Let’s keep the Chelten Plaza negotiations in perspective

    Twice a week since June, I’ve been protesting the development project under way on the site of the former Fresh Grocer at Chelten and Pulaski avenues in Germantown.

    As I talk to residents of the warmest, most-accepting community in which I’ve ever lived, the most common response I hear — including from those who are carrying Sav-a-Lot bags — is a desire to see a full-service grocery with lots of fresh healthy food open there.

    Most passersby appreciate our efforts to protect the community, except for three people who argued with us, only one of whom was angry.

    Here’s what I take issue with: Germantown Community Connection (GCC) is negotiating with the developers, Pulaski Partners, but we Neighbors Concerned with Chelten members seek greater community mobilization.

    We fear that those negotiations have enabled the developers to claim “community participation,” which the GCC has not clearly refuted, even though residents’ interests will not be protected.

    To negotiate or to not negotiate?

    Some residents oppose any Chelten Plaza negotiations. I believe talks should continue, and are essential to mitigating worst-case scenarios, even though the developers have insulted our intelligence by labeling the Dollar Tree as a “grocery store” to get around our zoning overlay.

    Those select few actively involved in the negotiations seem to believe they are having a positive effect. Psychology can help explain their loss of perspective on whether they are meeting their goals.

    “Effort justification theory” holds that the more difficult the process, the more participants will defend it. It isn’t clear to the community as a whole exactly what improvements are actually on the table. We need to hear which potential improvements are still being discussed and which are going nowhere.

    How far have the developers come in meeting the community’s goals of healthy food access, economic revitalization and appropriate design?

    Apparently, the developers still fail to offer what we were promised years ago: a full-service grocery offering diverse fresh food. The presence of a limited grocery like Sav-a-Lot could be mitigated if combined with a co-op or an affordable produce-oriented store, such as Cousins or Produce Junction.

    Some local political leaders patronizingly say we need a store where “poor people” can shopt. When asked where they shop, they often say Whole Foods. Also, a number of economically strapped passersby pointed out that their food stamps work just as well purchasing fresh produce as they do for processed and frozen foods.

    Design and aesthetic improvements

    After the establishing a full-service grocery – for which the same developer received close to $1 million dollars in public funds and tax breaks years ago – “appropriate design” is another top concern.

    Most of us do not oppose the Save-A-Lot per se; we oppose its move to Rittenhouse and Pulaski. Current neighbors, including nearby committeeperson Margaret Robinson, say Sav-a-Lot attracts a “bad element” in addition to its regular shoppers. Police cars were there often this spring.

    Without sufficient hired security, the belowground Chelten Regional Rail Station could soon feel even less safe.

    Ask yourself whether developers deserve millions of taxpayer dollars for this project. If so, what specific benefits they should bring the community?

    Even the best scenario the developers are considering meets fewer than half of the design goals articulated by the GCC design committee.

    They do not plan on providing healthy, diverse food and it remains unclear whether the development will have a positive or negative, effect on our local economy. After all, no locals – and very few minorities – have been seen working the site, and discount stores generally hire less than half the people per square foot than full-service groceries.

    Include the entire community

    Since the Fresh Grocer was abandoned, GCC has only sent a couple of short e-mails to members, and none to the hundreds who came to meetings but didn’t or couldn’t join. GCC board members themselves have acknowledged they need to a better job with that.

    Unlike GCC, West Central Germantown Neighbors, a local neighborhood association with more than 600 neighbors, maintains an active discussion list-serve. That keeps its members up-to-date on the issues, and in touch with each other.

    When WCGN met with GCC counsel Irv Ackelsberg six weeks ago, he was told that GCC needs to make the context of its negotiations with the developer clearer in a much more public way. An organization whose chair said, “There’s no vote, we’ve made a [Board] decision” cannot claim to represent the community.

    The solution

    I urgently and sincerely call upon the GCC leadership to post, on its home page, a statement that the continuing negotiations with Pulaski Partners do not mean acceptance of the project, and that any result of such negotiations are subject to ratification by the entire GCC membership.

    That would alleviate concerns that the group is being used or co-opted by developers to obtain state grant funding.

    If they choose not to, a showdown over who the GCC can legitimately claim to represent, and how well they do so, could result.

    Robyn Tevah is a lifelong community activist and mother of three. She chairs the Neighbors Concerned with Chelten committee, and contributes to Germantowncares.org.

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