Councilwoman’s move would fast-track Chelten Plaza plan

    After months of protests and public hearings on the Chelten Plaza controversy in Germantown, a move by Councilwoman Donna Reed Miller could short-circuit the zoning appeal at the heart of the issue.

    The councilwoman introduced a bill Thursday that would change the zoning overlay covering the area around Chelten and Pulaski avenues. It’s an addition of only a few words that would, in effect, allow the controversial Dollar Tree store to go into the shopping center “by right,” a zoning term that means no variance would be needed.

    Where the zoning overlay now prohibits all variety and general merchandise stores, the new language would ban only those under 7,500 square feet. The Dollar Tree space at Chelten Plaza is about 10,000 square feet.

    William Nesheiwat, Miller’s legislative director, said the overlay needed clarification to help it accomplish its original intent of attracting stable, quality retailers to Germantown. And while he acknowledged it would effectively allow Chelten Plaza developer Pat Burns’ plan to go forward, he denied the amendment was written specifically for Burns’ benefit.

    “The intent of the overlay was to prohibit these little, low-end stores that set up in small storefronts and sell junk. They were becoming an eyesore to the community and really feeding off each other,” he said. “Here we have a legitimate developer who’s here with a plan and says, ‘I’ve got the backers, I’ve got the financing, I’ve got tenants.'”

    Burns previously operated a Fresh Grocer supermarket on the site, and owns several others in the area. Also planned for Chelten Plaza is a Save-A-Lot grocery store, an Anna’s Linens and a handful of other retail spaces.

    Critics of Burns’ plan, who brought their disapproval to last week’s zoning board hearing in force, accused the councilwoman of selling the community out to benefit Burns.

    “This was something done directly in response to a developer who was putting something in that he wasn’t allowed to do,” said attorney Yvonne Haskins, who filed the zoning appeal on behalf of coalition of neighbors and local civic groups. She said Miller has a history of sponsoring legislation to suit developers, regardless of neighbors’ feelings. Zoning, she said, is supposed to be about controlling development fairly.

    “It’s not supposed to be accommodating somebody,” she said.

    Attorney Carl Primavera, who argued to the zoning board that Dollar Tree is actually a small grocery store and shouldn’t have been regulated by the overlay at all, welcomed the bill.

    “The real issue is whether or not the Dollar Tree is a good tenant in the shopping center,” he said. “It certainly is and they are similarly situated in all of the best neighborhoods in the city and the suburbs. The small storefronts, which were run by non-credit tenants as so-called ‘dollar stores,’ are the stores which the overlay was intended to control.”

    The bill now moves into City Council committees for discussion, and would require a second public reading and at least one public hearing before it can become law. But if Council acts before the zoning board does, it would remove what appears to be the only legal roadblock to 
Burns’ plans for Chelten Plaza.

    Haskins said she still wants a zoning board decision on the permit case, but was also going to seek a ruling from the city’s Law Department on whether Miller’s amendment would amount to discriminatory spot zoning.

    “There’s a serious question of motive here, of intent,” she said.

    Haskins promised protesters would follow the bill’s progress through council committees, attending hearings and continuing to make their opposition known. Chelten Plaza opponents are already furious with Mayor Nutter for his official endorsement of the development, through a Sept. 2 letter from his office endorsing Burns’ application for state funding for the project.

    On the larger issue of the overall quality of retailer Chelten Plaza would bring, Nesheiwat said there’s only so much that zoning –or the councilwoman herself – can do. He said in his evaluation, the issue “is really being twisted into her somehow trying to make someone a deal.” The intent, of the overlay and the proposed change, haven’t changed, he said.

    “We want the high-end grocery stores, too, but we cannot force businesses to come,” Nesheiwat said.

    Contact Amy Z. Quinn at azquinn@planphilly.com

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