City Council committee approves zoning changes, sends Magarity project to Council

Three bills that would clear the way for developer Richard Snowden’s $30 million mixed-use development on Germantown Avenue are headed for a City Council vote, as talks continue with Chestnut Hill neighbors.

Council committees on Tuesday and Wednesday voted to move along the three measures, sponsored by Councilwoman Donna Reed-Miller, that would change the zoning on 8200 Germantown Ave. and reverse traffic direction on a block of Hartwell Lane.

The bills will likely come for a vote at Council’s Dec. 15 meeting.

Before that, the Chestnut Hill Community Association and the city Planning Commission will both likely weigh in, after months of meetings and ongoing negotiations over the size, density and design of the project. The CHCA’s board will vote at a special Dec. 12 meeting, and planners will likely vote the next day.

The opposition

While many in Chestnut Hill, including those who testified before the Rules committee on Wednesday, have said they support a mixed-use development at the site to attract both new businesses and residents to support them, there is a strong current of opposition to both the plan and Snowden’s method of making it happen.

Some of the criticism focuses on the height, density and design of the project — opponents, including some architects and planners who live in the neighborhood, say it’s too tall and too densely-packed for the otherwise low-key Chestnut Hill commercial district.

Others have said Snowden is looking to circumvent opponents, and what could be a messy series of zoning board hearings, by seeking instead to have laws changed. They’ve accused Miller, who attended the meeting but did not speak, of spot zoning to suit one developer. 

While talks are ongoing — CHCA president Jane Piotrowski said there will be four more meetings between the community and Bowman before the Council vote — some opponents say Snowden’s influence in the CHCA and local business groups give him too much influence.

“It’s a one-sided process, and it’s unfair,” said Terry Halbert, a Southampton Avenue resident who has gathered more than 1,800 signatures against the plan.

“What you oppose as spot zoning is permitted by the City Charter,” Councilman Jim Kenney said, noting that many of the signatures on the petition were from people who don’t live in Chestnut Hill. “If there’s a community association, if there’s a representative body, how do we discount that?”

Daniel McElhatten, lawyer and former Councilman hired by several near neighbors opposed to the project, suggested neighbors may sue.

“They made a choice — the choice was not to seek variances, to not seek approval from the zoning board,” said McElhatten. “This is picking out one parcel for the benefit of one developer.”

Plans for the mixed-use development 

Snowden’s plan would take the 2.1-acre site, empty since the Magarity Ford dealership closed, and change it to a three-part retail and commercial development. Along Germantown Avenue, shops and restaurant would be topped by either five or six stories of condos, depending on the outcome of talks with a CHCA committee.

At the rear of the site, the plan calls for a row of townhouses fronting Pastorious Park. In the center of the parcel, Bowman plans a 20,000 square foot Fresh Market grocery store, accessed by a short lane off Germantown Avenue.

One of the plan’s most vocal critics has been the Weaver’s Way food co-op, which once tried to buy the property and has urged its members to speak out against the plan. General Manager Glenn Bergman testified that Fresh Market isn’t committed to local products and employee benefits like Weaver’s Way.

“Why build another 30,000 square feet of retail there when there are properties already empty along the avenue?” he said.

Weaver’s Way itself faced criticism from two neighbors who said while they have shopped at the co-op, they were bothered by the group’s seeming fear of competing businesses. They weren’t alone in their concern.

“I guess I have a little trouble with opposition based on competition,” said Councilman William Greenlee. “Isn’t that kind of the American way?”

Contact Amy Z. Quinn at azquinn@planphilly.com.

Amy Z. Quinn was tweeting live updates throughout Wednesday’s Rules Committee meeting at Philadelphia City Hall.  Watch the meeting unfold here:

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