Saturday, October 29, 2011

Lower Merion residents fear City Avenue urbanization from plan

After years of being worried about what a rezoned City Avenue might look like, some Lower Merion residents this week got a look at sketches showing what the change could mean for the busy corridor.

They're still worried.

"People are fearful of a lot of extreme densification and urbanization," said Teri Simon, president of the Wynnewood Civic Association. Township officials "have made some changes . . . but they haven't changed that."

Township leaders held two public meetings to answer questions on the rezoning ordinance, which seeks to make City Avenue more pedestrian-friendly and create mixed-use commercial and residential space, including indoor and outdoor recreational facilities.

A sticking point for residents has been the proposal to allow building heights to reach 200 feet. In addition, the ordinance allows buildings to be closer to the curb, with retail in the bottom floors. While some residents fear urbanization, township officials envision a more-walkable corridor replacing the current vista of mid-rise buildings and surface parking lots.

Board of Commissioners President Liz Rogan said the rezoning aims to transform the district into a place that is "more vibrant and pedestrian-friendly."

"The best way to secure people's investments is to have a sustainable community," Rogan said. "I think it's critical for the township to be sustainable in the future, and we can't sustain the quality of life we have now on the backs of the residential community we have."

Rogan said she thought redevelopment would boost property values of the City Avenue district in Lower Merion as well as surrounding communities.

Some Lower Merion residents, however, see the plans and envision traffic nightmares.

"We are a suburban community," Shortridge Civic Association president Joan Hindin said at Monday's public workshop. "We don't want to be so urban-looking."

The Monday meeting was the final workshop held by the commissioners to get feedback from residents. The next night, a Planning Commission meeting was held to present the current ordinance draft to commission members. They are expected to vote next month on whether to recommend zoning changes to the commissioners.

More than 70 residents went to the Monday meeting, and about 25 attended the next night. A wide majority of those attending the meetings was opposed to the rezoning plan.

At the Monday meeting, Bob Duncan, township director of building and planning, introduced illustrations to provide examples for the possible developments along the intersection of City and Belmont Avenues. It showed commercial development, with buildings pushed closer to the curb, as well as surrounding buildings with increased height around the GSB Building at 1 Belmont Ave.

The example, intended to ease apprehension, did anything but comfort audience members.

Richard Kaufman, a Bala Cynwyd Republican running against incumbent George Manos for Ward 9 commissioner, said residents have been asking for pictures demonstrating the vision for the project, but the pictures shown did not help the township's efforts.

"This has shown what an absolute crowded, congested, urban area you're creating in a suburban environment that we all enjoy and can at least currently function in," Kaufman said.

"You've made my job easier to try to fight against this ordinance passing at all," he added.

Duncan said the pictures were shown because residents asked for an example of what redevelopment would look like, and that it was a different question as to whether the images portrayed were economically feasible.

In an interview, Manos said he understood residents' desires to see the project's vision rather than read about it, but he said illustrations would not accurately depict potential redevelopment.

"Still, I understand residents have concern, but from what I understand, these fears are based on their own calculations as opposed to accurate information," he added.

The Monday meeting grew tense as Simon put a question to Montgomery County principal planner Scott France, who attended the meeting on behalf of the county government.

"I have to point out that in Lower Merion, there has been an absence of planning for a number of years," Simon said. "Here, Commissioner Rogan is sitting there with a smile on her face, and this isn't funny. This is serious, it's the future of Lower Merion."

France said he didn't want to comment on the planning process in Lower Merion.

"From [the county's] standpoint, we see the area in a broader context, and we support the general goals that have come out of the ordinance and aren't critical of those goals it attempts to address," he said.

France said he saw the public's concern, but wasn't sure if that was because of misunderstanding the ordinance or other reasons.

The tension carried into the Tuesday special Planning Commission meeting, which acted as a workshop for the commission members.

Gary Brandeis, a Lower Merion resident and developer who serves on the City Avenue Special Services District, was the lone audience member to support the ordinance at the Tuesday meeting.

"This commercial district is important to the township as a whole, and there's always a fear of development and the unknown," he said. With adoption of the ordinance, "the Township of Lower Merion would be in a great situation financially and the tax base would be in much better shape than it is today."
Hugh Gordon, president of the Federation of Civic Associations, said he feared that impact fees, which developers would pay for infrastructure projects, would not adequately address traffic problems.

Planning Commission member Brian Hirsch asked about the lack of a master plan, wanting to know if there was any detailed document outlining the project in narrative form.

Duncan said that the closest thing resembling such a document was the list of goals in the ordinance.

The Planning Commission is expected to vote on the ordinance on Nov. 7.

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