings hosted by the non-profit Germantown Community Connection to discuss Chelten Plaza. In each meeting the opposition to the project was overwhelming.

After the meetings, in mid May, Germantown Community Connection voted to officially oppose the Chelten Plaza development but it has not yet announced any actions relating to that decision.

Most Germantown Cares contributors who were interviewed said they were frustrated with the pace of decision-making in Germantown Community Connection.

Numerous contributors attended those meetings and some are Germantown Community Connection members.

Yvonne Haskins, a GCC member and Germantown Cares contributor said in some cases GCC is too slow. “We wait a month or two for a vote, then another month before action,” she said.

At the same time she and others, acknowledged the work of GCC on Chelten Plaza so far, as well as other important community issues like the fate of the bankrupt social service and housing agency, Germantown Settlement. (GCC has been leading the charge against Settlement in the courts and is behind a pending motion to compel the testimony of Settlement chief Emanuel Freeman on the true material assets of the defunct network of organizations. See related story here.)

But to many Germantown Cares contributors the issue of Chelten Plaza is time sensitive because construction work is well underway.

Yvonne Haskins’ daughter, Kristin Haskins-Simms a local graphic designer created the Germantown Cares website. She says the group started as an email list-serve but ideas were getting too jumbled. Haskins-Simms says she helped create the Germantown Cares website because, like her mother, she was frustrated.

GCC president Betty Turner had only heard about Germantown Cares very recently and said the website “looks good.” She continued, “It’s a nicely done website. It seems to have archival information and [is] issue oriented.”

Turner declined to comment further on the subject.

Got to move it, move it

The Germantown Cares website offers space to comment like a blog and has links to news articles and press releases about Chelten Plaza. It is part news aggregator and part presenter of original content tackling individual facets of the Chelten Plaza plan.

For example, curious about if Trader Joe’s could come to Germantown? Robyn Tevah posted that she visited the Center City store and a manager there told her if Germantown residents call the company’s “location request number” everyday it could increase chances of attracting a Trader Joe’s to Chelten Plaza.

(Burns has said Trader Joe’s was not interested in opening at the development when his company pitched the idea. A Trader Joe’s spokesperson earlier declined to comment on the issue for NewsWorks.)

Tevah, also a GCC member, said she saw the new group as a way to respond to people’s need to do something about any issue they feel strongly about.

“Most people don’t know how to get involved,” she said in a recent interview, referring to Germantown Community Connection’s internal processes.

Tevah described Germantown Cares as “amorphous” and “non-hierarchical,” allowing individuals to work together without joining another bureaucratic organization.

At first glance Germantown Cares’ style seems a variation of citizen journalism, and most involved say they want to highlight balanced information on the site.

Luke Smith, a community activists and one of the contributors to the site, said everyone is encouraged to get involved, and by no means does he consider Germantown Cares to be in competition with existing organizations.

“It’s a place to learn, its meant to be a discussion,” he said. “not a creed.”

But Tevah and others are also clear the end goal is to stop the Chelten Plaza development cold, and eventually bring a better development to the location.


Click these links to visit Germantown Cares and Germantown Community Connection.


Correction: The original version of this article printed a comment from Kristin Haskins-Simms about her contact with GCC that was not true. NewsWorks regrets the error.

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