Regarding All the Redevelopment…

Conshohocken Borough Council President Paul McConnell published a letter on his Facebook page recently that he received from a resident. The letter is a plea to Borough Council to focus more on the residents and less on the desires of the developers. Having sat through numerous public meetings when these topics are discussed and considered, plus having read numerous social media posts, etc., we have found that the argument against further redevelopment (and when we say redevelopment, we are generically referring to the large projects) lacks historical perspective and the current reality of the situation.

This post is not meant as an attack on the writer of the letter. We do not know who it is. Our hopes for this post is that it will bring about dialogue that is shaped by the hard facts, which many may not like, and the realities of what is being decided in your name.

Below is the letter verbatim from McConnell’s Facebook post. The red writing is our response to the preceding paragraph(s).  Here it is: 

Dear Council, I have lived in Conshy since 1977, and have seen a lot of changes in the borough. Many, good ones, but also many not-so-good ones. Quite a few of those not-so-good changes are going to continue and totally change our town, and the appeal that is has for us who have lived here all these years, and for those who want to move here going forward, is diminishing.

We already have a ton of office buildings that make our landscape and streetscape looklike a city instead of the small town that it is. We used to be able to drive over the bridge and remark at how pretty the main street was without those huge buildings interrupting the view. And it sounds like there is going to be another huge hotel constructed on the left side near Washies. What about the beautiful historical firehouse? What will become of it??

Conshohocken is considered “semi-urban.” That is not our description, but that of the developers and Borough President Paul McConnell, who was just profiled on a technology blog where the “semi-urban” appeal of Conshohocken was touted. McConnell states in the interview in response to a question regarding how he sells Conshohocken to businesses considering moving to Conshohocken, “We are semi-urban. We have space for companies to grow. We have ready transportation access including two SEPTA regional rail stations and easy access to 76/476 and the turnpike. We offer a favorable tax level. We have a river and a trail. We are a walkable community and enjoy local restaurants and bars, proximity to major universities, and amenities such as parks, recreation, a rowing center and a community garden. We are building a tech community and have amazing tech companies already here.

McConnell states that there is “space for companies to grow.” Where is this space? It is the riverfront, it is building higher buildings and it is knocking something down and redeveloping the property. For example, McConnell, and the rest of Borough Council, support the building of a hotel and new office tower at West Elm and Fayette and West 1st and Fayette. The current zoning for that area allows a maximum building height of forty feet. Both buildings will reach or be close to 200 feet high. There is limited space on Fayette, so the only place to go is up.

To answer the question regarding the firehouse, within the hotel project, the historical firehouse will be preserved and will likely be turned into a restaurant.

When are we going to have access to our river? How beautiful it could have been down there- a place where the residents could enjoy it, and maybe bring their boats down. I don’t even know where to put in a boat/ canoe, except for the West Consho. side. If there is somewhere on our side, please let me know where it is.

Conshohocken’s riverfront, since the founding of the borough, has been almost exclusively used for industry. When you view old photos of the riverfront, you see huge imposing buildings along the length of the river, a canal and smoke stacks (see photo above, approximately 1900). You don’t see beach blankets and people throwing frisbees. Once these businesses closed, they left a polluted mess. No one used the riverfront for recreation, unless you wanted your family playing on ground contaminated by a battery factory or other industrial businesses.

When the Blue Route became a reality and an exit was built into the Conshohockens, the riverfront became a hot location for redevelopment. The riverfront was eventually cleaned-up and development began. To provide open space and access to the riverfront for the residents, the town fathers and mothers came up with a concept called the “100 foot strip.” This was a deal worked out with the developers to provide 100′ from the water’s edge to use as open space and recreation. This is a very important point that needs to be made. The redevelopment created, for really the first time. a recreation area on the riverfront. The new apartments and office building did not, and are not, taking open space away.

Now you are saying, “no one ever goes to the river to do anything” and you would be right saying that. The redevelopment has occurred in spurts over time, so the long term vision of the 100′ strip has not yet been realized. However, we are on the cusp of a great deal of it becoming a reality.

In the past year, a dog park and a rowing center have been created within the 100′ strip. The dog park is within the 100′ strip between the river and Londonbury apartments. The rowing center is under construction between the Riverwalk apartments and the river. The plans for the just approved apartments at 51 Washington Street include the creation of a vista to view the river. The office building that is making its way through the approval process, and will be located behind Millennium 1 & 2, and next to Londonbury, includes an amphitheater that exists within the office building property and the 100′ strip (it will be available for public use). The plans for the proposed apartments on the 400 block of Washington Street include the start of a path that would extend from the Whitemarsh border and connect with existing paths in front of the developments up river. All of the listed amenities only exist due to the clean-up and redevelopment of the riverfront.

