Developer shows little flexibility on Chelten Plaza

The developer of the tax-payer subsidized Chelten Plaza indicated to community members in Germantown yesterday that he is not willing to change much of his plan, despite apparent zoning restrictions, a violation of environmental law, and heavy community opposition.

Good meeting, little progress

“It’s not like they’re backing off at all in what they’re doing,” said Irv Ackelsberg, who was at the private meeting as a member of Germantown Community Connection. Ackelsberg, an attorney, took some of that impression from the presence of Carl Primavera, one of the city’s top zoning lawyers, on the side of developer Pat Burns.

The strip mall at the corner of Chelten and Pulaski avenues, which is now vacant after Burns’ company, Fresh Grocer, left the site abruptly last month, is subject to a zoning restriction on variety stores. This would seem to apply to the Dollar Tree workers have started to prepare on the tax-payer subsidized project recently, but Ackelsberg didn’t get the impression that mattered to Burns.

“Bringing in the zoning heavyweight of the city, it says to me you’re going to stand and fight for the Dollar Tree,” Ackelsberg said.

Pat Burns and other representatives from the development firm did not respond to requests for comment.

The environmental angle

Meanwhile, in the rear of the site, where Burns wants to build a new Save-A-Lot discount supermarket, environmental damage from a gas station that used to sit there puts the lot in violation of state law, according to the Department of Environmental Protection. The DEP last week sent a notice to Burns’ company to get into compliance.

Four old gas tanks were removed from the lot in 2006 and an environmental study showed a “fairly mild contamination” of ground water beneath the site by the gasoline additive MTBE, according to DEP spokesperson Debra Fries.

The owner then, Fresh Grocer, agreed to monitor the ground water under the site for two years to make certain the contamination was not dangerous, but it never did that, Fries said. In 2008 the DEP sent a notice that the lot was in violation of state laws and got no response, Fries said. Now the current owner, another of Burns’ companies called Pulaski Partners, must complete the monitoring even though the contamination level is not considered high.

“We still expect them to demonstrate that the ground water is not contaminated,” Fries said.

State tax dollars buy discount chains

At the meeting yesterday, Germantown Community Connection members presented alternative ideas for the site, such as historical finishes to the building and a transit oriented design that makes use of the train station next door.

Their justification: More that $3 million in tax-payer subsidy at the site deserves a strong  community benefit, many have said.

Ackelsberg, and Germantown Community Connection President Betty Turner, who was also at the meeting, said they think the more than 100 community members that indicated last month they wanted a delegation to reach out to Burns would be proud of how well the group represented Germantown. Still they were doubtful Burns was swayed, and Ackelsberg was still upset that those public dollars didn’t buy Germantown more.

“I do think its outrageous that scarce public development dollars are being used for something like this,” he said.

A new push for opposition

Also outraged is the Greater Germantown Business Association, which announced yesterday it would begin a drive to get at least 1000 signatures on a petition to stop the development. Business association president John Churchville thinks uniting behind a push to oppose the Chelten Plaza plan could mean a lot to Germantown.

“This is a wonderful opportunity for the community groups and the business association do something positive,” he said. “I really believe that if we get together we can make a change.”

Churchville plans to use the signatures to pressure elected officials to withdraw their support for the project, he said.

Turner and Ackelsberg described Burns as being willing to negotiate about what might go in the smaller store spaces on the site. Outreach to Weavers Way Co-op and local coffee shops were two ideas that came up as possible businesses to approach, but to Ackelsberg at least, that still isn’t quite the picture he was hoping for.

“A coffee shop with a Dollar Tree – it just doesn’t make any sense,” he said.

 

GCC is working to set up a nighttime meeting for the community later this month to talk with representatives from Pulaski Partners about the project. Check out the GCC Web site for updates.

 Image Guide: 

Above is the Germantown Community Connection proposal for the site (view full screen for details).
Below is the Pulaski Partners/Pat Burns plan.

Want a digest of WHYY’s programs, events & stories? Sign up for our weekly newsletter.

It will take 126,000 members this year for great news and programs to thrive. Help us get to 100% of the goal.