On Wednesday night Conshohocken’s Borough Council held the first hearing for the proposal to create a special zoning district along the western unit bloc of Fayette Street between West Elm and West First Avenue. Robinson Alley would be the far western border. The zoning district would allow for much larger and dense development than what is currently allowed along Fayette Street. If the zoning district was to be created, Keystone Property Group, the owner of the property involved, would construct a hotel, two office buildings (replacing existing buildings), a public plaza, and a parking garage.
The hearing was held after a regular meeting of Borough Council, which started at 7:00 p.m. The hearing didn’t start until about 9:00 p.m. and lasted until about 11:00 p.m. There were about a dozen citizens at the meeting starting at 7:00 p.m. and only a few made it until the end. A hearing of this importance should be held at an hour the public can more easily attend.
The hearing got interesting when the issue of parking was discussed. Borough Manager Richard Manfredi questioned whether the the redevelopment site was a Transient Oriented Development (TOD). The site being a considered a TOD is a key component to the project because the developer proposes to reduce by 15% the required number of parking spaces. The 15% represents the projected number of people using public transportation or coming to the site without a vehicle.
The parking issue got more contentious when Borough officials questioned why the proposal no longer includes 300 parking spaced dedicated to use by the general public all day long. The parking available for public use is now proposed only as available on evenings and weekends. We went back and looked at what was required in the RFP and what Keystone proposed initially.
Language from the RFP issued by the Borough and Montco Redevelopment Authority asked those responding to include details on “How your proposed development will provide the required additional 300 parking spaces available to downtown Conshohocken businesses and residents/visitors”.
Keystone’s response to the RFP addressed that requirement by stating, “Tear down Keystone’s existing parking structure and build an 8 story parking garage with parking for the hotel guests, office tenants, and a minimum of 300 spaces for downtown Conshohocken businesses and residents”. Deeper into the proposal Keystone states:
The new garage will have enough space to accommodate the tenants in the office tower and the hotel guests, and contain at least 300 additional parking spaces designated solely for downtown businesses and visitors.
The key word from the RFP and the proposal from Keystone is the word “additional.” These spaces were described as being not part of, but in addition to, whatever number of spaces were necessary for the hotel and offices. Keystone now says it always meant shared spaces, with the public time after hours and weekends. However, it used the word “solely” in the proposal, which can only mean the spaces are not time limited to specific times.
Representatives of Keystone testified that the cost associated with providing 300 dedicated parking spaces made the project financially unfeasible. In August of 2014, Keystone CEO made a presentation to Borough Council and spoke about the 300 parking spaces and referred to them as being “expensive” and “hard to do” but that they were an important part of the plan. You can watch the video online.
To be fair to Keystone, over the past two years the project has been scaled back. Keystone says the scaling back was at the suggestion of Borough officials who they have worked with on the project since its proposal was selected. The hotel has less rooms and the office buildings are not as many floors as was initially proposed. This obviously reduces the financial potential for the site.
What is really convoluted about this entire process is that the lines get burred about whether a new zoning district is being created or whether a redevelopment projected is being considered. Instead of creating a new zoning district based on what is considered desired development, the proposed zoning district is basically built to allow this proposed development. That seems upside down.
The next hearing was scheduled for November 2nd, but it was acknowledged that that hearing may be rescheduled. Stay tuned.