Indoor Voices Please: Special Zoning Meeting Edition

A call for common courtesy at East Falls zoning meetings.

Eastfallslocal.Falls Ridge feature

Let’s start with the good news. When we last left developer David Grasso in October, it was at an East Falls Zoning meeting with an overwhelmingly pro-development crowd asking him when the groundbreaking would begin at the Rivage site.

We had a spring in our step after the positive comments from residents and Matt McClure’s “No more dead zone on Ridge Avenue!” speech got the crowd cheering. It was full speed ahead for Grasso’s Rivage project and we were excited to attend the next scheduled East Falls Zoning meeting.

Eastfallslocal grasso renderings 1-19-15 text

So when we saw a “special meeting” announcement at the Falls Ridge apartment complex last Monday it didn’t seem like a big deal. It made sense that local Zoning would reach out to the people most effected by the development right across the street. Due diligence and all that. And besides it was billed as a simple recap of the general overview Grasso had given in October.

And then the meeting happened.

Look, we don’t mind tough questions. Tough questions are great — necessary, even, with development as large as what Grasso’s bringing to town. Let’s ask all the questions we can think of, but let’s ask our questions politely.  Like courteous members of society. Please.

David Grasso took time out of his schedule to recap last month’s meeting,  two days before he was expected at another East Falls zoning meeting.  The Falls Ridge tenants are right across the road from where he plans to build, so Grasso evidently agreed it was important to make sure those neighbors had every opportunity to weigh in.

So we’re wondering why, then, in the roughly 34 minute Q&A following Grasso’s presentation, Falls Ridge residents only spoke for about 3 minutes. The remainder of the session was dominated by question after question from mostly the same EFCC members who’d weighed in against the Rivage project at October’s zoning meeting.

We’ve got the entire video at the end of this post — you can actually see the same faces, hear the same voices. If this meeting was intended to elicit new perspectives about the project from a different group of neighbors, it failed kinda miserably.

As political theater, however, the meeting was more successful. We love how Marjorie (or “Meg”) Greenfield, an Apalogen Road resident since the 1980’s, demands maddeningly specific details that no developer at this stage of the game could provide — like she’s trying to trip him up or something. As you watch, keep in mind two things:

  • Grasso’s presentation is intended to be informational only. It’s just a recap of his October presentation for the benefit of the Falls Ridge residents who couldn’t make it to the last meeting. As in that previous meeting, Grasso made it clear that building plans at this point in the process are preliminary and that he’ll be providing specific building dimensions to the Zoning Board of Adjustment at a later date, well in advance of a public vote. (Even a Philadelphia Business Journal article three days after the meeting noted that the “rendering is still being tweaked” by architectural firm Morris Adjmi.) In view of these assurances, Meg seems to us inappropriately exasperated at the lack of detail offered.
  • “Shade studies” have already been conducted on previous Rivage proposals — some larger than Grasso’s — and none have shown that Falls Ridge would be thrown into shadow. In fact, one of those previous proposals, the Terrace at Falls Ridge, was more than twice the height of Grasso’s proposed building and had been approved by the community. Since Meg Greenfield was an active participant in that process, we find it strange she’s calling for yet another study.

But whatever, it gets worse. If you caught our post about November’s EFCC meeting you’ll probably recognize Meg and Chris Caporellie, as well as their warm & friendly communication style (is it us or do they seem to be working as a team now?):

Let’s get one thing straight right off the bat:  Meg and Chris do *not* represent the East Falls we know.  And frankly, we’re not sure why they’re so angry — or entitled. Seriously, Chris literally charges on camera: “You’re not going to answer to us, the community?!” with no irony we can detect.

Hey, guys. There are other voices in our neighborhood, you know. And new ones arriving all the time from other parts of the city and suburbs.  Community Council is *A* voice in the community, not *THE* voice of the community.  

And when that voice is suspicious or adversarial,  it’s impossible to have a reasonable discussion about development in our community.  We don’t mind genuine and reasoned anti-development arguments, but it gets us nowhere if things devolve into shouting, baseless claims, or insinuations that Grasso is hiding something.

When Community Council “attacks” like this at meetings, we don’t just come across cranky but also unprofessional. Who talks like this at public meetings? East Falls is up for 70 MILLION DOLLARS of development — lots of us attend these meetings to hear details & hopefully add our input.  We feel stymied when the same few people keep commandeering meetings to their tired, old, negative & suspicious agenda. Such behavior is not just rude, it’s unfair & it’s driving other voices away. 

