Mt. Airy: Residents Debate Mixed-Use Development Coming to Former Trolley Car Diner Site

Nearly 100 residents gathered for a virtual meeting to discuss their concerns about traffic and parking around a new apartment building .

The Old Trolley Car Diner site at 7619 Germantown Ave., Oct. 16, 2021. The lot is situated on a sweeping bend in Germantown Avenue and backs up to the Canterbury Apartments (Ryan Conway/PN).

Story by Ryan Conway

Nearly 100 Mt. Airy residents attended a recent virtual public meeting to express their opposition to a proposed apartment building coming to the old Trolley Car Diner site at 7619 Germantown Ave.

Local developer Blake Development Corp. has proposed the construction of a mid-rise, mixed-use apartment building on the lot.

The Mt. Airy Business Improvement District (BID) held a Civic Design Review on Sept. 30 to give the developer a chance to hear residents’ concerns. Blake Development Corp. and Morrissey Design, LLC also presented their complete plans for the five-story building, which is slated to contain 114 units and a commercial storefront. 

While some residents actively voiced their support for the project, a majority of residents took issue with the lack of parking spaces, the possible impact on local traffic, and the changing aesthetics of the neighborhood. 

Mt. Airy resident Brian Foley echoed the sentiments of his fellow neighbors, seeing the proposed parking situation as a potential problem for surrounding residents.

“There are only 38 parking spots for 114 units,” he said. “They’re going to end up parking in the spaces in front of our houses. Then where do we park?”

Not all residents are wholly opposed to the new mixed-use space. 

“I think it will be a great addition to the neighborhood,” resident Wayne Batchis said during the meeting.

Regardless of neighbors’ feelings, the project is likely to be built. 

Paul Chrystie, deputy director for communications at the Department of Planning and Development, said that residents could use these Civic Design Reviews to weigh in on the project, but it is ultimately a by-right development. According to Chrystie, by-right development means that the project fits within the existing zoning for the site. 

The City updated the zoning in Mt. Airy in 2019 after working with local residents.

“The zoning was recommended as part of the Upper Northwest District Plan following a robust public engagement process,” Chrystie said. “The purpose of the zoning is to create housing opportunities while protecting the corridor’s historic qualities.”

Tom Casey, another resident, said he feels some of his neighbors are just resistant to change. He sees the project as an opportunity to develop the Mt. Airy community as a whole.

“I feel people just don’t like change and want to halt all new development,” Casey said. “So long as it is being done tastefully, this is very good for our property values, community development, ensuring adequate housing is available.”

Samuel Blake of Blake Development said the location is a unique opportunity to push residents towards public transportation.

“We certainly are moving towards transit-oriented development,” he said. “Being somewhat urban, there’s a need for it, and I see this as an exciting first step.”

The closest Regional Rail stations are a 10-15 minute walk from the proposed site. Since the pandemic’s start, both of the Regional Rail lines that run through Mt. Airy, the Chestnut Hill West and Chestnut Hill East, have had very limited service. The Chestnut Hill West line suspended service for most of 2020 and into early 2021. 

Allen Lane SEPTA Regional Rail station, Oct. 16, 2021. Allen Lane is a 10-15 minute walk from the proposed building site. (Ryan Conway/PN).

“They are trying to push Mt. Airy as some kind of SEPTA hub,” Jim Fries, a resident, said. “In reality, it’s a satellite.”

The developer’s hopes that building residents would opt for public transportation may be a bit unrealistic, longtime resident Michael Fisher said.

“Hoping won’t help the parking,” he said.

Aside from parking, residents have also expressed concerns about traffic congestion in the area.

“Germantown Avenue can’t handle all that traffic,” one resident said during the Civic Design Review. “It was bad enough when it had the Old Trolley Car Diner.”

Blake Development Corp. commissioned a traffic assessment from Ruggiero Plante Land Design, LLC to address residents’ concerns about traffic. Their evaluation found that the proposed development will yield fewer visits to the site than when the lot featured a popular local diner.

Still, Jack Kohane, a nearby resident who commutes to work by car, doesn’t see any way for the development to keep from negatively impacting rush hour traffic along Germantown Avenue.

“It just gets so backed up now,” Kohane said. “I don’t see how rush hour traffic can get anything other than worse.”

For some residents, the proposed look of the site is all wrong, echoing a style of boxy contemporary architecture that clashes with the Victorian and Tudor architecture and stone facades that are typical in the neighborhood.

Elya Beer, who moved to Mt. Airy partly for its architectural charm, does not feel the proposed design fits the neighborhood’s character. 

“This feels like a drastic shift from the historical nature of the community.” Beer said. “It looks like it will be an eyesore that blocks open light for the street and turns more of our neighborhood into a concrete set of misplaced Lego blocks.”

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