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Notes on the Annual Meeting – October 24, 2019

Turnout for the meeting was 41 residents of Lower Merion.  The meeting was called to order at 7:30 p.m.  Linda Katz presented the slate of nominees for officers and directors for the year October 2019 – October 2020.  The slate was elected by a show of hands.  David Petkun and John Willis have left the board.  Caroline Manogue and past president Brody Stevens have joined as directors.

The first guest speaker was Nancy Scarlato, Executive Director of the Ardmore Initiative.  She focused on current redevelopment projects currently under way.  Dranoff’s building, One Ardmore Place with 110 apartments, is 75-80% occupied by residential tenants.  There are so far no signed leases for the retail spaces; Aimco, the Denver-based leasing outfit that bought the property from Dranoff, is “close-mouthed” about prospects for commercial tenants.  Across Cricket Avenue, a 77-apartment building with 10,000 square feet of retail space is under construction, completion scheduled for the summer of 2020.  The plans for the Piazza proposal for 250+ apartments, parking and retail, occupying the entire block of Lancaster Avenue between Ardmore and Greenfield Avenues, will come before Township reviewers between December and February.  Plans are being worked on for a plan to rebuild the Ardmore Theater with 18 apartments.

SEPTA has begun work at the Ardmore Station, expected to continue into 2022.  Commuter parking permits are available for the lot at the corner of Ardmore and Lancaster Avenues.  The first stage of construction involves putting temporary wooden platforms in the parking lot behind Merion Art and Repro/Past Present Future (approximately 9 parking spaces will be lost).  At that time, access to the present station will cease; passengers headed for Center City will need to go to Lancaster and Anderson Avenues and head towards the temporary platforms via an alley.  Presumably outbound trains will discharge passengers into the Suburban Square lot on the north side of the tracks.   Nancy also mentioned that the garage in One Ardmore Place off Cricket Avenue has 210 parking spaces and is currently lightly occupied (average of 13% occupancy).  The spaces are metered during the daytime with the same rates as for Township lots and on-street meters:  25 cents per half hour.  There is a 4-hour limit.  Parking is free after 6:00 on weekdays and all day on weekends.  Ardmore Initiative is working on improving the directional signage to the garage.

30 new businesses have started up in Ardmore since 2017; only six have closed (including one near Church Road).

There will be free parking days downtown on December 7, 14, and 21, with a First Saturday event  on December 7, including a trolley, restaurant offerings, cookie baking and holiday ornament making.

Ardmore Initiative’s current efforts are focused on dressing up the pedestrian alleys that form connections from Lancaster Avenue to the parking lots behind the stores, with better lighting and more attractive landscaping etc.  Recently AI has placed 44 rectangular concrete planters along Lancaster Avenue to improve the streetscape and provide a buffer for pedestrians from the vehicular traffic.

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The next speaker was Mike Ogden, Kimco Development Director, on Suburban Square developments:

At the new Station Row Building:   Fusion Academy is now open on the second floor; they had a grand opening on the previous Thursday featuring a party llama.  A tech firm will occupy some of the second-floor space, as will Urban Outfitters, which will also have a ground floor presence (scheduled to move after the holidays).  [The present Urban Outfitters Building is slated for demolition as part of the Coulter Avenue 152-apartment/retail project coming in 2021.]  Ruby and Jenna, a New York women’s apparel boutique is coming in the next few days [it has now opened].  Free People will move into larger quarters in the new building in November.  The Shade Store should be open by Thanksgiving.  Endeavor Athletics is moving across Coulter.  Two fast casual dining establishments will bookend the ground floor of the building:  Cava on the east end features Mediterranean cuisine; an undisclosed restaurant will locate at the west end.  Le pain quotidien will not be coming to Surbuban Square.

Two restaurants will be coming to the lower courtyard, occupying spaces formerly inhabited by Jack Will/Kate Spade and by Parlour.  Details to be announced later.  There will be new landscaping at the west end of the courtyard and along Anderson Avenue, as Compass Realty moves to the second floor of the former J. Crew and Banana Republic locations.  The current Free People space will be “backfilled” by Gilbert & Evans.  A Simon Pearce store will be coming to the area where the Clark Shoes store used to be.    Some cleanup of the paving around the Gap has been completed.  The newly created train station plaza (where passengers from outbound trains can descend to street level within Suburban Square) will eventually be furnished with seating and other amenities.

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The final segment of the evening was devoted to a discussion with Ray Courtney, Township Commissioner for Ward 5, and Scott France, a member of the Lower Merion Planning Commission and chief of the County Planning Division at the Montgomery County Planning Commission.  Commissioner Courtney explained that adoption of the new Township zoning code has been postponed at the request of himself and some other commissioners because the draft was unsatisfactory:  it allowed too much impervious surface and the institutional zoning component was deficient.  He expects a revised code to be acted upon in the first quarter of 2020.  It is hoped that a sustainability plan, being worked on by the Township’s Environmental Advisory Council, can also be adopted at the same time. Then the focus will turn to master planning for the Township’s commercial areas.    Commissioner Courtney stated that he wants to see an economic foundation for planning for the commercial areas. He spoke in particular about the importance of planning with attention to the preferences and circumstances of millennials, who are often not yet house-buyers and who, in light of the growing on-line retail marketplace,  seek out shopping opportunities that provide distinctive experiences.

In response to concerns raised about too much density in the commercial core, Mr. France observed, based on his experience as a planner for the 64 municipalities in Montgomery County, that 5 stories is a safe height for a downtown district.  There was a discussion of One Ardmore Place, the Carl Dranoff apartment/retail project on Cricket Avenue that replaced the public parking lot behind the former Partyland and Viva Video; Mr. France’s view is that the promise of this project was an important stimulus to Ardmore revitalization.  In response to concerns about overcrowding in the schools, Mr. France noted that the School District’s statistics generally do not bear out the view that recent increases in the school population are attributable to new apartment buildings; the source of the current enrollment expansion continues to be turnover in single-family homes.  The Montgomery County Planning Commission keeps close track of the statistics:  A housing unit in a multi-family building adds 6 students per hundred units; a single-family housing unit adds almost one student per unit.

Further discussion centered around what master planning can do.  Can it do a lot-by-lot analysis to determine what is the most appropriate development potential of individual lots?  A member of the audience asked if this approach could result in illegal “spot zoning.”  Mr. France suggested that state law permits small area zoning, an approach that has been underused.  He gave the example of how a design workshop had looked at the Mapes site on Rittenhouse Place and suggested ways it could be redeveloped, preserving the retail function on the ground floor and adding several stories of residential space above, without disrupting the character of the area.

Commissioner Courtney noted the concerns about increased density resulting in further traffic congestion.  He stressed the importance of encouraging people to get out of their cars.  One of the areas that he will focus on is improving pedestrian infrastructure.

The meeting adjourned at about 9:20 p.m.

Hugh Gordon