Wednesday, July 23, 2014

Our Zoning Board Will Approve Anything

I'm tempted to just say that the people of the 500 block of Cherry Street deserve what they get.

I went to the Zoning Board Hearing last night and was pleasantly surprised to find, for once, a good sized crowd in attendance. What I later found out was that most of those people were there because of a Siloam Baptist Church building project. Apparently only one resident from Cherry Street came. Or, at least, only one got up to speak.

To review: the proposal for 522 Cherry is for 16 "stacked townhomes" to be built on what is now a parking lot. They clarified the lot size last night--98 x 116 feet or about 11,400 square feet, just slightly more than a 1/4 acre. In perspective, that's roughly equal to the size lot of a usual set of twin houses in Norristown, or 5 rowhouses.

The proposal is being make by Swede Street Associates who owns the lot. They're a business that does things like property titles and deed transfers, owned by the Chalphin family. On hand last night was Mark Chalphin, a 1971 graduate of Eisenhower High School. He grew up in Jeffersonville and the family business has been in Norristown for years. I actually met him in high school. He graduated with my brother. Anyway, I think I'll refer to Swede St. Associates as SSA for convenience.

Back to the proposal, which calls for 2 buildings on the site, one along Cherry. We were told that, from the street, this building's facade would even with and made to look like the existing row houses, with 5 entrances and similar steps leading up to the doors. There will be one tunnel-like access to the rear of the property in the center. This building, however, will be 4 stories tall. SSA said vaguely that some of the building might be able to go below grade to make up for the scaling differences (not likely since the property slopes from the rear, or else a full story would be underground with no windows) . This building will contain 10 units--5 doors on Cherry, 5 facing the Maple Alley.

The 2nd building will be behind the first, perpendicular to it and on the south side of the lot. It will be 3 stories and contain 6 units. The units in these buildings can be as small as 800 square feet. Both buildings will be wooden construction.

Also in the rear, on the north side, will be a parking lot with 16 spaces, accessible from the alley. This is the only parking provided in the plan--the only parking thought necessary by SSA and, according to them, the only parking required. (I could have sworn 2 spaces per unit were required, but perhaps that's only for rental units in the borough, or perhaps the Town Center District has other rules.) SSA seems to believe that the residents of their new buildings will only park in the lot, even those in the 5 units facing Cherry St. They couldn't imagine that any of the units' occupants will ever have more than one vehicle, or will ever have visitors.

The board asked about trash removal. The 5 units facing Cherry will put their trash out on the street for usual collection. SSA said that "some arrangement would be made" for the 11 units in the rear to bring their trash to a "central location" on the property (one would assume, dumpster). A homeowners association would be formed and be responsible for having the rear occupants trash picked up (begging the question--why would the Cherry St unit occupants agree to chip in for such a service if they're using regular pickup out front?)

The homeowners association would also be responsible for maintaining the landscaping (some trees and plants will be put in around the rear building), and for maintaining the parking lot and having it plowed in winter. I pointed out that Norristown's alleys are rarely plowed (and Mr. Chalphin himself confirmed that Maple Alley's never plowed). The homeowners association will also have to make sure the alley's plowed in from Airy St. to the lot. If they don't, of course, 16 cars will be looking for parking on Cherry and Airy until the spring thaw.

I also pointed out that our old infrastructure for water and sewer would be stressed by 16 new households on a 1/4 acre. No one seemed terribly concerned about whether the other residents of Cherry St. have water pressure or if their sewers back up. And no one was concerned about the stress to the electrical grid--all those units will have A/C, refrigerators, washers and dryers, TVs, etc. Brownouts anyone?

Only one Cherry St. resident got up to speak. I think he lived next door (as usual, it was hard to hear, the microphone wasn't turned up very high, and few speakers spoke directly into it). He was for the project, but worried about how the excavation process would effect his property (I didn't think SSA's answers were very comforting.)

I was the only person who spoke against it, and as I said last night, I'm not against building residential housing on the property or bringing more homeowers to Norristown, and I'm certainly not against fixing the stormwater problem on the site. I'm simply against the proposed number of units for the lot size. It's TWICE as dense as the 1202 Dekalb project. People living on top of each other like that will make neighborhoods go downhill faster.

Why do I think it's important to protest this kind of development? Because tomorrow it could be in my own neighborhood. Or yours. I'm sure all those suits who showed up to speak on behalf of SSA have nice single homes in the 'burbs. If their next door neighbor put 16 houses on an adjoining 1/4 acre, they'd sue. But everyone seems to think this sort of development is simply what Norristown deserves. People packed in like sardines. The lawyer for SSA said they have high density development in New York City and it's not a problem there. I've visited Manhattan for up to a week at a time. It's cockroach infested. The streets are dirty. There's no parking to be found. Often their trash is out of control. There are rats around their dumpsters. It's the least healthy city I've ever been in. Do we want Norristown to be like that?

Mr. Chalphin, despite being painted last night as a hometown man who loves and cares about Norristown, is in my opinion, more caring about the money he'll make off the sales of those units. The Zoning Board? They approved the variances unanimously, with hardly any discussion.

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