More on the Approval of the Apartment Community – What Changed in the Settlement

As we recently reported, Borough Council approved a 598 unit apartment community on the riverfront. The approval was of a settlement proposal that was negotiated between the developer O’Neill Properties and Borough officials. Borough Council declined to vote on a similar settlement proposal on September 17th and instead voted to deny the project based on needed zoning and planning relief.

So what changed between September 17th and October 8th? Here is what we have learned:

  • The settlement proposal on September 17 included a $1.2 million impact fee. On October 8th it was $1.5 million fee
  • Suggested environmental initiatives presented by Conshohocken’s Environmental Advisory Council were included
  • O’Neill Properties made the project an open shop, which means it will accept bids from any qualified contractors
  • A boardwalk and floating walkway were added (the $300,000 added to the impact fee covers the cost of this)

There may be some more, but those are the highlights.

Based on a conversation with a member of Borough Council, after their vote to deny on September 17th, there was a concern that an existing legal action over the project could receive a favorable ruling from a judge and then Borough Council would have no influence over what would be built. Through the settlement they were able to negotiate and get some concessions.

The project was always a “by right” development, which means that the zoning allows apartments to be built at that location. The hearings, votes and eventually the settlement were about what leeway the developer would be permitted in regards to following the zoning code, not whether apartments were a good idea for that location.

If you are concerned about the health of the riverfront, traffic, etc., your efforts should be focused on changing the zoning code. For example, did you know that the Legislative Intent of the Special Zoning Districts (1 & 2, which encompass much of the riverfront) (created in 2001 and amended in 2005) reads as follows (bolded portions are publisher’s emphasis):

It shall be the purpose of the Specially Planned District Nos. 1 and 2 (hereinafter “SP-1 District” or “SP-2 District”) to provide for the orderly development of a major business and commerce areas of the Borough of Conshohocken, in accordance with the objectives, policies, and proposals of the Comprehensive Plan and other approved Borough plans including, but not necessarily limited to the Redevelopment Plan and the Floodplain Conservation District Regulations. The development of these districts shall be directed by the plans and redevelopment proposals heretofore shown in the Comprehensive Plan and studies, which may subsequently follow and be approved. The logical and timely development of land for business purposes is herein a stated purpose of these districts. In addition, it is a purpose of these districts to recognize the unique relationship of the districts to the entrance to the Borough and of the districts to the bordering natural resources, including the river and views of the hills beyond the river. The districts propose to permit a uniformity of design and to ensure the orderly arrangement of buildings, land uses, and parking areas, and all construction hereafter proposed for these areas shall be related to this objective. The purpose of these districts is also to encourage a mix of uses, including residential, a variety of heights, additional employment, and to provide for the protection of the storage capacity and flow of floodwaters. The architectural and design arrangements of buildings are encouraged to conform to the general character and plans of the SP Districts 1 and 2.

So the official intent of the Borough is to make the riverfront a “major” business and commerce area, plus encourage a mix of uses to include residential (which includes apartments). So if this approval concerns you, your issue isn’t with the developers, but the zoning code for the Borough. The developers are just following the Borough’s lead in its stated desire and intent to bring more people and more business to the riverfront.

Zoning codes can be changed. For example, Borough Council amended the zoning code involving the riverfront in 2013. According to the Times Herald, items changed included the allowable height of building (changed from 250 feet to 75) and a few other items. One thing they did not change was allowing apartment buildings to be built along the riverfront. 

So now what? If you are concerned about development in Conshohocken, the next big zoning issue to come before the Borough will likely be the proposed creation of a Special Zoning District No. 4 to allow for Keystone Property Group’s building of a hotel and the redevelopment of two smaller office buildings into larger ones. This new zoning district would run from the western side of Fayette Street between West Elm Street and West First Avenue. We haven’t seen a map of the proposed footprint of this new district, but we were told by an insider that it currently encompasses Saint Mary Parish, which would push its boundary from Fayette Street to Maple Street.

More to come…