As long as we’re on the topic of speaking for the community, EFCC president Bill Epstein also took a turn at the meeting to suggest Grasso’s project will cause people to leave the Falls over parking. “We have people selling their homes because they can’t park in the street, “ he tells Grasso, ” That’s the reality, that’s what’s happening in this neighborhoood.” 

Bill’s got a point — if parking is really that important to a homeowner, yeah, they might leave when East Falls gets “too urban.” But the flip side of that is all the new people who actually LOVE the urban feel we’ve got going on here.  Like us! And the many artists, students, and professionals who would like a walkable community with shops and services on Ridge.

Despite how Community Council likes to act blindsided by new development, East Falls has actually held LOTS of public opinion surveys about the Rivage site over the years. Time and time again, neighbors have voted for a mixed-use commercial/residential space for this part of Ridge avenue. In fact, EFCC’s own recent survey about the Rivage site shows 80% in support of the development as proposed.

You’d never know it, though, to hear EFCC’s “regulars” talk, ha.

But we ALL live with the effects of development decisions in our neighborhood and it would be nice if our public meetings allowed everyone to discuss, and even disagree about, development issues in a reasonable, polite way.

We don’t know David Grasso, but he seems like a nice guy — he agreed to this special “Falls Ridge” meeting as a good faith gesture, at least. But at Monday’s meeting, the guy actually had to defend himself:

We can do better. And we’ll get another chance soon to try our adult manners — we’ve heard there’s another “near neighbor” meeting in the works, this one regarding the development of the old Lutheran Church by HOW Properties. Stay tuned kids!

FINAL NOTE:  While some might be concerned Grasso is pushing for a final public vote “as soon as next month,” that seems a bit premature as the project still has a lot of details to tighten up before it’s even eligible for a public vote:

FULL VIDEO:

 

14 Comments

  • morganb

    I had no idea that “shade studies” were actually a thing until seeing this video. Sounds a bit…… ridiculous to me. Does somebody have a vegetable garden directly across the street or something?

    “As in that previous meeting, Grasso made it clear that building plans at this point in the process are preliminary and that he’ll be providing specific building dimensions to the Zoning Board of Adjustment at a later date, well in advance of a public vote. In view of these assurances, [name redacted] seems to us inappropriately exasperated at the lack of detail offered.”

    I have a feeling that David Grasso could have brought with him a 250-slide Powerpoint presentation, blueprints, a 3d model of the project, AND A PONY, and [name redacted] would have found some other reason to drop anchor on this project.

    • Sue P

      When I looked at the headline for this article, I thought it must have been about the second November ZB meeting and some craziness broke out, not the special meeting. Were we at the same meeting? People were polite and the only “outside” voice came from Chris who was at the back of the room and needed to be heard since Meg’s question was being dodged. If information was requested at a previous meeting and not supplied, there is a reason for frustration and distrust. Not providing a picture of the Ridge Ave. side of the building is ridiculous and makes it look like the issue is being intentionally avoided.

      I had no idea that shade projection studies were a thing but it made sense to me. Vegetables aren’t the only things that require sunlight. People also need sunlight, especially seniors! If your only direct sunlight comes from the Ridge Ave. side of the building, shade can have detrimental effects. Quality of life issues are not ridiculous and I applaud Meg for her concern.

      There are so many things to respond to in this article, I am going back to the beginning. DG took time out from his schedule? That is part of doing business and I’m sure he going to make mucho dinaro on this project or he wouldn’t be doing it.

      Falls Ridge residents only took 3 minutes? Most of those folks had probably never attended a zoning meeting and didn’t know what to ask. One lady asked several questions, maybe people look to her as a spokesperson. I heard affirmations from the group when I asked for a picture of the Ridge Ave. side of the building, doesn’t that count? Maybe other people were addressing their concerns. The meeting failed miserably? I don’t think so, it was nice to have questions answered and see how DG answered questions. He got a bored, distant look when he didn’t like the question which didn’t fill me with confidence.

      Maddeningly detailed questions?! Have you ever been to a ZBA meeting? The questions there are all about the details! If shade projection studies have been done previously, why wasn’t that information presented?

