Monday, May 24, 2010

Study will map out future development along Rt. 30

"The Delaware Valley Regional Planning Commission will wrap up late next month on the first phase of a two-year study of Lancaster Avenue stretching from its borders with Philadelphia at 52nd Street in West Philadelphia out to Wayne.

The effort marks the first time the regional planning commission has examined this 11-mile swath, which covers three counties and five municipalities. The first phase was launched last July and a second phase will begin this coming July.

“This is a first and it has a lot of challenges, some of them because it is a very built-out corridor,” said David Anderson, manager of corridor planning at DVRPC. “There’s not a lot of room for expansion and it’s very historic.”

As a result, expanding Lancaster Avenue will be unlikely.

Once the second phase is complete, and after several anticipated drafts, the regional planning commission has until June 2011 to offer a series of conclusions, recommendations, priorities and plans that could reshape part of this major artery through the Main Line.

At that point, it will be up to the counties, municipalities and other stakeholders, such as SEPTA, to decide whether to implement any of those suggestions, and if so, which ones.

Four areas have been deemed as priorities: Wayne, Haverford Road, Wynnewood West and West Philadelphia.

Locals want to see Lancaster Avenue more walkable, less congested and connected by bicycling paths and networks. Drivers along Route 30 frequently face heavy traffic, signals with bad timing and intersections that befuddle. Pedestrians run risks walking along ill-defined, narrow sidewalks with dozens of curb cuts. Bicyclists have few bike lanes at their disposal and there’s little to encourage cycling along the route.

While addressing those issues, the study aims to coordinate land use and transportation and tap into existing assets, such as public transit, to find ways to improve access and roadways, promote pedestrian and bike safety, and encourage smart growth. The aim is to improve the livability of neighborhoods that dot the road with better access and less traffic so Main Line communities can flourish.

Needing a face-lift
The recession has affected the Lancaster Avenue corridor and empty storefronts are no longer unusual. Pockets of the avenue appear to have hit a wall and are struggling to regain traffic and re-establish themselves as a destination.

“There are more vacancies now on Route 30 than there ever has been in over 30 years,”

Vacancy normally runs between a tight 2 percent and 3 percent, and now it’s between 4 and 6 percent.

To many, Lancaster was thought to be somewhat insulated because of stable and high-income households flanking it.

“It was a surprise,” a broker with Equity Retail Brokers who does leasing and property management for shopping centers along Lancaster Avenue. “During the downturn in the economy, people would have said Lancaster Avenue wouldn’t have been as impacted as it was. It truly got hurt across the board.”

He believes market dynamics that emerged before the recession have come to roost. “The market ran up rents so aggressively in the late 1990s and mid-2000s that the market got ahead of itself,” he said. “As the market resets and rents come down, the expectation is the space will fill again.”

Metro Commercial Real Estate in Conshohocken, said the recession has taught retailers to be “uber efficient.” When they look at new space, they’re thinking discounts — 33 percent off, if they can get it.

“For landlords, the question is always, ‘Do I do the deal I can do today or wait for the deal I want." “Drug stores, Wawa and banks are not expanding any more. Ground-up development is dead now. Existing real estate is the immediate future. It’s no easier to go through the permit process. Retailers don’t want long-term commitments. The retailer has concerns about a developer finishing a project. And financing is not there.”

For now, much of the existing real estate Gartner talked about is still empty.

In St. David’s, a Blockbuster sits vacant and sidewalks are crumbled. In Wayne, space where Cold Stone Creamery once dished out ice cream is now filled but has faced a revolving door of tenants. In Strafford, the relocation of a Wachovia in the center where the Lancaster Farmer’s Market makes its home has had a ripple effect, causing pedestrian traffic to decline and business for a pizzeria and a nail salon has dramatically fallen off.

Some proposed redevelopments of shopping centers, though announced, haven’t happened, such as Wayne Square, where the Acme sits in St. David’s. Berwyn is also suffering, as the closed hardware store, Pearl of the East furniture and San Nicola restaurant remain empty.

And, the area between Waterloo Avenue and Route 252 is also suffering from a series of vacant storefronts that give it a depressing look.

“When vacancy lingers, you then get the broken window syndrome." But he is confident that Lancaster Avenue will rebound because so many projects are percolating. “To some extent, I do believe it will always have the cachet that it always has had and will be revived,” he said.

Along Lancaster Avenue in Bryn Mawr, retail storefronts are dotted with “vacancy” signs on former businesses like Medley Music, Bryn Mawr Jewelers, State of Grace, Otonic, Goodman Radio and Marcella Soret. There are also “going out of business” signs at State of Grace and Personally Yours, which is liquidating its stock. Signs posted by the Bryn Mawr Business Association say, “Keep Bryn Mawr bright,” but offer a little consolation for shuttered businesses.

Solution sought
Still, for every retailer that has closed there are enduring independent businesses, including Suburban Hardware, Bryn Mawr Running Co., Milkboy Coffee, the nonprofit Bryn Mawr Film Institute and restaurants like Beijing Inn and the Grog, to name just a few.

In nearby Ardmore, retailers and local officials have been seeking a redevelopment solution since well before the recession.

“It’s not a real estate story, it’s a retail story: Why are these retailers not able to survive?”

He urged the Main Line to look to successful models like Old York Road in Jenkintown and downtowns in Haddonfield and Collingswood, N.J., where he said political leaders were aggressive about redeveloping the retail corridor.

By contrast, other towns have trouble focusing on the business part of redevelopment, he said.

“[Many] municipalities focus on aesthetics as a solution,” Gartner said. “They focus on cobblestones and goose-neck lamps. That’s not the solution.”

Opportunities abound, but development has come in fits and starts.

On one stretch of Lancaster Avenue in Bryn Mawr, Blank Aschkenasy Properties in West Conshohocken is in the development stages for a new, Class A retail-and-office complex on two acres on what was a Verizon garage.

The development, whose plans will likely be submitted to Lower Merion Township in the next two months, would include retailers on street level and offices above.

However, with the economy still in flux and numerous vacancies along the avenue, he said the company is taking its time on the proposal.

“If the time to build it is in two to three years, that’s OK,” he said.

In Devon, the owner of Devon Lanes at 300 E. Lancaster Ave. plans to spend $2.5 million re-doing the facade of the building and is leasing up vacant space.

WP Realty, which owns Devon Village, a 75,000-square-foot strip anchored by a Whole Foods Market, will eventually expand the center by 50,000 square feet and is in the midst of lining up tenants.

The former and now vacant Anro corporate headquarters at 222 Lancaster Ave. in Devon is up for sale for $9.5 million and close to going under contract. It sits on 7.5 acres.

In Berwyn, a plan to construct housing on 13.5 acres that included Jimmy Duffy & Sons Caterers’ property at 1456 Lancaster Ave. fell through, and the property is up for sale, offering what could be another site for redevelopment.

In what could be a game changer for Paoli, Amtrak, owner of the Paoli rail yard, a 20-acre tract straddling Tredyffrin and Willistown off North Valley Road, has selected a master developer for the site.

Strategic Realty Investments, a local real estate developer, was picked to come up with a transit-oriented development plan for the property that has basically sat vacant for more than two decades. It will still take some time for anything to come to fruition. In all, the project will likely cost upwards of $500 million and take 10 to 15 years to complete."

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