Charter-school expansion plans, supermarket appeal the focus of Chew and Washington development meeting

Two plans that would transform the area around Chew Avenue and Washington Lane are now in the works, though neither is yet guaranteed.

At 815 E. Washington Lane, an offshoot of Mt. Airy USA plans to build a school that would serve as a second campus of the Wissahickon Charter School.

Mt. Airy Transit Village, originally formed to bring a transit-oriented retail and residential project to that spot, will develop the site in partnership with the school.

Wissahickon Charter’s co-CEOs Jamal Elliott and Kristi Littell said the school plans to put a second facility for kindergarten through eighth grade at the new site. The environmentally-focused Wissahickon Charter has permission to grow to 960 students, though the new school would bring enrollment to a projected 922, Elliott said.

School officials explain

In an interview, Elliott and Littell said the school’s expansion was inspired by the availability of this site, which sits alongside the Awbury Arboretum. Having two smaller buildings rather than one large campus will help maintain a sense of community among families, students and staff.

“The smaller you are, the more you are able to keep that feel,” Elliott said.

The school will have about 80 employees, including ones who will work between the new campus and the school’s original site at 4700 Wissahickon Ave., near Fern Hill Park in a former radio factory building now adorned with murals and other art. Its enrollment for the current school year is 426 students.

Can director serve as attorney?

The zoning board heard the application, but didn’t vote because of a question over whether Anuj Gupta, MAUSA’s executive director, could also represent Mt. Airy Transit Village.

The zoning board requires non-profits to have a lawyer present their applications to the board, and ZBA chairwoman Lynette Brown-Sow said she wasn’t sure if Gupta could serve as both Mt. Airy Transit Village’s executive director and its lawyer.

The board will research the issue and likely vote on the variance request on Tuesday, Brown-Sow said. The site is currently zoned for industrial use, and Mt. Airy Transit Village is seeking a use variance to build the school.

Changing visions

MAUSA bought the property in 2008, when plans for the Mt. Airy Transit Village included a vision for 200 residential units and 20,000 square feet of retail in a pedestrian-friendly, transit-oriented development keyed to the Washington Lane SEPTA station across the street.

The school’s plans call for a two-story school building with offices, cafeteria, gymnasium and 24 parking spaces, with outdoor learning areas all around.

Gupta presented the board with letters of support from Eighth District City Councilwoman Cindy Bass, state Rep. Stephen Kinsey, the Philadelphia Industrial Development Corp. and five community groups. Support also came from the Awbury Arboretum Association.

Those community groups could benefit from the school’s presence, Gupta said, by making use of a first-floor media center and cafeteria that will be available for use by civic groups, and on Election Day.

Board member Greg Pastore asked why the school was only including 24 parking spots. Littell said many of the school’s staff share a focus on the environment and bike, walk or take public transit to work each day.

Supermarket appeal

On the parcel next door, at the corner of Chew and Washington, a neighborhood businessman and his wife have appealed a zoning board ruling from November to allow a Bottom Dollar Food supermarket on the corner.

Raymond Wood and Rosalind Plummer filed a notice of appeal on Dec. 12 in Common Pleas Court, though no hearing is yet scheduled.

Developer Richard Soloff plans an 18,000 square-foot grocery store with 62 parking spots, a plan that was welcomed by many at several public meetings.

Wood and Plummer appeared at the ZBA meeting when the food store was approved, saying they had concerns about contamination at the site because of its former use as an oil company.

Peter Kelsen, the attorney representing the Bottom Dollar’s developer, said the plan had received environmental clearances for the site and for its stormwater-management plan.

“We are concerned, and it certainly is something we’re going to watch and defend vigorously,” he said of the appeal.

Community notification

In speaking out against the supermarket plan, Wood has also said the community hadn’t been adequately notified about meetings on the Bottom Dollar plan, though it was the topic of at least three public gatherings before the zoning board.

Rev. Chester Williams, the president of the Chew and Belfield Neighbors Club who came to the ZBA meeting to support the Wissahickon Charter School, said he was surprised and slightly mystified by the appeal on the Bottom Dollar site.

Since hearing of the appeal, Williams said he re-surveyed the neighbors around the site, gathering new letters of support for the grocery store.

“We really pray something comes through,” he said.

NewsWorks has partnered with independent news gatherer PlanPhilly to provide regular, in-depth, timely coverage of planning, zoning and development news. Contact Amy Z. Quinn at azquinn@planphilly.com.

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