Original plan for Fresh Grocer in Germantown scrapped, developer receives unusual exemption
In a vote that riled up opponents and supporters — including a state representative — City Council on Thursday unanimously approved a change to the city’s zoning code that would allow a Germantown developer to move forward with plans for a dollar store and Save-A-Lot in a local shopping plaza.
“This is a travesty of democracy,” bellowed state Rep. Rosita Youngblood, as she left the meeting. “[But], I expected this. Other Council members don’t want anyone to go against a project in their district — so they would have to vote together.”
She continued with a word of warning, echoing remarks she’d made to the full council before the vote.
“They are not a fiefdom unto themselves,” she said, promising to carefully scrutinize all requests for state funding for any project in the city in the wake of zoning decision.
“They still have to come to Harrisburg for any funding project in the city,” said Youngblood. “There will be more scrutiny from the legislature, the governor’s office and the lieutenant governor’s office. They are all watching. So, don’t be surprised if some projects aren’t funded.”
Youngblood admitted that she would probably be unable to stop the project now.
“There is not much I can do about it,” she said, adding that if the developer applied for state funds for any enhancements to his current plans, she would oppose them.
The state representative was among 17 people — some of whom hurled charges of abuse of power and accused Councilwoman Donna Reed Miller of taking part in back room deals — who spoke both for and against the amendment.
Youngblood’s warning and the accusations angered Councilman W. Wilson Goode Jr., who accused critics of trying to “shake down” developer Pat Burns and City Council.
“We even have a state representative come here and threaten all [our] projects in the city if we don’t vote their way, yet they come here to question our integrity,” he said, adding that his support was so enthusiastic that he wished he could vote for the change twice.
On paper it looked like a minor item, a change in language of just 10 words. But, it aroused a great deal of passion. Ultimately, it will allow Burns to develop a shopping plaza at Pulaski and Chelten avenues, to build a dollar store at the site.
His plans, at the moment, include a dollar store, Sav-A-Lot, Citi Bank, a coffee shop and Little Caesar’s. In 2005, in a bid to receive $3 million in state funds for the project, he said he would build a Fresh Grocer at the site, Youngblood said. Then, earlier this year, he changed his plans for the $14.3 million project — angering many residents.
A petition of 3,000 signatures was presented against the proposal.
Zoning rules for the area, authored by Miller, have traditionally prohibited variety stores, nail salons and similar uses. The change, critics said, was a prime example of spot zoning and done for the benefit of Burns alone.
“This is an egregious use of legislative power by one of your members,” said Yvonne Haskins, an attorney representing several Germantown groups. “This amendment is specifically tailored to Chelten Plaza.”
After the vote, she said the coalition of opponents might file an injunction to stop development of the plaza.
Supporters for the project spoke too.
“We’re all seeking a better way for Germantown,” said Malik Boyd, who urged Council to vote for the amendment. “We simply have different views on how to accomplish it.”
He said a petition with 7,000 signatures in favor of the project had been submitted to Council.
Miller seemed undisturbed by the controversy as she waved away the accusations of abuse.
“I don’t know of any development project where you don’t have strong feelings for and against,” she said. “You have to ask them about back room deals. Maybe [the critics] were there. I wasn’t.”
And, she said the change was intended to bring 100 jobs to her district: “Our city needs jobs. I don’t think it’s a bad project. It looks better than the abandonment that was there for years.”
Even after the vote, opponents and supporters clashed in the corridor outside Council chambers, shouting at each other as they left the meeting.
In other news, Council approved a number of other bills.
One would require the Philadelphia Parking Authority to notify anyone who has been ticketed of their ticket by letter and delay penalties and fees for 10 days. The mayor is expected to sign the bill into law.
Council also approved, unanimously, a measure requiring companies that contract with the city to provide the same benefits for life partners that it does for married couples.