      Meg and Chris do not represent the East Falls YOU know. As an EF resident of 39 years, they DO represent the EF I know. EF used to be a family neighborhood that has become largely transient with rentals at my end of the neighborhood. It seems like many new residents largely look for financial gain because there was so much inexpensive property caused by the deterioration of and crime attributed to Schuylkill Falls that forced may long time residents to flee.

      New people LOVE the urban feel? Does that include people in their gated community on Gypsy Lane who do not have to deal with the daily grind of parking scarcity, the petty crime, the drunk and disorderly students? You can’t have a flip side without another side. People like my husband and myself along with other longtime residents have served as anchors to the community by hanging in through thick and thicker and who maintain their humble properties that are way more urban than the upper part of the neighborhood and who show up to do WORK in the neighborhood and not just provide snarky commentary.

      I read the online project summary and didn’t see a poll. Where was it? I did ask questions and didn’t get a reply. In fact, when I asked one of my questions in person, the response was bored and dismissive.

      • Steve Fillmore

        Thank you for your comment, Sue! We appreciate how much this project means to you. We provide video of the whole meeting so everyone can make their own judgement. We find Meg & Chris rude, and feel there are better ways to have a Development conversation. The issues you debate are valid ones and deserve to have a voice, but when neighbors like Meg & Chris commandeer proceedings, it shuts down discourse & turns people off. People like us, who most certainly *do* have a say in this community as much as anyone else living or doing business here. All we ask is a fair, polite forum for public discussion. We will continue submitting video & our commentary towards this end. PS let us know if you’d like to provide your own coverage of these meetings, we would appreciate an opportunity to provide an alternative write up, thanks again! PPS — the poll you found dismissive is an EFCC effort, can’t vouch for the response or the info on that, sorry.

      • morganb

        Sue,

        You should write counter-snark for this blog! Get everything out in the open. This blog is too one-sided without opposing views. (Your opinions are still wrong, by the way…?)

        Say what you want about Steve and Carolyn, but one thing they won’t do is deny anybody a platform.

  • Rideboards

    Thanks again EF Local for attending this meeting and once again shining a spot light on the ridiculous and irrational behavior demonstrated by the usual cast of characters at EFCC zoning meetings. I am ecstatic that this site is finally being developed. I can only hope that the developer is not chased away by the hostility he experiences at these meetings. I have lived here for 8 years now and for the first time I feel that this neighborhood is ready to take off and become even better! Keep up the good work. ALL who read this should try to get to meetings to make sure this positive momentum keeps up!

  • paula

    East falls better be careful. This coukd turn inti another mt laurel issue and a “project” per capita can be forced in once again. Affordable housing act will have a feild day with this. Shade studies are needed because they are sneaking in the true height of the building. As far as retail space goes. He owes nothing to the area. He can put in anything at any cost to the consumer.

    Parking issue should be included as it is where i live. I pay a hundred a year fir an extra car. But first car is in my lease.

    Wake up ridge ave needs development yes. But you need retail to keep people here. He owes retail space nothing. Look across the street. They still have vacant retail. As well as half of ridge avenue. Daycare centers a

    • Steve Fillmore

      Affordable housing? Project per capita? Certainly no one’s talking about putting the projects back! BTW, Grasso must file actual building dimensions with the city before it goes to vote, so it’d be a real feat to sneak a few extra stories past us all here (and the ZBA). Of course other projects for this site have failed and many neighbors feel kinda burned out on getting their hopes up but still, $70 million of development is nothing to sneeze at! If not a multi-use complex at Rivage — then what? Something needs to be done with that fenced-off lot, no? And there’s no guarantee with any developer brought in that they’d “owe anything to the neighborhood” but at this point we don’t see any reason to suspect Grasso of shady motives. Doesn’t mean we’ll give him a pass though! Thanks Paula for chiming in! Let us know if we’re off-base (we know you will)!

  • morganb

    Quote Paula:

    “East falls better be careful. This could turn into another mt laurel issue and a “project” per capita can be forced in once again. Affordable housing act will have a feild day with this. ”

    I agree that this is a legitimate concern. But I think it’s more likely that an *actual* housing project will be erected if no commercial use can be found for that site.

    That aside, I’m far more concerned with the proposed building across the street on PHA property. Whenever I hear “PHA” and “Subsidy” in the same sentence, my Spidey-senses get tingling. Yes, I understand that these will be “front-end” subsidies, but it’s still unsettling.

