Two Germantown dollar stores draw two different neighborhood reactions

Germantown will say hello to another dollar store next spring. The Zoning Board of Adjustment ruled in favor of a variance sought by developer Mark Nicoletti, and Philadelphia Suburban Development Corporation, last week.

The project, a Dollar General store on the 600 block of E. Chelten Ave. in East Germantown, is the second dollar-store project announced this year. The other is the Dollar Tree store in West Germantown’s under-construction Chelten Plaza.

Neighborhood reactions to the stores have proven to be quite different.

Chelten Plaza has been the source of ongoing friction between some neighbors and developer Pat Burns’ Pulaski Partners. In that case, a ZBA hearing involved protestors citing Councilwoman Donna Reed Miller’s zoning overlay that prohibits variety stores.

In East Germantown, however, the Chew-Chelten Avenue Business Association and Chew Belfield Neighbors Club were happy about the Dollar General project. They asked for design modifications and local jobs, but didn’t threaten a boycott.

Nicoletti’s variance sought to reduce the number of parking spots at the site, something that came up as a concern at a recent neighborhood meeting between the developer and neighbors.

Joan Hill, president of the Chew Chelten Avenue Business Association, wrote a letter to support the development, saying that it is welcomed in her community.

Hill said she expects that the developer will become a member of the business association. In a community benefits agreement, the developer promised more green spaces on the property. Hill said the vacant lot has been an eyesore for the past 13 years since the site housed a variety store and, previously, a gas station.

“The development is important because we haven’t had any in this area for 40 years, so for a developer to come in and build something that all the residential neighbors can go to and purchase something is good,” she said.

According to the city office of property assessment, Nicoletti owns nearly a dozen properties in East Germantown, many for more than a decade.

The cluster along the 300 block of E. Chelten Ave. includes a public assistance office, daycare center, vacant lots, parking lots and a beauty salon. He also owns the old Asher candy factory at the corner of Chelten and Germantown Avenue, a few more commercial spaces along Germantown Avenue and a homeless youth shelter on East Armat street.

However, not everyone wants to see another dollar store in Germantown. Luke Russell, president of West Central Germantown Neighbors (WCGN), said low-end retail stores — ranging from pay-as-you go cell phone stores, variety shops, sneaker retailers and beauty salons — are “parasitic” in poor neighborhoods.

“When there’s a desert, even an almost-dry fountain looks good,” he said about the Chew-Chelten Business Association support for the developer.

To battle what Russell sees as exploitative businesses, WGCN and other community groups plan to form a new umbrella organization as a “community development corporation” for Germantown. They plan to hold communitywide meetings soon, Russell said.

Hill countered that West Germantown might as well be another world than East Germantown, which needs to remain flexible to attract new businesses.

“The residents on that side of Germantown are so extremely different, you can’t even compare,” she said citing socioeconomic disparities as the primary neighborhood divide.

The planned Dollar General would be 9,100 square feet and permitted by Miller’s recent zoning-overlay amendment, which would allow variety stores over 7,500 square feet. That measure is up for City Council committee debate on Nov. 15.

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