There is a green meadow in Germantown, Haines Field, where the hubbub of traffic on busy Ardleigh and Haines streets is muted by the sounds of birds chirping. Groves of black cherry and sassafras trees dot the landscape.
It’s a serene setting that faces disruption from a development proposal.
A plan by the Awbury Arboretum to clear the land to build a 5,000-square-foot Discovery Center and parking lot brought nearly 40 people to the arboretum’s Cope House recently for a contentious community meeting that touched on issues of race and class.
Members of the Awbury Neighbors Association have accused the arboretum board of directors of planning to develop the property behind homes on Haines Street without first discussing it with nearby residents. Neighbors said the center would take away green space, increase vehicle congestion, and possibly result in car headlights shining into homeowners’ windows at night.
“Where we now have a park space, they are talking about putting a parking lot, a paved road, plus a 5,000-square-foot building,” said Juanita Leysath, who lives on Devon Place, adjacent to the gardens.
“It seems like such a contradiction. If you are all about green space and nature,” she said.
Neighbors said they only found out in late April that the board had applied for a $1.6 million grant from the state’s Redevelopment Assistance Capital Program (RACP) to create the “Awbury Arboretum Haines Field Discovery Center, Meadow Labyrinth and Parking Area.”
It’s a move the arboretum board says will now be postponed after learning of residents’ strong objections.
Mark Sellers, chairperson of the board, said placing a new entrance and visitors’ center at Haines Field was intended to draw more people from the Germantown community into the arboretum because many are either unaware of the gardens or unsure if they are welcome to visit. As a nonprofit, Sellers said the state grant could help it expand.
“We are free and open to the public by design,” Sellers said in an interview. “There’s nothing exclusive about the arboretum.
“The notion of having a visitors’ center, a welcoming place, that’s right across the street from the city’s recreation center would permit people to know that we’re there would be a great idea. It’s all about trying to increase our visitation.”
The neighbors, however, said no one at the arboretum informed them.
“We have been left in the dark,” Scott Charles, who also lives on Devon Place, said before the meeting.
The Awbury Arboretum is a sweeping 56-acre oasis of rolling hills and ponds. It has free educational and recreational programs, including Adventure Woods, a playground for children, and pedestrians can freely wander its public gardens.
Haines Field, a property that stretches about two city blocks adjacent to the arboretum grounds, is managed by the arboretum board.
City Councilwoman Cindy Bass, whose district includes the area, said this is not the first time the arboretum acted first without consulting neighbors.
About 10 years ago, she said, it put in community gardens adjacent to a group of homes on the other side of a fence separating arboretum and private property. So much greenery was removed that the neighbors lost their privacy.
They complained, and after discussions, new shrubbery was planted.
“This is actually a pattern, I’ve seen this show before,” Bass said.
Charles emphasized that the arboretum board is comprised mostly of white members. Of the current 17 board members, three are Black, an arboretum official said.
The arboretum began as the summer estates of the Cope and Haines families in the 19th century. Thomas Pym Cope, a Quaker merchant, built a home in 1849. His son, Henry, a wealthy shipping merchant, bought 40 acres of farmland in 1852. It became a family compound.
Henry Cope’s oldest son, Francis, built the home known as the Cope House, which is now the headquarters for the arboretum — as well as a popular wedding venue.
The Cope family donated the land for public use as an arboretum in 1916.
Today, most of the families who live in the 23 privately owned homes inside the arboretum are white. At least three households include family members who may identify as persons of color, said Kate Flynn, the arboretum board treasurer who had been assigned as the point person to discuss the Haines Field project.
Charles said community members believe the arboretum board has adopted a paternalistic attitude toward the neighbors.
For example, he said, the RACP grant application called the arboretum “a valuable asset” in an “underserved neighborhood in East Germantown.”
Charles said the language implied that at least some members of the board thought everyone living outside the arboretum was downtrodden and disadvantaged.
“Who are you describing?” Charles said. “If you look at the signatures [on a petition opposing the new center] we’ve collected, we are working people, retirees, college professors, and insurance executives.”
Flynn said the board began discussing its relationship with its mostly Black neighbors last summer after a Minneapolis police officer killed George Floyd.
Last fall, it contracted with a Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion consultant. Since last year, board members have been reading and learning how the language they use, like “underserved,” could be misinterpreted.
Earlier this month, about two dozen neighbors gathered outside the arboretum for a photo. They brought protest signs, saying “Awbury Neighbors United.”
It had been difficult for board members to hear how the arboretum’s plans for a new welcome center had upset nearby residents, Flynn said.
“It was painful to hear about the neighbors’ mistrust of the arboretum’s general plans and perceived lack of communication and collaboration,” she said in an interview after the meeting.
“But it was important for us to hear that.”
She said the five board members who attended the session will bring the neighbors’ concerns to the full board on May 18.
As a result of the meeting, the board will consider setting up a new committee to include adjacent neighbors who could “vet this kind of proposal that would impact neighbors from the very beginning, rather than have them brought in after a concept is semi-formed,” Flynn said.
The board decided May 4 to withdraw its application for the $1.6 million RACP funding, and sent emails informing neighbors.
On May 6, the board sent an email to Jen Swails, Pennsylvania’s Secretary of the Budget, withdrawing its application, “given recent discussions with various neighbors and community members.”
It ended, “While we may be modifying our concept plan, we do anticipate pursuing RACP assistance in the near future.”
The board will also consider one of the suggestions to revise its bylaws, to require greater representation from nearby neighbors, Flynn said.
A wedding space or green space?
At the meeting, Evelyn Spann, who has lived on Devon Place for 50 years, questioned whether the board was living up to its purpose.
“What is the mission?” she asked. “Is the arboretum supposed to be a wedding venue and banquet hall, or is it to preserve nature?”
Spann, who is Black, is a former board member who urged all the neighbors to become members of the arboretum, and support its overall goals. She doesn’t agree with other neighbors that this is racial issue.
“The idea of building this large building on what local birders say is a bird sanctuary, doesn’t make sense,” she later told The Inquirer.
Currently, the Cope House is the arboretum’s headquarters where visitors can pick up maps for free self-guided tours or meet for guided tours. Another person at the meeting questioned whether the arboretum wanted the new entrance on Haines Field so the Cope House would be more readily available for wedding rentals. (In addition to weddings, Awbury Arboretum raises income through projects including leasing farming space to the Weavers Way Co-op and other organizations.)
Spann said some of the weddings are very large, with as many as 100 people, and very loud with the sounds of amplified band music.
“My main concern is they don’t forget what the mission of the arboretum is supposed to be, to provide a quiet, beautiful area and to preserve that nature,” she said.