    Quote: “Wake up ridge ave needs development yes. But you need retail to keep people here. He owes retail space nothing. Look across the street. They still have vacant retail. As well as half of ridge avenue. Daycare centers a”

    Grasso said at the meeting that there would be 18,000 sq ft. of retail space. And the retail space that we have already will remain vacant unless there are more people living close by.

  • Todd

    Steve, I take issue with this article and am compelled to respond, not only for myself but because a fair number of people have emailed me, several who are on the zoning cmmttee, who think it is a disservice to what we are spending a fair amount of time, as volunteers, trying to do.

    For sure, and of course, you are entitled to your opinion and because we’ve met and discussed things in person on a number of occasions, I know your general opinion and that we often share a view.

    But as someone who is spending a huge amount of my time trying to contemporize and create a better balance regarding EFCC and the neighbs efforts around zoning and development, I think this sort of commentary actually makes the work that you know I, and a number of other EFCC zoning cmmttee members are trying to do, as volunteers, harder and more difficult.

    Just to address it, shade studies are a fairly standard part of understanding a building’s or piece of infrastructure’s impact on a place before it is built. They arent required of applicants to EFCC, but they arent absurd or infrequent either. It is a technique for understanding impact, and design professionals are used to doing them. I am not saying we require it, and I personally don’t need to see one for this project, but it is not an out of line request and although I agree the shade study from prior projects would be relevant, a building profile is what needs to be examined to create one so a new study is also not absurd. It is really up to David if he wants to undertake one or not. Meg asked for one. I told him he did not need one. I’m the chair. But there are a lot of ways to contemplate managing entitlements and community process. There is a view of the world that preparing one would reduce potential issues. I’ll address the tone of the request below.

    To respond to Sue’s comment briefly, Meg’s first set of questions was answered by David G. She misspoke that her questions went unanswered, and we clarified that after the meeting. I am expecting a second set of questions from Meg, and/or others, and I expect David G will answer those. Again, that is reasonable, standard for bigger projects and should be nothing more than how things go. Again, I’ll address the tone of the questions below.

    I take exception to a few things in the piece.

    1) You continually malign EFCC. Thats your thing/angle/view, whatever. I did it a little myself for a bit. I am now in charge of the EFCC zoning cmmttee. I request you stop categorizing the whole organization. Blame me if you need to. I have thick skin. Or castigate the individuals whose presence you don’t like. But it is not accurate to describe two individuals as the organization. The organization is changing. I gather videoing meetings and making them available is how you think you can help. I agree it is a service and helpful bc people cant always come to physical meetings, or may not want to (I sometimes dont blame them). You could help it change even faster and better if you lay off the generalizations that are no longer accurate (if when they ever were). Matt Mclure is on our zoning cmmttee. Chris who lives on the first block of calumet who has been publicly supportive of the project is on our zoning cmmttee. It inhibits the change you yourself seek to continually generalize on this.

    2) Bill’s point is entirely different than the other things you are so ticked off about. Its a substantive point based on years of comments from east falls residents from many parts of the neighb. As you and I have discussed, representation is a tricky thing but there are repeated frequent complaints about this issue and, in my view understandably, the zoning cmmttee over at least 6 years has worked on an approach to try to mitigate the concern. Is it perfect? no. Is it infallible? no. Is it something everyone will agree with? no. Is it absurd or not relevant and deserving to be lumped in with the behavior that so troubles you? no. Its actually basically a standard point discussed at almost every zoning matter I’ve seen. I personally dont think people who buy a row home with no offstreet parking are entitled to a spot because they didnt actually buy a designated parking spot. But the neighborhood is changing and change is difficult and we can’t sidestep stuff like this when it is the marquee issue for a huge swath of people, whatever your personal view may be. Its a standard part of entitlements in almost every neighb in most growing cities.

    3) I am frequently in conversations with other frequent flyers around neighborhood issues. Some are intent on using me, as the new guy who is different, as a fulcrum to finally quell the people they have been feuding with for years. Literally some of these folks have hated each other for years. I refuse to step into those feuds, but what I said to them was “were you happy with the 10/21 EFCC zoning Cmmttee meeting? if so, give us some time.” I’d request the same from you.

