Community groups remain at odds over Chelten Plaza’s future

The ongoing community battle over what Chelten Plaza should become continued at a Thursday night’s lightly attended Germantown Community Connection (GCC) meeting.

For nearly two hours, community-groups representatives from both sides of the proverbial aisle battled over semantics and whether the GCC will soon write a letter of support. In doing so, that could enable developers to secure $4 million in state-grant funding despite no consensus on whether it reflects residents’ wishes.

Critics maintain that Pulaski Partners want to replace the now-gone Fresh Grocer with a Sav-a-Lot and Dollar Tree strip mall rather than something along the lines of a Whole Foods that could potentially serve as a community-development spur.

At the heart of the oft-heated discussion was a lack of community wide agreement and representation.

“I love GCC [but] it’s time that there be an umbrella organization,” said West Central Germantown Neighbors representative Luke Russell. “The problem for us now is that the developer is using his negotiations with an umbrella group [GCC] on design, to show compliance … and it doesn’t fit.”

However, GCC president Betty Turner said she is hopeful for compromise.

“We don’t agree on every sentence, but it is bringing the community together in ways it has never before,” said Turner who insists that residents are not as divided as two groups that obviously want very different projects at Chelten Plaza.

WCGN members — and a few from the GCC — involved in the protests against Chelten Plaza attended with the hope of pushing for a GCC membership-wide vote to join their zoning appeal. YahNe Ndgo, a member of the GCC, questioned its position of not allowing a vote.

“It doesn’t seem like the membership is engaged,” she said, pleading with GCC to “check back in” with the larger community before moving forward.

Turner countered that there is no need for, or likelihood of having, a vote.

“There’s no vote, we’ve made a [board] decision,” she said, noting that the “community benefit agreement” is almost complete and is expected to be presented to the GCC membership within three weeks. “It should include all the things the community is asking for; trees, jobs, quality products, maintenance of the site.”

It was clear, however, that the membership would not be allowed to modify the community agreement between GCC and site developer/owner Pulaski Partners. Rather, they would simply review and ratify the document.

GCC bylaws grant the board the authority to make decisions on behalf of membership without a larger vote.

Turner said the community agreement between a neighborhood organization and a developer will be a first for Germantown. Once the building is finished, it will be integral to giving the community a say in the development’s future.

Chelten Plaza project foes maintain that GCC consensus is what the developer, Fresh Grocer CEO Patrick Burns, has submitted to public agencies to fulfill the “community support” requirement for public funding.

Pulaski Partners could receive up to $4 million in Redevelopment Assistance Capital Program state grants for the $14 million project. Pulaski has not yet received any grant money due to non-compliance on several undisclosed issues.

GCC leadership denies that theory. Just because they’re in discussions with Pulaski does not mean they’re giving their outright “support.” The group has not written a letter of support for the developer, Turner said, noting that “it’s a big freaking difference” between talking and signing off on the future development.

Protestors countered that the community partnership is a misnomer since GCC only just 100 members and, at two-years-old, is a “young” organization.

However, WCGN secretary Susan Guggenheim said via email that the group has 625 registered members and boasts of a 35-year history. Many GCC members represent existing community organizations.

Coming up next in the battle is a Sept. 21 zoning hearing at which WCGN and six other community organizations and businesses will protest the Dollar Tree under a special zoning overlay. GCC won’t likely be among them.

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