GCC stays out of Chelten Plaza zoning appeal

Germantown Community Connection will not join a zoning appeal against developer Pat Burns’ permitting process on the controversial Chelten Plaza development — at least not yet.

At its regular meeting last night, GCC board members made public a letter they are sending to West Central Germantown Neighbors declining to add their name to an appeal filed July 7 claiming the Dollar Tree intended for the site violates a zoning overlay which bars “retail sales of variety/general store merchandise.”

The letter affirms that the two groups are united in wanting to see zoning law applied appropriately in Germantown, but indicates GCC is taking a less strident approach so as not to affect “protracted, delicate discussions” with Pulaski Partners, Burns’ company.

“For several months we, too, have been trying to convince the Department of Licenses and Inspections to rule on whether a Dollar Tree would be a conforming use under the Germantown Special District restrictions,” reads the undated letter, which was drafted by attorney Irv Ackelsberg and signed by GCC President Betty Turner.

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“We would like the opportunity to think through the negotiating ramifications of our joining your appeal,” which is set for a hearing on Sept. 21, the letter states, calling for several weeks more for GCC to continue negotiations with Burns and discuss the findings with their members and with WCGN.

A major part of the negotiations focus on the design plans for the shopping center at Chelten and Pulaski avenues, which call for an 18,000 square foot Save-A-Lot supermarket, a Dollar Tree, an Anna’s Linens, a parking lot and a small “rain garden” on the rear of the property near Rittenhouse Ave.

The GCC’s design committee, a six-member group appointed by Turner, presented Pulaski Partners with a 16-point list of desired modifications, asking for changes both small — the installation of canopy trees and the use of local artists to add visual character, which Burns agreed to — and large — underground utility lines and the relocation of the grocery store building, which the developer rejected as too expensive or unworkable. The Save-A-Lot is being built at the rear of the site as the only completely new construction in the project.

On Wednesday, Burns met with members of GCC’s ad hoc committee, where the design guidelines were presented and he had opportunity to respond to each one. Of the 16 design suggestions, nine were agreed to, two were rejected outright and five are under continued consideration by Pulaski Partners. [Minutes of that meeting are available on GCC’s website.]

At Thursday night’s GCC general meeting, Sarah Endriss, a landscape architect and member of the design committee, reviewed the list of desired changes, and Burns’ responses, for the public. She said the group’s work “created our alternative vision for Chelten Plaza” but also “a foundation for what we’d review any development on” in the future.

Many active neighborhood civics have standing design committees and a set of design guidelines for their communities, especially those under special zoning controls, and make community design review part of the process for any major development.

Of particular interest to the design team is the signage for the shopping center, which the group believes may also violate zoning controls for the area that ban free-standing signs. Burns contends because the sign is attached to the building, it is in compliance, but the GCC committee says the sign’s sunken pilings make it a structure independent of the building.

Endriss said design committee members were reviewing all applicable zoning for that area and indicated a non-conforming sign could eventually be the basis for another appeal. Today, the GCC’s design committee will hold a conference call with Pulaski Partners’ design team, and the two groups will meet again on Aug. 2, according to minutes of the Wednesday meeting.

Turner and Ackelsberg said the ongoing nature of the discussion about the design, in particular, make it unwise for GCC to take a firm stance and join the WCGN appeal. Incoming WCGN president Luke Russell has been invited to join the GCC ad hoc committee to ensure both civic groups are represented in the ongoing Pulaski negotiations, Turner said.

Late in the meeting, some GCC members also aligned with WCGN and Germantown Cares, who have advocated a more hard-line stance on Chelten Plaza, attempted to call a vote on whether GCC should join the appeal. Turner adjourned the meeting instead.


Contact Amy Z. Quinn at azquinn@planphilly.com

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