• Germantown Ave., Chestnut Hill, late afternoon, flickr photo by George Berstein

Chestnut Hill Conservancy: Tools for Managing Change

Philadelphia is known as a city of neighborhoods. So how do we help these areas of the City preserve their unique qualities? PennPraxis’ recent work with the Chestnut Hill Conservancy is a demonstration of how this can happen.

PennPraxis is currently working with the Chestnut Hill Conservancy and Chestnut Hill Community Association to develop a set of planning tools and strategies for managing development, preserving architectural integrity, and protecting the Wissahickon Watershed. The Philadelphia2035 Upper Northwest District Plan will soon be underway, determining the land use and future investments in this area of the City. In anticipation of this planning process, this project will allow the community members of Chestnut Hill to come to the table prepared with their own suggestions for Philadelphia2035. The report also offers long-term strategies for historic preservation and conservation.

The project kicked off with several meetings in Chestnut Hill. To talk to community members and gain a sense of the leading issues facing Chestnut Hill, PennPraxis attended meetings with the Chestnut Hill Conservancy, the Chestnut Hill Community Association, and the local Land Use Planning And Zoning Committee.

Community members voiced concern over how large parcels are being subdivided. PennPraxis identified tools for managing the subdivision and redevelopment of land, including transfer of development rights, neighborhood conservation districts, easements and acquisitions, and financial tools such as a revolving fund. Examples of tools were identified in various cities, such as Seattle, Richmond and Savannah.

Residents were also interested in establishing better protections for their many historic buildings. Surprisingly, there are no local historic districts in Chestnut Hill, even though the National Register historic district includes over 1,900 contributing properties. This rich historic fabric is arguably what makes Chestnut Hill so special, and community members are interested in pursuing preservation strategies. Planning strategies for preservation include demolition review, overlay zoning district for historic properties, and local and state tax credits for historic rehabilitation. Communities such as Lower Merion, Baltimore, and Boston serve as examples of cities and towns that have preserved their built heritage using these methods.  

Wissahickon Valley Park is a Philadelphia destination, and the Wissahickon Creek is also a source of drinking water for many Philadelphians. Protecting this watershed is recognized, with regulations already limiting certain development. Tools such as green infrastructure, low impact development, and septic tank monitoring can help to strengthen these protections. The Catskill Watershed is a good example for strategies in watershed planning.

PennPraxis’s project for Chestnut Hill demonstrates how regulations, incentives, and programs can help manage change. These tools can preserve the unique and valued qualities of Philadelphia’s distinct neighborhoods.