Controversial Germantown zoning amendment heads to City Council

A controversial proposed Germantown zoning amendment will go before City Council without the support of the Planning Commission, which voted against recommending the measure.

The commission met Tuesday on a lengthy agenda, which included consideration of Councilwoman Donna Reed Miller’s bill to allow some new variety stores within a zoning overlay that covers Germantown’s commercial core. The change would allow variety stores above 7,500 square feet in an effort, the councilwoman’s office has said, to discourage small, lower-quality junk stores.

Planning staff advised against the measure which, if approved by Council, would end a neighborhood challenge to developer Pat Burns’ plans for a Dollar Tree store at Chelten Plaza.

“This subverts a process that’s been going on for a number of months,” planner Martin Gregorski said in his presentation to commissioners. He noted the ongoing zoning permit issue between Burns and neighborhood opponents who are challenging his plans for a Save a Lot supermarket, a Dollar Tree and other retail stores at 301 W. Chelten Ave.

Commission members seemed to struggle with the issue, too.

Greenberger said the controversy around this development “kept me up a lot last night thinking about this.” He brought up a host of related issues that the commission needs to study more closely.

Commission members noted that discount retailers can start out seeming to fill a need for reasonably-priced goods but touch off a ripple effect that eventually depresses the entire area, and urged the developer to hold out for something better.

The commission voted unanimously to advise against the amendment, but as Greenberger noted, it is equally likely Council will consider the local council member’s wishes first.

This Dollar Tree and the questions around it “caused us to really think through a whole series of issues related to retail that we don’t have a good answer for yet, and I’m not even sure where this story ends,” he said. “We’re seeing supermarkets feeling the competition from variety general stores … who are adding food to their retinue of sales.”

Neighborhood activists oppose the amendment, and Burns’ plan in general, saying they want better retail development to keep more Germantown residents from having to travel to other parts of the city, or nearby suburban retail centers, for grocery shopping.

Yvonne Haskins, the lawyer who filed the zoning appeal on behalf of neighbors, argued that if the retail offerings in Germantown’s historic shopping district are geared entirely toward lower-income bargain shoppers, then others aren’t being served.

“Right now it is serving poor black residents from the east side of Germantown — everybody says the east side of Germantown is supporting that business district,” Haskins said. “All of the middle-income residents, and a lot of the low-income residents, go outside of Germantown to shop for their food, for their bakery, for their sneakers, for ordinary things.”

Carl Primavera, Burns’ lawyer, talked about Dollar Tree’s recent success and the rising value of its stock, as consumers of all classes are driven to deals by the economy. He said the overlay, while well-intended, could hold Germantown back.

“Let’s get out of our own way and let’s see something good happen here, and let’s not get caught up into what was a good idea in preventing these stores on a small scale,” he said.

The bill is awaiting a hearing before the council’s Rules Committee.

Contact Amy Quinn at Plan Philly zoning reporter Jared Brey contributed to this report.

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