Neighbors don’t like the look or location of Awbury Arboretum’s new modular classrooms

 Some neighbors aren't big fans of the modular structure to be used as an education center in Awbury Arboretum's Agricultural Village. (Bas Slabbers/for NewsWorks)

Some neighbors aren't big fans of the modular structure to be used as an education center in Awbury Arboretum's Agricultural Village. (Bas Slabbers/for NewsWorks)

The location of a modular structure slated for use as an education center in Awbury Arboretum’s Agricultural Village has created a rift with some of the immediate neighbors of the new building.

The two modular units — which have been connected to form a 24-by-60 foot space — were donated to Awbury by the Green Tree School before it closed in 2012. Awbury hopes to offer culinary and other educational programs for both children and adults in the building beginning this fall.

Location woes

The building sits near a fence bordering Sprague Street, where Paulette O’Neill has lived since 1988.

“This is a unique little street in Germantown that many people say they never know existed until they visit,” she said. “It is secluded and park-like and quiet,” a peace that has been disrupted by the new building on the Awbury property.

Of the 55 acres that Awbury covers, O’Neill said “they chose our street where six families are living” to locate the education building.

Another resident, Daytona Ritter-Flowers, said Sprague Street has been her family’s home for 40 years. She said the relationship with Awbury was always “congenial. We never had a problem with them. But we were offended when they dropped this structure down next to our home.”

She said the Awbury building looks like “a trailer-park home” that she believes will impact her property values.

“Our quality of life has changed,” she said.

More than appearances

Aside from the building’s appearance, the neighbors’ concerns about the education center include noise, lighting and rodents.

“I have been an educator, and I support anything that enhances the education of our children,” O’Neill said, “but not so close to where we live.”

The solution, the neighbors said, would be relocating the building farther away from the Sprague Street homes.

“At this point, moving it back would go a long way toward creating a little peace,” Ritter-Flowers said.

Awbury says move unlikely

Mark Sellers, chair of the Awbury board, said moving the structure would cost more than $60,000.

“That part of the arboretum is near a former quarry, and the bedrock is only 18 inches below the surface,” he said. “New water and sewer lines would have to be blasted through rock, and we’ve already paid for the cost of design and utility hookups at the site.”

Besides, the time for discussing the location of the education center has long since past, he said.

“We really regret that these folks are unhappy about the building,” but they had many opportunities to express their concerns beginning two years ago when the plan first emerged.

According to Sellers, hundreds of copies of the Awbury stewardship plan were distributed throughout the community, the plan was posted on the Awbury website for 18 months and zoning notices were posted around the site as required by the city.

The neighbors raised no objections at the zoning hearing or in other forums, Sellers said.

Delayed temporarily

Eighth District City Councilwoman Cindy Bass requested a 30-day moratorium on installation and construction of the education center to give neighbors an opportunity to offer any alternative proposals to the plan.

Awbury agreed to the moratorium, Sellers said, but received no alternative plans from anyone in the community.

Awbury has also worked closely with the Cliveden Hills Association, the community organization, throughout the process and the association has supported the plan for the education center, he said.

Beth Miner, Awbury’s director of community outreach, said the arboretum will address the Sprague Street neighbors’ concerns about the impact of the building.

“We have to comply with all rules on food storage and use, and it’s a concern for us as well,” she said. “The Northwest tract has involved food production and agriculture for years, and we are working to make sure all of our partners are keeping the area clean and neat and won’t attract rodents. We’re definitely sensitive to that.”

Future conversations

Noise is a “valid concern” for neighbors,” she said. The arboretum is “a large property, and we have many neighbors. We’ve had events and programs at Awbury for years, and we have policies about noise.”

Site-specific measures will be worked out with the neighbors regarding the programs at the education center, Miner said.

The small size of the education structure will also limit the number of people on site at any particular time, she said.

Regarding the appearance of the building, Awbury is planning to create a “green wall” to beautify the landscape and hide the structure as much as possible.

“We have the best landscaping people around thinking of attractive ways to conceal it,” Sellers said.

Ongoing discord

Awbury has also sought input from neighbors regarding the plantings around the building. The Sprague Street residents have chosen not to participate in that conversation. It was too little, too late, as far as they were concerned.

O’Neill said neighbors had learned of the education center plan back in an April 2012 letter from Awbury general manager Christopher van de Velde. They responded with a “fervent letter” that they were against any kind of facility there, she said.

“There have been numerous communications since then. We have shared what we wanted to occur,” O’Neill said. “No matter what we said, they have not been in agreement.”

Helping to choose what plants are used around the building was “not any kind of compromise,” she said, so she did not attend the meeting about the landscape.

“I’m not sure what’s going to happen, but we’re going to be very diligent as neighbors and watch any changes,” she said. “If we are really disturbed to the point that we are unable to live in a community we once had, then we will complain about it.”

NewsWorks has partnered with independent news gatherer PlanPhilly to provide regular, in-depth, timely coverage of planning, zoning and development news. Contact Alan Jaffe at ajaffe@planphilly.com.

Correction: This story has been amended to note that the modular classrooms were donated by Green Tree School.

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