Sharp argument, but no vote at Chelten Plaza zoning hearing

After a lively, two-hour hearing, the Zoning Board of Adjustments is considering the permit appeal against a planned Dollar Tree store at the Chelten Plaza shopping center.

After riding a rented yellow school bus, protesters clad in yellow T-shirts arrived at the Center City hearing site before the noon meeting. They packed the 18th-floor hearing room.

The Chelten Plaza redevelopment has spurred passions and argument in the neighborhood, with some seeing it as a huge missed opportunity to get a higher quality market on the site. The project includes a Save-a-Lot grocery store.

Just as important, critics of the public money given to the project call it an inside political deal that delivers a kind of insult to Germantown, a statement that the neighborhood is not “good enough” for a high-end market such as Trader Joe’s.

Representing opponents of the Dollar Store,  lawyer Yvonne Haskins argued a construction permit issued to developer Pat Burns was based on a lie.

Haskins said Pulaski Partners, Burns’ company, tailored its application to what they thought would be approved, that is, a grocery store, not on what would actually be built, a discount store.

“They struggled to put a thing on a permit that would fit,” Haskins said.

Burns, under questioning from his lawyer, Carl Primavera, testified that the U.S. Department of Agriculture classifies Dollar Tree as a grocery store, allowing it to accept food assistance cards.

Questions asked by zoning board members Samuel J. Staten and Peter Gonzales focused on the amount of fresh food the Dollar Tree carries compared to a typical supermarket.

Under current city zoning, Chelten Plaza sits within the boundaries of the Lower and Central Germantown Special District Controls, a zoning overlay barring specific commercial uses in the neighborhood’s traditional shopping district. The overlay prohibits “variety/general merchandise” stores; Dollar Tree is a self-described fixed-price variety store.

“The only person in the entire world who classifies Dollar Tree as a grocery store and not a variety store is Pat Burns,” Haskins said.

Primavera said Dollar Tree actually belongs in a category best described as “alternative grocery stores,” which are smaller and less amply stocked than supermarkets but serve similar purposes.

He offered everything from dictionary definitions to a weekly Genuardi’s circular as evidence of the range of products – edible and not – sold at what most people just call a grocery store.

Jeanne Klinger, a city code administrator, testified about an array of changes made to the permit before the eventual grocery store approval was granted.

An initial permit issued in March didn’t mention the overlay or specific uses for the retail spaces on the site, she said.

In April, attorney and Germantown civic activist Irv Acklesberg notified the city that Burns planned a Dollar Tree for the site, but the permit eventually issued in June specified a “retail grocery store.”

The zoning hearing concluded with no vote, and it’s unclear when a decision will come.

Even if the zoning board votes to uphold the appeal and revoke the permit for the Dollar Tree, construction will likely continue on the Save-A-Lot supermarket in another part of the Chelten Plaza site.

Stay tuned to NewsWorks for the latest developments on the Chelten Plaza appeal.

Contact Amy Z. Quinn at azquinn@planphilly.com

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