Amid concerns about height and density, and accusations of spot zoning, the city Planning Commission is holding off on making a recommendation on two bills that would change the zoning of 8200 Germantown Ave. in Chestnut Hill.
At its meeting Tuesday, the commission voted to table action on the two bills introduced by Councilwoman Donna Reed Miller that would remap the two parcels that comprise the 2.1-acre site, as negotiations continue between developer Bowman Properties and the Chestnut Hill Community Association.
“This is a big project, and we want this to be absorbed, and smart decisions made,” Planning Commission Chairman Alan Greenberger said. The topic will next be considered at the commission’s Dec. 13 meeting, and council would hold off on voting on the measures until after that, he said.
Specifically, the bills would change the zoning from a current C7 auto-oriented commercial designation along Germantown Avenue and R5 along Shawnee Street, to C2 commercial and R10b. Bowman proposes a mixed-use plan including a 20,000 square foot grocery store, retail spaces with condominiums above, and a row of townhouses fronting Pastorious Park.
While general community consensus seems to be that a mixed-use development is a good choice for the location, serious questions have emerged. Among them are the need to bring more retail to the avenue when many storefronts — some owned by Bowman — sit vacant, and about the effect on other businesses along Germantown Avenue.
Most notably, the Weaver’s Way Co-op, which operates a grocery store along the avenue, has been critical of Bowman’s efforts to change the zoning through Council for its Fresh Market grocery store proposed on the site, which its general manager has also called it “an amazing redundancy” that would cannibalize other businesses. The co-op also previously attempted to buy the property.
David Woo, president of the co-op’s board of directors, testified at the Planning Commission meeting about his misgivings on the Bowman plan — but said he’s not against a mixed-use development there, nor is Weaver’s Way worried about potential competition.
“We appreciate commercial development, and we welcome market competition,” Woo said.
Matthew McClure, the project attorney, said the $30 million project — including 17 condos and “strong independent credit tenants” would bring about 90 new permanent jobs to the location.
Daniel McElhatton, a lawyer who said he represents several neighbors living near the site, said the two bills were aimed specifically to help Bowman properties with no other justification for the zoning change. He urged the commission to instead extend the review period for another 45 days.
“The legislative and administrative history of how an ordinance comes into play is looked at by the courts,” he said. “These two ordinances are tailored solely and exclusively for Bowman properties. No one else. All of the benefit is to Bowman Properties, to the detriment of the community at large and consequently, to the city of Philadelphia.”
McElhatton said rather than seek zoning variances, Bowman’s needed changes were “being forced upon the community by way of ordinance in the last two months of the legislative term.” Councilwoman Miller’s office has told NewsWorks the bills were being offered in an effort to get a high-quality development, one which does not rely on public financing, to a prominent Chestnut Hill location.
Concerns about density focus on the increased amount of commercially-zoned property that would result from the changes. Bowman publicly introduced the project in April, negotiations have been ongoing with the CHCA’s committees but no formal agreement has been reached.
Community association members note some minor alterations but no major concessions, in the face of concerns over building massing, overall height and density. The second of the bills would amend the current Germantown Avenue Special District Controls, to accommodate the size of retail spaces, building height and setbacks.
Planning Commission Chairman Greenberger said there is good reason to change the zoning on the property — the current C7, meant for uses people drive to, would allow a Wawa, for example — but said it seemed premature for the Planning Commission to make a recommendation on the bills until the community process is finished.
“A lot of things are being packed into this site. Is that in itself reasonable, and to what extent,” he said.
Contact Amy Z. Quinn at firstname.lastname@example.org