Friday, August 28, 2015

Conshohocken making moves with real estate

Jessica Parks, Inquirer Staff Writer

For years, Conshohocken has owned not one, but two valuable properties that sat mostly vacant, even as it rented office space for its staff.

This month, the borough is rectifying that problem, with one of the buildings opening as a new borough hall and police station, and the other undergoing a market analysis to see if it might be turned into a bed and breakfast or event venue, or put to some other use.

The progress was years in the making and opens opportunities in one of the region's hottest real estate markets.

Borough offices will be closed Monday as staff settle into their new space in the former Verizon building at Fourth Avenue and Fayette Street.

Conshohocken had owned the building for nearly a decade, as it collected dust and sideways glances from residents and business owners.

"It was horrible," said resident Denise Painter. "I'm glad it's gone."

The 1970s undulating blue facade is gone, replaced by a mix of brick, concrete and glass more aligned with Conshohocken's old-meets-new aesthetic.

The $11 million reconstruction took more than a year, with asbestos and other environmental concerns causing several delays. Crews were still pouring concrete Thursday, even as people inside moved desks and boxes around.

The Police Department's move into another part of the building has been pushed back a couple months, as crews are still outfitting the space with cameras, gates, and other security features. In the meantime, the department will remain in its longtime home, the carriage house at the Leeland Mansion at Fayette and Eighth Avenue.

The borough has owned the Queen Anne-style mansion, built in 1898 for the inventor and manufacturer John Ellwood Lee, since the mid-1960s. In recent years, borough council meetings were held in the first-floor living area, but the rest of the main house sat unused.

Although covered in dust and peeling paint, the eight bedrooms and four bathrooms still have much of their original flooring, fixtures, fireplaces, and other historic accents.

"The building exterior is in remarkably good condition for its age and history," said Philip Scott of KSK Architects Planners Historians, which is consulting for the borough. "It would have been even more ebulliently decorated when it was built . . . but there is plenty to work with."

This month, the council approved a $16,500 market analysis to figure out the best use for the property. One consideration is to turn it into a venue for weddings, conferences, and other events. Another is to lease it as office space for doctors, lawyers, or other small businesses not attracted to the ample - and expanding - corporate-style offices near the Schuylkill.

Councilwoman Anita Barton, whose ward includes the mansion, has her heart set on a bed and breakfast.

"Every time I come in here, I fall in love a little more," she said Thursday, showing off the original claw-foot tubs and stained glass windows, and describing hidden finds like a tunnel to the carriage house "so they didn't have to go outside to get to the pool."

Leeland is one of the last historic houses in the borough, Barton said, after an 1854 home at Sixth Avenue and Fayette was razed in 2011 to make way for a bank.

Dee Harper, having ice cream with her daughter and granddaughters Thursday evening on Fayette, said she liked the idea of a bed and breakfast, a wedding venue, or "a restaurant, fine dining. Anything other than offices. We have too much of that already."

Harper and her daughter, Nicole Chesky, said the mansion should be preserved, but the Verizon building had to go.

"It was so old, not in a nice way. Like '70s old," Chesky said.

A larger project that was originally tied to the Verizon renovation is still tied up in zoning, a common issue in the borough torn between high-rise buildings and small-town charm.

Keystone Property Group in December 2013 signed a package deal with the borough and the Montgomery County Redevelopment Authority to renovate the Verizon building and purchase a plot of land surrounding and including the old firehouse at Fayette and Elm Street.

KPG proposed a 16-story luxury hotel, parking garages, office towers, and a public plaza, and converting the firehouse into a brewpub. Under the original deal, construction was to be completed within two years.

KPG president Bill Glazer could not be reached for comment, but said in an email, "We look forward to beginning the next phase of construction in 2016."

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