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Lower Merion Commissioners Approve City Avenue Rezoning

The plan aims to expand commercial opportunities in Bala Cynwyd.

The Lower Merion Board of Commissioners voted 6-4 on Wednesday night to approve a rezoning plan for the City Avenue corridor of Bala Cynwyd, to take effect April 30—but the Board plans to make further revisions to the plan.

The rezoning ordinance, first drafted in 2008 and revised several times since, aims to encourage mixed-use commercial and residential development, permit taller buildings (up to 200 feet in some areas) and create new, stricter setback requirements for new development along City Avenue and its side streets.

It would also:

  • Prohibit drive-through businesses
  • Allow for family entertainment centers (such as Chuck E. Cheese or Dave & Busters)
  • Aim to achieve the goals of improving pedestrian and bike connections
  • Encourage use of mass transit

Commissioners Richard Churchill, Philip Rosenzweig, Jane Dellheim, board President Liz Rogan, George Manos and C. Brian McGuire voted in favor of the rezoning ordinance. Dissenting were commissioners Scott Zelov, Brian Gordon, Daniel Bernheim and Cheryl Gelber. 

Commissioners Jenny Brown, Paul McElhaney, Steven Lindner were absent from the meeting. Commissioner Lewis Gould left before the vote.

More to come

More discussions are set for January, when the board will decide whether to address amendments suggested Wednesday by commissioners and civic leaders.

An official map—which will designate the township’s desired locations for open space, public gathering places, new roads and a multi-purpose public pathway along the City Avenue corridor (for pedestrians and bicyclists)—could also be discussed. It could then be up for a vote, along with the amendments, but only if the map is ready.

The board decided to make the ordinance effective April 30 to give township staff time to create, and for the board to adopt, the official map. The Building and Planning Department displayed for the board and public the first draft of the map Wednesday.

“I’m not opposed to new development, but I don’t know where new development is going to come from. The housing market stinks.”—Cheryl Gelber

The City Avenue rezoning ordinance has been met with great opposition from the public and prompted the board to delay its vote for six months. 

Although commissioners and township officials called Wednesday’s meeting “the first official public hearing,” the board held its first actual hearing on the issue in June. The board had planned to vote on the measure then, but several civic association members and residents asked the board to wait until it had gathered more public input.

Weighing in

At Wednesday’s hearing, the board heard from 19 people, including residents, civic leaders and developers, with some asking the board to delay the vote again, or fully reject the plan. Others urged the commission to move forward.

“It’s really critical that this ordinance be adopted,” said Lita Cohen of Merion, who has lived in Lower Merion since 1953 and said she heard “the same cry and objections” when the township built The Fairmont and Sutton Terrace condominium complexes in Bala Cynwyd, and the Bala Cynwyd Shopping Center. 

“These projects have worked,” Cohen said. “My fear is if we don’t do this we’re on the downslide. Floors 8-12 of the GSB building are empty … and vacancies are increasing. That means there are fewer dollars coming into this township.”

Conincidentally, an opposing view came from a resident of Sutton Terrace. “Do you want to live in an urban environment that is an extension of Center City, when you thought you were buying in a suburban area?” asked Deborah Hoffmann, who asked commissioners to arrange a public meeting with developers.

Hoffman contended that there was no guarantee the ordinance would increase revenue and no promised federal money for the project.

The projected cost of traffic improvements for the rezoning plan is $20 million, with 25 percent of the of the road improvements being paid for by the developer. The rest is made up of Lower Merion funding (25 percent), and 50 percent to come from a conbination of money from the city of Philadelphia, state and federal funds—which have not yet been secured.

Fix it first?

The Neighborhood Club of Bala Cynwyd, heavily involved in working with commissioners and township staff to revise the ordinance to address residents’ concerns, asked the board to delay its vote until new changes it suggested were made, and until after the official map had been adopted.

John Grugan, president of the Neighborhood Club, said the civic group opposes the ordinance in its current form but would be in favor if five points were amended. They are:

  • Traffic improvements, which have not been addressed “in any meaningful way”
  • Revision of the definitions of “indoor entertainment centers” and “family entertainment centers”
  • Buffers between the centers and all existing residential buildings 
  • An official map to be finalized
  • Typos and line edits in the ordinance in need of correction

Commissioners disagreed about delaying the vote until after any possible revisions, or about waiting until the official map was approved.

Rogan was in favor of moving forward, but suggested adding the Neighborhood Club’s requested revisions before the effective date of the ordinance.

Differing priorities

“We can keep twiddling it and tweaking it and tweaking it and tweaking it,” Rogan said. “There are other things we all want to accomplish and do.”

Bernheim said adopting the ordinance with the intention of modifying it “just didn’t make sense.” Zelov said he was in favor of the rezoning but wanted the map approved at the same time as the ordinance, while Rosenzweig called the map a “red herring.”

Because it can be revised several times and it is not required by law, “that official map has no real meaning,” Rosenzweig said. “That official map is not going to tell you what is going to get built and how.”

Gelber suggested a master plan be created, with the board only then going back to the ordinance. She added that issues such as impervious surfaces, the ability of the township’s infrastructure to handle new development, and safety concerns are more important than the speed of traffic through intersections.

“Maybe we shouldn’t be spending $20 million so more cars can get through faster,” Gelber said. The township should also wait on new development until the real estate market improves, she added.

“I’m not opposed to new development, but I don’t know where new development is going to come from,” Gelber said. “The housing market stinks. I can’t see where people are going to be moving into apartments on City Avenue.”

After the meeting, in response to Patch's request for comment, Grugan issued the following statement: "The Neighborhood Club, like every other civic association in the Township, is disappointed by the vote. Virtually every Commissioner recognized the merit of the amendments the Neighborhood Club proposed, and they agreed that a second ordinance amending the one passed last night would be necessary to address the Neighborhood Club's concerns.   While we are grateful to Commissioner McGuire for his efforts last night, we believe, like Commissioners Bernheim and Zelov, that no ordinance should have been passed under those circumstances.  Nevertheless, we will look forward to the honoring of the commitments made last night to amend the ordinance as the Neighborhood Club outlined."

Fay Wright December 16, 2011 at 03:38 PM
I thank that NCBC and John Grugan for representing the concerns of the residents of Bala Cynwyd. The Club's board members have done an outstanding job.

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