Obviously access to these amenities is important. You wouldn’t necessarily know it, but there are access points to the riverfront and semi-public parking in that area. For example, the dog park was built last summer, but there is not one sign on Washington Street informing people of its location and where you can park. Don’t blame the developers, discuss it with your elected representatives..

You may also want to question your elected officials because, thus far, the two major recreation opportunities on the riverfront involve having to become a member. You have to pay a small fee to utilize the dog park and it will be a similar situation once the rowing center opens. It is really open space and public if you have to pay to use it?

And the lack of parking and the traffic is out of control.

Back to the hotel and office tower on the first block of Fayette Street, the traffic engineer hired by the Borough told us point blank that the development that will have the most impact on traffic is the hotel and new office tower. Now answer this, who is selling the property to develop the hotel to a developer? You are! The Borough of Conshohocken owns the land. How can the Borough bust anyone else’s chops regarding traffic studies when the project that it has a vested interest in is deemed by its own traffic engineer as the one with the most impact? The intersection of Elm and Fayette is rated F and the Borough itself is selling the property for the project that will make it worse. If you take away anything from this post, we hope it is this point. 

Regarding parking, this project also includes an eight story parking deck that will hopefully help with parking in the lower avenues.

And now there’s plans for 620 additional apartments by our river? Why do we need more apartment buildings? Why can’t that land be used by our residents, and give us some access to our river? We used to be a town where most people owned their homes- now I understand that we have close to or over 50% rentals- do you think that is good thing?

The number of apartments proposed and recently approved is an issue for Conshohocken. If everything on the table gets built, we have heard that the percentage of rental properties vs. owned homes will be 65% to 35%. That is not considered healthy for a community. 

Why can’t the land for the 620 apartments be used for the residents? Well, it is not owned by the Borough, it is owned by a private company. The private company cleaned it up, it was a battery factory, and now is seeking to redevelop it. As we stated earlier, your elected officials worked out a deal with the developers years ago to allow for open space in the 100′ strip.

We were speaking with a current member of Borough Council recently regarding how members of the public come to public meetings and bring up open space. The member of Borough Council agreed with our assessment that when it comes to the riverfront, the issue had been settled and it is starting to work (as we outlined above). 

And has anyone noticed the flooding that happens more and more often down there? There is more and more impervious space, so there is no where for the water to drain into except directly into our river.

The buildings on the riverfront are built to absorb a flood and allow the water to be stored, as it would naturally in the flood plain. That is why you have parking or plain lobby areas on the ground level in the developments along the river. The buildings are built to allow the water to flow in, not keep it out. We visited the riverfront during the past two major flood incidents. The vast majority of the water is gone within 24 hours. We think the bigger problem is educating people to move their cars up the hill if the forecast is for five inches of rain in a short period of time.

We have come so far from the years when Conshohocken was a depressed area, but now, we are going way far the other way and turning the town into a city. And we all know what happens when a town starts looking like a city…..

Please, please, consider giving back to the people who live here, and not giving in to developers who don’t care what happens here, except for putting money in their pockets and fleeing the place forever.

The cold hard facts are that the riverfront is going to be developed as was put in place a decade ago. Here is the thing, the zoning allows apartments and office buildings along the river. All the recent public meetings are not held to question whether something can be built, it is whether a proposal meets the current zoning in regards to more technical matters such as building height, building length and numerous other details. For example, the developer of the office building sought a handful of zoning variances. One was building height. The developer sought a variance (permission) to build the building five feet higher than allowed. The developer received the variance. The same types of issues are involved with the apartments.

Feeling hopeless? Don’t feel that way. We are not trying to make you feel that way. We are trying to provide you the details on how to approach your objections to the changes being made within your town. As we explained the riverfront has the opportunity to be a great place once it is completed. Imagine on a Saturday strolling down with the dog, letting him or her run around the dog park, watch some rowing, hear a band play at the amphitheater, etc.

If the residents want to lesson the impact of redevelopment, the hotel project is one deal that is not done. The zoning for that area does not permit a hotel. This is the same issue the proposed Wawa has attempted to overcome and look how that has gone. The hotel is preventable. If you prevent the hotel, you also likely prevent the replacement of the office building at West 1st and Fayette with a much larger one, since they are tied together.

However, lets also remember that the hotel and new office building are tied to the redevelopment of the mold infested Verizon Building, which the residents also own. Once that building is stripped down to the steel (and this is going to happen sooner than later), can the Borough change its mind about the hotel and new office tower? Is the process too far along to stop without a legal mess resulting?

And if you think we are saying this because we are motivated to help or hurt certain developments you are wrong. The more people living, working and coming to Conshohocken and West Conshohocken means more interest in this website. The hotel and office building project would bring more advertising dollars and people visiting the site. So it would be good for, but that doesn’t mean its a good idea for the town as a whole and that is for the residents to determine.

We hope this helps drive the discussion on redevelopment. Feel free to add your thoughts or even tell us we are crazy in the comments…