Last stand for Chicken Hill?

Written by Diana Nelson Jones on .

Chicken Hill's development fight will probably come to an end at some point. Maybe later this month, when City Council brings everyone back to Grant Street for its vote on whether to rezone 10 acres near Parkway Center Mall for a developer to build a condo community.

The scoop is that this development will go through. But a clutch of residents has sandbagged the tide since late last summer. They scurried to put together a fighting force when they found out about South Star Development's plan to transform a former golf driving range into a 26-acre, six-building housing plan.

The 10 acres within the city -- the other 16 are in Green Tree Borough -- sit atop a small neighborhood whose residents describe it as the last bastion of Americana. All the homes are modest and well-kept. Kids play in the streets and yell "car!" to alert their friends chasing bouncing balls. Crime is what it used to be elsewhere -- shocking. Many residents have lived there for generations.

The city calls it Ridgemont, but residents down through the years have called it Chicken Hill, a more fitting moniker for the squawk residents have raised, schlepping from planning to zoning to council hearings with props and cue cards to testify. Many have read from the same script like a mantra, their notes dog-eared by now, the underlined words and exclamation marks wrinkled by fingers trembling nervous and angry.

The paradox of this issue is that this development, called City Vista, is consideed a model of getting it right. It is not sprawl. Smart-growth planners would laud it for using space within a community already rigged with infrastructure, with proximity to a mall that doesn't need to be built. That is one of SouthStar's boasts: These residents will be able to walk to the bus. They can walk to retail. And while Parkway Center Mall has foundered in recent years, an upscale condo community will attract retail, the developers'  spokesmen have said.

City Vista would include one eight-story building. Despite its height, it would not tower over the small neighborhood because the driving range is sunken and surrounded by woods, said SouthStar's attorney Irving Firman. He said 65 percent of this planned community would be greenspace, with six acres of new native hardwoods and a system of trails. 

Green Tree Borough has rezoned its portion and given preliminary approval to SouthStar's plan. Borough Council president Mark Sampogna said 10,000 people come to the borough every day to work and that "part of the attraction of this development is the close proximity to mass transit. It would be non-sensical not to avail [oneself] of mass transit."

But traffic is the biggest gripe among residents of Chicken Hill, and they expect it to increase. Hamburg Street, a lane that cuts up from Greentree Road, is eroding at the edges and lacks a sidewalk.  Residents have to walk in the road. Several warnings rose up from the crowd in council chambers that children will surely be killed walking on Hamburg by one of the new condo residents. Hamburg dead-ends at one entry to the condo plan where it also connects to a street that runs through the neighborhood. City officials have discussed with the developer the possibility of limiting CIty Vista traffic on Hamburg Street to incoming only to keep cars from using the neighborhood as a short-cut.

If that would placate some, others are fighting for their identity. What will Ridgemont, or Chicken Hill, be when 178 new housing units are occupied?

Beth Hanis, one of the leaders of the fight as president of the Chicken Hill Caucus, told council members that, "their population will triple our current population. Our neighborhood looks like ants beside these buildings."

Council members came and went during the hearing, pleading schedule conflicts. Their expressions ranged from perplexed to vacant to amused as they listened.

The highlight was when 9-year-old Tre Hanis, the star of Chicken Hill's roadshow, stood and read from his speech about the loss of wildlife. A man-made pond on the old driving range has become an attraction to wild birds and deer. Families walk up to where Hamburg Street ends to watch the animals at dusk. As the boy read his testimony in hurried monotone, his mother affixed to a poster depictign foliage big rectangles of construction paper with blackened windows to show how a big building would  block the sun. She dropped a construction paper sun behind the buildings.  

Everyone who spoke in favor of the project was associated with the developer. The nearly 20 people who spoke against it are Ridgemont residents or supporters from nearby neighborhoods.

Denise Zurcher said she and her husband, who grew up in the neighborhood, moved there from North Fayette several years ago because of its family-friendly style. "My husband's mother still lives next-door."

Kathleen Walsh quoted from the city's website a description of Ridgemont as "a quiet oasis." She said rezoning has "changed the quality of life in the neighborhood in a negative way with Parkway Center Mall. This [City Vista] would be the end of a quiet oasis."

Carl Suter, a resident of Westwood, took the discussion in the smart-growth direction, even more than the developer did: "Are these buildings green?" he asked. "Will there be geothermal, solar?" He held up a copy of 2005 legislation that limits building on steep slopes. "These developers are going to keep coming before the city until we have no more greenspace," he said, suggesting the city earn money not from so many developments but from tree farming. "Does anyone know what a board foot of cherry is going for these days?"

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