    I actually think it is in your interest to move towards a supportive rather than incendiary role. Yet this piece flips away from that potential based on the tone and personality of 2 people you already don’t see eye to eye with. These things are a distraction and you are amplifying them. From my perspective that is the same trap the folks who grew to hate each other fell into. Just bitterness, and an inability to keep your eyes on the prize for the greater good.

    4) My opinion is that the tone of several people at the meeting is unacceptable. In certain cases these are folks I’ve know for years, in other cases less than a year. It is odd and unproductive. But we are not the people police. We are not in charge of tone. I don’t own the meeting, and would never try to. I should have stepped in sooner, but when I felt I had to, I did. And you said thank you. I plan to run zoning meetings like the 10/21 mtg. The smaller group had me thinking we didnt need to be strident about monitoring airspace. When it got bad, I stepped in. These are just logistics compared to the real issues.

    5) What is most interesting to me is the question of whether or not the meetings and the information actually matter. I personally think it is unlikely that a detail or a rendering or an answer to a question is going to change the large majority of people’s already existing views. I dont know that but it is a hunch after more than a decade doing community meetings. So, write about the merits and lets just take a deep breath and proceed forward.

    Thanks! TB

    • Steve Fillmore

      Hey Todd!

      Thanks for your response. You make good points, but we disagree that our commentary is damaging — on the contrary, we find people who tolerate & even excuse rude EFCC members like Meg & Chris far more toxic, by allowing community input to be stifled by bullying behavior. If the video doesn’t upset you, well that says something, doesn’t it? Your suggestion that these people deserve some slack because they’re volunteering does not fly with us, who are also volunteering our time to cover events like Fall Fest & Love Your Park, etc so, sorry, they get no pass to act like a jerk in public. Until we see real change at EFCC, we will continue to champion for common courtesy. Finally, on the subject of our commentary — we are proud to offer our opinions as neighbors, along with links & information that we’ve carefully researched. We welcome you to submit your own commentary, that we will be happy to publish unedited. Thanks!

    • morganb

      Quote TB:

      “I request you stop categorizing the whole organization. Blame me if you need to. I have thick skin. Or castigate the individuals whose presence you don’t like. But it is not accurate to describe two individuals as the organization. ”

      A bit of constructive criticism for my friends – I’m with Todd on this. Guilt by association has always made me uncomfortable.

      Quote: “…..Just to address it, shade studies are a fairly standard part of understanding a building’s or piece of infrastructure’s impact on a place before it is built. They arent required of applicants to EFCC, but they arent absurd or infrequent either. It is a technique for understanding impact, and design professionals are used to doing them.”

      I suspect that more often than not, things like shade projection studies are employed as stall tactics, designed to lay a gauntlet of obstacles in front of a developer in an attempt to chase them away when a majority of the public is clearly in support. It’s especially suspicious when the people who push the hardest for these studies don’t even live *near* the shadow of the building. I may be wrong, but I sure do feel right about this hunch.

      • Steve Fillmore

        “Blame me if you need to” <-- Are you actually suggesting that we give other neighbors a pass to act rude & disrespectful at meetings? I guess you guys would rather we complain quietly behind closed doors than dare take on the Elephant in the Room..? These individuals make EFCC -- and all of East Falls -- look bad, not us. All we are doing is trying to shine a light on this so everyone can see what's going on. We're simply asking for common courtesy & fair play in public forums. When the tone at these meetings changes, our commentary will reflect that. This is what press is for, guys.

  • Jane Pap

    The possibility that this project will take place and that it will include a food market is the best news I’ve heard since moving into East Falls 2 years ago. Walkability is such an important aspect of making a neighborhood truly livable; a residential neighborhood is vitalized by having retail businesses that meet the needs of those who live in it. Plus, businesses that attract local residents provide informal meeting places that make neighborhood connections stronger. And, as an added benefit, it is healthy for people to walk and not drive every time they need to pick up a quart of milk or a dozen eggs. I sincerely hope that obstructionism does not derail this exciting project. How I would love to buy a decent loaf of bread or pound of good coffee in East Falls.

    • Holly

      I totally agree with you. I’d love to see a nice coffeehouse (I’m thinking La Colombe) or an actual food market within walking distance. I’d love to see some really nice retail shops that would attract a wide array of residents and visitors to our little community. I do think that this development should include parking (perhaps an underground garage or interior parking lot?) for its proposed residents as well as having some parking options for the retail section as well so that people who live in the immediate area aren’t too burdened by the loss of their parking.

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