Germantown Community Connection decides on Chelten Plaza

They’re going to need a bigger table. That much was obvious when the Germantown Community Connection membership voted last week to officially oppose the controversial Chelten Plaza development plan.

But while the results may have been predictably lopsided in opposition to the development at Chelten and Pulaski avenues, the voting process indicated growing pains for the young community organization.

Usually the crowd fits comfortably around a circular set of cafeteria tables inside the Presbyterian Church on Chelten Ave. Now, after recent community meetings with hundreds of attendees who wanted to express strong feelings about the controversial Chelten Plaza development project, GCC needs to widen that circle. Thirty people showed up to the meeting and chairs were added in the back.

The mission May 12 was to take an official position on the development by Fresh Grocer owner Patrick Burns. Emotions carried over from those earlier meetings and on-line list-serve discussions where GCC members and the larger community have split into factions – some supporting portions of the development plan, many against it.

Some were also fighting for the future of GCC itself, a community group now in its third year of existence, which came about with the mission of righting past wrongs in Germantown, where there is a long history of political disenfranchisement and disunity.

The results from voting-eligible members were not surprising: 22 were against the development, with one lone holdout in favor.

The larger context

Some members, like Jim Foster, publisher of the Germantown Chronicle, say that despite the disagreements GCC is “Germantown’s best shot” at having a voice. He says that “months ago we wouldn’t have had a chance” to stand up against any development or business plans in Germantown.

Moments before the vote, GCC President Betty Turner passed around the latest communique from Pulaski Partners, the development company headed by Burns that owns the site.

The memo hit a few major points:

It did not back away from the plan to put a Dollar Tree at the site (something many residents oppose)
It talked about negotiations with Weavers Way as a possible tenant
It emphasized how the new Save-A-Lot will carry quality brands
It said the environmental protection permits for the lot are up-to-date and the developer is in compliance

But even this brought questions among those getting ready to cast their ballots.

“Do you think it’s odd it’s passed out right before the vote?” Stephanie Thomfore, a new GCC member, commented to other members. “I think it’s poor timing.”

Thomfore, who manages an apartment complex in Germantown, was not eligible to vote about Chelten Plaza because she had not yet attended the requisite two meetings per calendar year to become a voting member.

Turner clarified at the meeting that a member in good standing also meant paying member dues of $10 a year prior to attending the meetings.

Serious debate

Luke Smith, an anti-trust attorney who lives in Germantown but works in Jenkintown was another fresh face at the GCC meeting. He joined after hearing about the Chelten Plaza development. He too was disappointed after learning he wasn’t eligible to vote yet either. He has been active behind the scenes about Chelten Plaza ever since attending the most recent community meeting with the developer April 28. He has been hunting down details about the development.

Smith says he currently opposes the Chelten Plaza plan but not because of the proposed Save-A-Lot. He cites a “lack of candor from the developers” and says more transparency about the market study is important to him. Smith says he doesn’t want to see an empty lot but feels like the developer’s reasoning should make more sense.

“On the one hand [Patrick Burns] he’s saying these are the only retailers that will work, and he just happens to have work-relationships with them,” Smith said during the GCC meeting. Smith says he felt that the developer was trying to say that the economic breakdown was something “over his head” by not disclosing more statistical data.

Malik Boyd, local resident and former candidate for the 198th legislative district, spoke at length about the need to re-focus the discussion on Chelten Plaza.

Boyd has weighed in on the subject before, criticizing Rep. Rosita Youngblood’s (D., 198th) opposition to the project as a “performance.” This time he spoke about the need to face economic realities and consider a more comprehensive dialog with the developer in order to take account of those economic realities while still getting something for everyone at Chelten Plaza.

Boyd said the market study presented by Burns held true to his own investigation of city and state data.

Speaking in a phone interview later, Boyd referenced a 2200-signature petition in favor of opening a new discount Save-A-Lot store at Chelten Plaza. The petition was carried out by Save-A-Lot operator Shawn Rinnier at the Wayne Avenue store, which will close when the new store opens at Chelten Plaza. It includes signatures from current customers of Save-A-Lot.

According to Boyd, if GCC is to be true to its vision of inclusiveness it really should consider those project supporters in its decision regarding Chelten Plaza.

“If we’re talking about togetherness and cohesiveness, we have to include everybody,” he said in the phone interview.

Boyd, who lives within walking distance of the development said he voted against the plan. He also said he would not rule out shopping at a Save-A-Lot on the site, especially if it includes an expanded selection of products, and if there were ways to meet other shopping needs on the site. He mentioned a previously discusses Weaver’s Way Co-op satellite location as on such possibility.

His speech was interrupted by former Weavers Way employee Jennifer Kulb. She said there is no way Weavers Way could afford the expansion into Germantown and thinks the offer is a distraction.

“Weavers Way will never happen,” she said. “Don’t be misled… they aren’t coming to Chelten Plaza.”

Boyd said it was important to consider the data in the Chelten Plaza market study as reflecting at least some truths about the community.

“Pathmark is subject to the same thing,” he said. “Big chains are suffering as people are diversifying shopping habits because of the economy.”

What’s next?

Now, with the official GCC opposition in place, the next steps for the group are unclear. Two motions were tabled for vote at the next meeting. Irv Ackelsberg, pro bono lawyer for GCC, proposed an “increase [in] pressure on the developer to change its plans,” and that any agreement proposed between GCC and the developer would be presented to the larger community and later before the membership for a ratification vote.

Yvonne Haskins, a lawyer and private developer in Germantown said she wants to see GCC lobby City Council for action. She is concerned that the new zoning overhaul, which will update zoning laws in every part of the city, could remove a point of leverage for those opposing Chelten Plaza.

The zoning revamp proposes eliminating zoning overlays – or special conditions – like the law put into place by Donna Reed Miller several years ago that prohibits “variety stores” on Chelten Avenue.

Haskins and others from GCC hope the overlay will be enough to stop the proposed Dollar Tree at Chelten Plaza. Representatives from Pulaski Partners have said they do not believe the condition applies to their plans.


This story is a corrected version. The original mis-represented some comments of Malik Boyd. NewsWorks regrets the error.

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

Together we can reach 100% of WHYY’s fiscal year goal