Continuing Education

Councilman Jones goes back to school on the PhilaU development plan.

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In the age of Google there’s no need to reinvent the wheel. Just type your problem into the search engine and find others who’ve dealt with it before.

So what to do about the PhilaU master plan? There seem to be lots of ideas, ranging from “stop ’em at all costs” to letting the U build as it pleases, but who’s had actual experience with an expanding university in a leafy part of Philly?

Hello Chestnut Hill College. In 2007, the college wanted to expand its footprint, with some of that expansion coming dangerously close to the green sanctuary of the Wissahickon.

From there the list of similarities with PhilaU sounds extremely familiar. Affluent, protective, sometimes combative neighbors? Check. Runoff issues into watershed/wetlands? Check. Historically significant buildings and landscape? Check.

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To find out what lessons could be learned for Chestnut Hill college, Curtis Jones and his staff visited the offices of Andropogon Associates in Manayunk and toured the Chestnut Hill College campus on Friday June 12, with local resident Jon Berger, Bill Epstein of EFCC, and one nosy blogger.

What the heck is Andropogon anyway? It’s a landscape architectural firm that prides itself on creating designs that work with the environment. (Andropogon means “common field grass” and symbolizes the firm’s eco-friendly approach.)

The firm has planned projects all over the world, but also has several designs right here in Manayunk and East Falls. And Chestnut Hill of course, as Chris Mendel architect and firm associate and Jose Alminana, firm principal, explained in a 45 minute presentation about the challenges and ideas behind the college’s plan and, in particular, the Sugarloaf Estate.

When we’d last seen Jones, he was in the living room of Berger’s Timber Lane home promising to do his homework on the PhilaU plan and urging residents to do the same. While we haven’t heard about progress from the residents, Jones dove right in to the presentation, asking questions and drawing analogies, some of which were based on his own experience with St. Joseph’s University, near his home in Wynnewood.

A recent university project that went through without community input brought home to Jones that there’s a gray area institutions can play in that has a deep effect on people’s lives.

So what did he learn from Mendel’s presentation and a tour of the Sugarloaf Estate grounds? That you can repurpose existing structures and build new ones in a tight cluster along natural ridge lines, which makes for a more energy efficient, less intrusive footprint. “It’s a smarter way to build. It saves you money, you can do the right thing AND get what you want. That’s a win.” 

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“Clustering” buildings can also make water runoff into the Wissahickon less damaging and minimize the heat island effects that can result from clearing swaths of forest and natural vegetation to build an expansive complex of buildings. All tenets, by the way, that Carol Ann Gross-Davis, East Fallser and professor at Drexel University’s School of Public Health, hopes PhilaU will consider in their planning.

None of these things were lost on Jones. He said he enjoyed “geeking out on architecture” and was quite happy with the presentation. Jon Berger was satisfied as well, citing the easements (a guarantee that land will not be developed) that the community extracted from Chestnut Hill College in exchange for their backing of institutional rezoning for the campus. It’s an approach he favors for PhilaU. (His position on the current plan is that it’s destructive of the environment.)

For us, the only way the day could have been better is if representatives of PhilaU had attended. It wasn’t until after the meeting that we learned there had been no invitation extended to the U, which is disappointing, given the persuasive nature of the presentation and the constructive discussion that could’ve been had.

Although it’s been difficult to get neighbors and the U to see eye to eye, we hope they can come together at future design discussions and hopefully find a common ground to move the master plan forward for the betterment of our community.

EDITOR’S NOTE (6/22):

Progress on the PhilaU front! Jon Berger has been in email communication with Jeff Cromarty of PhilaU this past weekend. Berger offered him the opportunity to reconvene with Andropogon and go over the Chestnut Hill presentation again.  He’s currently awaiting a reply.

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