In Chestnut Hill, there are historic properties, and then there a properties that have a history.
The multi-tenant commercial building at 18 W. Willow Grove Ave. is the latter: The first-floor storefront portion was formerly the home of the ill-fated Good Food Market, a short-lived grocery store that some say was pressured out of business by a few disgruntled neighbors.
Currently home to a pop-up boutique, there are new directions in the offiing, as the owners of Balance Chestnut Hill plan to move their yoga and fitness studio to the Willow Grove Avenue site from their current spot at 5 E. Highland Ave.
Under current zoning regulations, the plan would require a use variance to allow the gym in the building, but there was little to suggest controversy. In recent weeks, Andrew Eisenstein, the local developer whose company owns the building, appeared with Balance’s owners at several meetings before the Chestnut Hill Community Association to detail the plans. Eisenstein sought — and received — votes of approval on the variance request from three CHCA committees: Development Review, Land Use Planning and Zoning, and Traffic and Transit committee.
It seemed like smooth sailing until late last week, when the CHCA’s board of directors met to vote on the group’s official position on the variance request. While the decisions aren’t the last legal word, support or opposition from the local civic group figures heavily into zoning board decision-making.
Then Richard Snowden, Chestnut Hill’s most powerful landlord, spoke up. And before you could say “namaste,” the board had decided instead to put off action on the yoga studio. They didn’t vote against it, they voted not to take a position — a move that left Eisenstein wondering what comes next.
The variance application is now scheduled to come before the zoning board on April 18. Eisenstein said he’s prepared to go with or without an official nod from the overall CHCA board.
“I followed their process,” Eisenstein said in an interview this week. “They’re not following their own process. Our expectation now is to go to zoning and try to get the variance.”
The issue isn’t with the Balance yoga studio, or about its potential effect on the neighborhood, but with a driveway off Germantown Avenue through which the rear portion of Eisenstein’s building is reached. The driveway cuts between two properties owned by Snowden’s Bowman Properties, and abuts another, while providing access to the Senior Care adult day-care center that takes up the south portion of Eisenstein’s property.
It’s a narrow driveway and a small courtyard, and the SEPTA mini-buses that come in and out sometimes have trouble navigating the tight turn-around space. There is visible damage to some railings and bumper posts that Eisenstein installed to protect the buildings.
Eisenstein said he and Snowden had discussed, over several months, creating a better method to address the damage. A few hours before the CHCA board meeting, Eisenstein said he received an email from Snowden with a new agreement between Bowman and Iron Stone, Eisenstein’s company, on the driveway and bus damage issue.
It asks Iron Stone to make a one-time payment of $18,000 to cover past damages, to remove some trees to widen the turnaround space, and have Iron Stone pledge to pay for any future repairs.
“He never really asked for anything specific before 4:30 in the afternoon before the CHCA meeting,” Eisenstein said in an interview at the site this week.
The Chestnut Hill Local reported Snowden was specific in saying it “isn’t a Balance issue,” but wanted a formal agreement on the driveway issue in place before the CHCA board voted. They agreed, after some discussion and with Jane Piotrowski, the board’s president, breaking an 11-11 tie in favor of holding off on a vote on a Balance vote.
Piotrowski declined to discuss the issue in detail, but said she’s hopeful the issue will be worked out. Snowden’s office asked for a list of written questions for this story, but has so far not responded to them.