Germantown Community Connection, a local civic group, didn’t plan on being the only community group with Fresh Grocer CEO, and developer Pat Burns’ ear. “We really sort of fell into this,” said Betty Turner, GCC president.
Over 100 residents came out to the public discussion earlier this month about Fresh Grocer’s sudden closing at Chelten and Pulaski avenues. Now GCC has taken the wheel with their concerns and recommendations and the group is bringing them to Burns, who is both the driving force behind Fresh Grocer and the real estate firm that plans to fill the now vacant strip mall on Chelten with a Dollar Tree and a Save-A-Lot discount market.
To do this work, GCC members voted last week to create an ad hoc committee with the mission of negotiating with the developer and getting him to understand what the community wants to see at the Chelten Plaza site instead – higher quality stores.
“What’s worse, having a vacant space down there because the developer pulled out, or spend the time to work with them?” said Turner.
Community members have voiced a desire to follow the transit-oriented plan laid out for the area several years ago, since the site is within feet of the Chelten Avenue regional rail stop. GCC plans on presenting a new artist’s rendering of the site that depicts these ideas by early April.
“These decisions will really affect our future and in these economic times we need to think about what is best for the whole community in the long and short term,” said Turner.
Turner says the group wants to work with developers and businesses in Germantown, but only if those businesses are willing to communicate openly about their plans.
“We can win this,” said Irv Ackelsberg during the GCC board meeting March 24. Ackelsberg is feeling more hopeful now than he was two weeks ago, during the first meeting on the topic.
He found a zoning code overlay created by Donna Reed Miller in 2008 that prohibits general stores, and potentially a Dollar Tree, from being built along Chelten Avenue.
Up to now the assumption on all sides has been that the proposed strip mall project was a thoroughly by-right development, meaning zoning code did not require a variance to allow Burns’ plans. This might be why building permits for Chelten Plaza have already been approved.
However, it is unclear whether Licenses and Inspections knew about the zoning overlay at the time of the permit request. For Ackelsberg, that is a welcome ray of hope.
“It’s possible that if the Dollar Tree is illegal, the viability of the whole project is in question,” he said.
Environmental contamination concerns about the back parcel, where demolition is planned, is another possible leverage point to influence the project. The small building on Rittenhouse street would need to be demolished to make room for Burns’ Save-A-Lot, but that building used to be a gas station. GCC members wonder if the planned state funding for the project could be contingent on proper environmental remediation prior to renovating the site. That funding has been previously confirmed at $3 million by the office of Rep. Dwight Evans (D., Phila.) who originally backed the plan.
But time could be running out. A press release from Pulaski Partners LP, the development firm Burns represents, indicates a desire to complete work on the site by the fall.