Big turnout in Germantown to oppose state-backed development

It was standing room only at First Presbyterian Church in Germantown Thursday night as over 100 concerned residents flooded the Germantown Community Connection board meeting to discuss the recent Fresh Grocer closing at Chelten and Pulaski avenues.

Tensions were high as the story unfolded of state loans left unpaid at the closed store and plans for $3 million in taxpayer subsidy already slated for the new development set to go on the site – a development that no one in the neighborhood ever had input on and that no one in the room seemed to want.

Skewed vision

An artistic rendering of the planned Chelten Plaza provided by developer Patrick Burns lead to immediate complaints.

“This plan is insulting,” said resident Loretta Whit. “To come into the community with such low expectations and to hear this is basically a done deal is really hard for me.”

Others felt even worse.

“As soon as I saw the rendering [for Chelten Plaza] I was sick to my stomach because all that state funding is presented in something that looks like it was done lickety split,” said Megan Fitzpatrick, an architect and GCC member.

“It barely reflects the Victorian style homes in the neighborhood nor the people of Germantown,” she added.

Members of Germantown Community Connection recently met with Burns to express the neighborhood’s concerns about the plan, but left feeling there was little they could do. The project appears to have been accepted by the city as a ‘by right’ development, meaning it does not call for a zoning variance and so requires no community approval.

And during his meeting with GCC members Burns seemed inflexible about the two anchor stores,  according to Irv Ackelsberg who attended the meeting. Those anchors are a discount grocery chain store called Save-A-Lot that would be about half the size of the Fresh Grocer that left, and a large Dollar Tree that would sit close to Chelten Avenue.

Save-A-Lot already operates in the neighborhood about two blocks away on Wayne. The expected plan is to close that store and open the new one at Chelten Plaza. Neither Burns nor representatives from Save-A-Lot, nor of Burns’ development firm, Pulaski Partners, which owns the lot have responded to requests for comment.

It is unclear whether the existing Dollar General on Wayne will continue to operate after the new Dollar Tree is opened at Chelten Plaza.

Wanted: something more up market

Many residents want to find a way to turn the development in a new direction.

As a counter proposal, local architects and those with city planning experience are going to draft a new project rendering in line with the transit oriented development plan, which Germantown residents and the City Planning Commission laid out for this area in 2006 – and for which this vary parcel was rezoned last year.

“This is the most wasteful use of space in Germantown,” said Jim Foster, publisher of Germantown Newspapers. “This lot is five feet away from a train station and their plan is clueless to that reality.”

More aggressive responses included resident Zendora Armstrong’s suggestion to take the issue to the streets. “I think we should camp out in that parking lot until this developer deals with us, I’m ready to go out there tomorrow,” she said.

More forceful still was state Representative Rosita Youngblood’s (D., 198th) desire to sue Burns.

“I will talk to the secretary of zoning to file a lawsuit in Common Pleas Court to try and sort this out,“ she said.

Youngblood believes that even though the proposed development appears to fit under existing zoning laws, the community still should have been notified about the new plans, especially given the heavy taxpayer subsidy set out for the project.

Youngblood has also threatened to do what she can to hold up or stop the state subsidy for the project in Harrisburg.

The $3 million in public funds for the project were directed to Burns through former House Appropriations Chair Dwight Evans (D., 203rd). Last week Democratic Chair of the House Appropriations Committee Joseph Markosek (Allegheny) said the funding was on hold by Gov. Tom Corbett, but Corbett recently approved some of this money, according to the Philadelphia Daily News. It’s not yet clear if that approval includes the money slated for Burns.

No one at the community meeting objected to potentially losing this funding for a Germantown development if it meant keeping Chelten Plaza out. Some even seemed to look forward to it.

“We may have unfamiliar friends in Harrisburg,” resident Connie Bille said.

A new possibility

GCC President Betty Turner brought up another potential handle that residents may have on the project. She reminded the audience of a somewhat obscure zoning overlay added to the area by Eighth District City Councilwoman Donna Reed Miller in 2008, which prohibits among other things, variety stores on lots that abut Chelten Avenue.

It is not yet clear whether this prohibition would apply to the Dollar Tree.

In general, residents at the meeting were looking for higher end stores than Burns is proposing for Chelten Plaza. The specialty retail store Trader Joe’s was one suggestion. Another harkened to the 2010 accolades Burns and Fresh Grocer received from First Lady Michelle Obama for opening new full service markets elsewhere in city neighborhoods, including East Germantown.

“High quality fruits and vegetables,” said Aqkhira Corinaldi, co owner of The Nile Cafe along the 6800 block of Germantown Ave. “I understand the focus of the Sav-a-Lot is going to be a large fresh meat counter but I’m a vegetarian and with gas prices going up to $4 a gallon it’s getting more expensive to drive all the way into Center City Whole Foods or to the suburbs just for some fresh food.”

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