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The Germantown overlay plays a big role in next week’s Chelten Plaza hearing

In Northwest Philadelphia, zoning overlays govern what kind of sign you can hang above your Manayunk boutique, what your corner store can sell in Germantown, how wide your Chestnut Hill storefront can be, and where to put the trash bins for your restaurant in East Falls.

Traditionally, overlays have allowed individual neighborhoods to limit or encourage specific kinds of commercial development and create a desired aesthetic. They dictate how tall structures can be and how they should look, and guide the interaction between public and private spaces. In many cases, they also include lengthy and specific lists of prohibited business uses.

In the proposed city zoning code, the Northwest overlays will be absorbed into a new category called Neighborhood Commercial Area, or NCA.  These NCA’s are “intended to preserve the integrity of neighborhood commercial areas and to promote and help guide appropriate commercial development.”

In general, the NCAs deal more broadly with the form and design of the built environment, rather than enumerating specific uses, said Matt Wysong, Northwest community planner for the city Planning Commission. In many — but not all — cases, those individual prohibited uses will be left to the control of the new commercial zoning that will replace current designations.

For the last piece of this series on how the proposed zoning code change could affect Northwest overlays, we look at the Lower and Central Germantown Special District Controls.

Before:

Enacted in 2008, the overlay governing development in Germantown’s traditional commercial corridor, as written, deals solely with keeping certain types of businesses out. It notes a desire to protect the Colonial Germantown Historic District and recognizes the area’s value as a key neighborhood shopping destination.

Unlike most other current overlays, it contains no language about building forms, no limits on height or regulations for setbacks, signage, or parking. It gives few hints about what kind of development Germantown would like to attract.

It’s very clear, however, on what kind of businesses which are no longer welcome in the heart of Germantown: barber shops and beauty parlors, nail shops, wig salons, cell phone stores, furniture stores and “variety/general store merchandise.”

In other words, many of the existing retail uses that draw scores of lower- and middle-income, largely African American shoppers to Germantown each day. It’s a familiar, if inelegant, urban palette of national chains and smaller-scale, locally-based retail.

The problem, as the overlay puts it, is one of market saturation, “an increase in the number of certain uses which, while not necessarily offensive by themselves, when concentrated within an area, tend to contribute to the deterioration of the economics and aesthetics of the area.”

Right now, the 800-pound gorilla in the room during any conversation about this overlay is the Chelten Plaza shopping center, at the corner of Chelten and Pulaski avenues. The language of the current overlay is the crux of a zoning appeal filed by community activists opposed to developer Patrick Burns’ plan for a Save-A-Lot supermarket, a Dollar Tree store and other retail spaces.

On Wednesday, the Zoning Board of Adjustment will hear an appeal which argues that Burns’ original permit for the ongoing construction at Chelten Plaza left out the Dollar Tree because it would violate the overlay.

After:

In the most current draft of the new zoning code for the city, there is no “after” for this overlay. It is among a handful of current neighborhood controls scrapped in the new code, in favor of new base zoning districts meant to accomplish some of the same goals.  What the loss of the overlay means is that there would be no additional layer, or overlay, of protection for the specific area included in the Lower and Central Germantown Controls.

Zoning Code Commission executive director Eva Gladstein explained that, as with other current overlays, many of the businesses banned under current controls on commercial C2 properties are also disallowed in the new CMX2 and CMX2.5 neighborhood mixed commercial districts.

While acknowledging the overlay’s intent of putting the brakes on certain types of businesses, Gladstein said zoning can only accomplish part of that.

“We had an underlying conclusion that simply by prohibiting a current use, it doesn’t guarantee you’ll get the use you want,” she said.

As an example, Gladstein said longtime retail anchors like the C.A. Rowell and Sears department stores would technically be unwelcome under the current ban on general merchandise retailers. Carl Primavera, the project attorney for Chelten Plaza who will represent Burns at the upcoming ZBA hearing, has made a similar argument about why the Dollar Tree should stay.

As for whether this overlay could be re-cast somehow in future versions of the zoning rewrite, Gladstein wouldn’t speculate, though Councilman Bill Green’s recent memo to fellow Council members recommending further changes to the draft calls for restoring some overlay controls. The memo cites Germantown as an example.

In an interview with PlanPhilly’s Jared Brey, Green pointed out that neighborhoods with more organized civic group structures, such as Northern Liberties, were able to keep their overlays while others were not, in effect creating “two codes” applied unequally across the city.

Gladstein said she expected the Chelten Plaza issue to be settled under the current code, but for future development, she noted Council’s ability to amend the zoning code at any time.

“With zoning, the door is never closed,” she said.

Contact Amy Z. Quinn at azquinn@planphilly.com

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