Nearly 40 people packed into the Germantown Community Connection board meeting at First Presbyterian Church last night to discuss the group’s role in the Chelten Plaza development.
For an hour and a half GCC members and members of the wider community bickered about the events to date. In the final ten minutes of the meeting, after most in attendance had left, a motion passed to bring a resolution to the next GCC board meeting “to officially join the community-wide appeal to oppose the Dollar Tree.”
Visible opposition to the development at Chelten and Pulaski avenues has been growing in recent weeks as protesters have started taking to the streets there, waving signs and collecting signatures. The goal is to stop, or significantly change the development under construction there, which will include a discount Save-A-Lot food market and a Dollar Tree, among other stores.
The plan has won vocal opposition in Germantown since the major details became apparent in March. Opponents tend to feel the planned $4 million in state subsidy to the project should not go to such low-end, and limited selection stores.
Opponents also believe the Dollar Tree is forbidden by a zoning overlay on Chelten Avenue, which prohibits “variety stores.”
Earlier this month, seven community groups signed onto a zoning appeal meant to enforce this overlay, Germantown Community Connection was not one of them. A series of apparently conflicting resolutions on the part of the agency could be the reason why.
In April, GCC voted to oppose the Chelten Plaza development, but also to form an ad hoc committee to negotiate with Pat Burns, the project developer. Last month the group voted to form a cooperation agreement with Burns (which has not yet been officially enacted) in a resolution that appears to give tacit approval to the Save-A-Lot, but leaves open the window for a “legal strategy” focussed on the Dollar Tree.
In the meeting last night, GCC Secretary Malik Boyd stated the reason GCC has not signed onto the zoning appeal is because it would be difficult to negotiate with Burns and oppose him on the Dollar Tree at the same time. The negotiation effort, he said later, is mainly aimed at having something in place if the zoning appeal fails.
“You made a drastic mistake,” said State Representative Rosita Youngblood to GCC President Betty Turner. Youngblood, who has been outspoken in her opposition to Chelten Plaza, thinks the organization is being used by Burns. “I don’t want to see you used as a pawn,” she said.
“I think every community group should be lockstep,” continued Youngblood. “So they can’t be divided.”
In response to criticisms Turner explained that GCC was the first group to bring the developer to the larger community for answers after the surprise closing or a run-down Fresh Grocer on the site in February.
“Within a few days we were sitting in the office up in Drexel Hill,” she said, referring to the group’s first meeting with Burns in March.
Turner said the protests and zoning appeal were valid efforts, but there were other important approaches too.
“There are many ways to oppose things,” she said. “GCC voted to negotiate.”
Malik Boyd added that Burns’ project had changed since the original GCC vote to oppose it. “We were rejecting the development, as is,” he said.
GCC board members blamed local politicians for the problems at Chelten Plaza primarily because they did not inform the community of the plans for the site.
Jim Foster, GCC member and publisher of the Germantown Chronicle, agreed.
“What’s missing here are elected officials,” he said, noting Youngblood as the lone exception. “Let’s take it to the sources of the money and squeeze them.”
GCC member Robyn Tevah, who has been central in organizing the protests at the site, also worried that the organization was being used by Burns. She said she now regrets her previous vote to allow negotiations.
After long and heated discussion over half the meeting attendees got up and left the room. Many, it seems, had finally grown frustrated.
“We’re not in first grade,” said community member Renee Hogue. “You do not have to be divisive,” she added with a nod to indicate some of the residents who have been protesting at the corner of the development.