Wednesday, March 15, 2006

Damage Control...

Sanjiv Jain & the Ballad of Commerce Bank

by Jim Foster

The page 2 story in the March 9th Chestnut Hill Local about Commerce Bank is more fiction than fact. Sanjiv Jain, VP of the Physical Division of the CHCA, crafts an explanation of the CB situation at 8600 Germantown Ave., the old GAP store site, to cover his tracks and those of the CHCA leadership. He defines chutzpah -- there hasn't been so much manure on the Avenue since the 23 trolley was a horsecar.

Jain now claims he was "shocked" to learn the extent of the demolition at the old GAP site beyond what was agreed upon with CHCA committees, but for months has defended the bank's right to work a remedy in secret, with no feedback from the community. He repeated this regularly at Executive Committee and Board meetings from October through January. As I read the Local story, I flashed on Mr. Jain as the Prefect of Police in "Casablanca" , claiming he was "shocked, shocked", to find gambling at Rick's American cafe . . .

Then suddenly, Jain and the CHCA were "concerned" about the unprotected work site, the reduction of setbacks, (to quietly give the bank more square footage than they'd agreed to), etc. But no attempt has been made to pressure Commerce to secure the danger caused by over-deconstruction during all the time that's passed, or to call them on their sneakiness. Where are the reports he now cites of complaints from community members? Did they only begin recently? When I reported the Department of Licenses and Inspection/ Commerce stalemate (L & I ordered a work stoppage in October, when Hillers first began complaining), to the Board? This despite Maxine Dornemman's attempts to silence me, and her claim that the CHCA leadership "already knew the facts." If they knew, why didn't they make the problems public through the Local, or regular CHCA channels? The truth is, the CHCA learned the full story only after I submitted a copy of L & I's rejection of Commerce's appeal of the work stoppage order in my Local column in February.

Currently, Jain is claiming Commerce "has not been the most vocal," when all along he's kept repeating they were "informative" about the process, "although they were not required to do so." We were reminded of this ad nauseam until very recently, when Physical Division reports were abruptly curtailed!

And now Jain suggests that the financially strapped CHCA subsidize Commerce Bank by erecting a wooden fence with a mural to cover up the dangerous, unsightly mess they've created, with the hope that the bank will someday reimburse the community "later." Newsflash, Sanjiv: Commerce should be required to pay for its own mistakes and finagling now.

And all of this from a VP of the Physical Division who may have a conflict of interest in this affair, since he represents the arm of our quasi-government most involved with all things related to buildings, permits and zoning. Who is one of the most aggressive developers and real estate entrepreneurs in the area, owning more than 50 properties city-wide, many in Chestnut Hill, under the Legacy Real Estate title. In fact, Jain owns six properties within 85 yards of the Commerce Bank location. Two right across the street. A more judicious man might recuse himself from carrying the ball on a deal that will obviously tend to benefit him.

There's also the arrival of Vito F. Canuso Jr. on the scene. Canuso happens to be the Chairman of the Philadelphia Republican Party, and now he's working as a hired gun for Commerce Bank in its zoning appeal on the work stoppage. His first filing sought to partially justify illegal work already done, and further reduce required setbacks. His presence raises the hard question of political influence, never far away from zoning matters in this city.

I say that the Local's "news story" was a self-serving 11th-hour attempt at face-saving. The Local's new editor should read the summary below, and make her own decisions about future coverage:
(Ed. Note: Jain/Dornemann in paragraph 3 corrected on March 16).

Commerce Bank -- a Tragicomedy in Six Acts

Act I
Beginning in June, 2005, a new neighbor, Commerce Bank, begins making moves to first lease, then buy, the former GAP property at 8600 Germantown Avenue. It immediately sponsors half of the annual premier CHCA community event, the Black and White Gala, in the amount of $6500. The Gala takes place in September.

Act 2
Intending to modify the former retail space, detailed plans are filed with the City's Department of Licenses and Inspections, on Oct. 7. The modifications are limited to what is permitted under the Code, and include no codicil for major demolition of the roof or walls. It's agreed that interaction with the community and very specific limited designs should keep the project within Chestnut Hill guidelines, to preclude Commerce's signature big white box design, with red C and over-sized glass windows, from being built. The application is filed on behalf of Commerce by Builders Inc. of Havertown, Pa. The architect's drawings are consistent with requirements. A permit is issued. Work commences.

Act 3
Contractors immediately dismantle all four exterior walls, interior partitions, and major portions of the roof; only supporting pillars and a small portion of the roof remain. Local residents call the infractions to the attention of city inspectors, and a work stoppage order is issued. This takes place in late October, 2005, and the property is then fenced in with blue plastic sheeting. The community awaits an outcome -- a decision from city officials.

Act 4
With no notice, developers file application to legalize what they've just done illegally. The idea is to expand the project beyond the original guidelines -- a common practice in the City of Brotherly Love, which often allows such practices if violations are relatively minor. These violations, however, are massive. And this portion of the Zoning Code was not intended to create a route around variances. But it's no secret that the Code gets manipulated by savvy developers, especially if the community is silent or passive. Often the legalization process may not require notification and posting to the community. Developers try not to involve the community too much.At 8600, legalization was not approved, however, and the matter languishes in legal limbo. Months pass with no word forthcoming.

Act 5
On January 17th of this year, politically-connected zoning attorney Vito F. Canuso, Jr. arrives and files an additional application for legalization as an agent for Commerce Bank. The application goes even further, allowing for re-erection of existing roof and building walls, but with a further expansion of the perimeter of the walls to reduce rear yard depth from the required nine feet ten inches to one foot! This gives the bank more interior room than it agreed to. No action is taken on this application and the community is not notified, nor is the Board, nor members of the CHCA. The Physical Division is silent until a front page propaganda bulletin in the Local of January 26th puts a rosy face on this important development.

Act 6
On February 10th, a request is made to L & I for a review of the status of the Commerce Bank project that has become an open sore on the community for so many months. The blue plastic sheeting is now damaged or blown away. Three days later, L & I issues its findings. Canuso's application is refused. At this point the owners and developers can only appeal to the Zoning Board of Adjustment for a variance to continue their work. This requires clear posting of the property and the opportunity for all parties to appear, learn exactly what is planned, and participate in the process. Something developers tend to dislike.

Audience Participation
As members of the CHCA, community at large, or other interested parties, you may now want to actively participate in the remedial action needed to rebalance the scales of justice and fair play, and remove this major eyesore on Chestnut Hill's most densely-traveled block. Can anyone reading the above believe that what we've seen are simple bureaucratic missteps, or accidental over-demolition by uninformed workers? You kidding? This is Philadelphia, often referred to as Corruption's Working Museum.

The sad part is that Chestnut Hill has one of the most structured community organizations in the city. It has divisions and committees designed specifically to prevent this type of flim-flam.

When you vote for your representatives in the coming CHCA Board election in the Spring, consider those who prioritize overall community information and input over selective favored interests, and condemn those who oppose them as radicals and crazies, working to hurt the Hill's best interests.

You can now take two decisive steps: Participate in the process to make the bank inform the community on what it proposes to do before it does it; and vote into office a CHCA Board that puts your interests first.


Anonymous Anonymous said...

Thank you, Jim. This sort of investigative reporting on local issues is much needed these days. I hope you keep at it.

Wed Mar 15, 10:00:00 AM EST  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Twisted nonsense. Chestnut Hill should be grateful to Mr. Jain and Ms. Dornemann for encouraging healthy businesses to replace empty storefronts on Germantown Avenue.
Why is the blog so anti-business?

Thu Mar 16, 01:15:00 PM EST  

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