Tuesday evening's Lower Merion Township Planning Commission public workshop—scheduled with the intention of focusing on the community’s vision for commercial areas—instead derailed into a disagreement about commercial classifications, then focused on civic associations’ concerns about the City Avenue rezoning proposal.
The workshop was part of the Planning Commission's ongoing effort to gather public input as it evaluates the “Issues Report,” which addresses institutional land use as set forth in the Township's Comprehensive Plan.
“Really the central question tonight …is what do we want our commercial areas to be?” said Chris Leswing, assistant director of building and planning. The Township is asking what the community would prefer commercial areas to look like and how the community wants them to function, Leswing said.
Leswing said staff recommendations for commercial land use inlcude a proposal to assign “typology” to a series of commercial areas with specific characteristics. These categories being proposed are:
- Regional Centers (areas such as City Avenue)
- Village Centers or Cores
- Transitional Centers (an area between two districts)
- Shopping Centers
- Neighborhood Commercial Districts.
Leswing asked some 20 people in attendance at the meeting for their opinions on the typology proposal.
Alison Graham of the North Ardmore Civic Association said the categories of neighborhood commercial districts and villages should be lumped together. Leswing disagreed, saying residents might not want a residential commercial district to have the density that is found in a village core.
Bala Cynwyd resident Barry Polis said that Bala Avenue should not be categorized as a Village Core. “When you come to Bala Avenue, that’s a neighborhood center,” Polis said, adding that in his opinion, Bala Avenue has become more residential than commercial.
A 'Sea of Semantics'?
More than one member of the public said they were concerned about typecasting particular areas.
Christine Vilardo, executive director of the Ardmore Initiative, said that each village within the township has different identities, needs and wants.
“Bryn Mawr Village and Ardmore Village are not the same,” Vilardo said. “They are very different villages.”
Leswing replied that the Township was not proposing that all villages look the same.
Teri Simon, president of the Wynnewood Civic Association, said she was not sure what the point was with the typology. “We are going to get lost again in a sea of semantics,” Simon said.
Leswing and Bob Duncan, director of building and planning, said the zoning should match the typology of an area, and currently it does not.
Planning Commissioner Charles Howland said, “I think the goal of the typology is … there may be things worth protecting.
By establishing zoning typology, Leswing said the Township can also establish zoning incentives and design guidelines to help promote the character of a particular area, such as a village core.
But talk of density and traffic concerns led to a discussion about opposition to the City Avenue rezoning proposal in Bala Cynwyd, a topic which then dominated the rest of the meeting.
Processing the Process
“The resounding thing that comes back to you guys is traffic, density, traffic, density,” said Gladwyne Civic Association President Karen Aydt. She suggested that a separate conversation should be, “How do we make the process more transparent?”
Aydt was referring to a hypothetical application that goes before the Board of Commissioners, and residents say, “‘I hate this, because I hate the process.’” The City Avenue proposal is a prime example, she added—it lacks transparency because “there is no master plan process. There’s no vision.”
Aydt said people in the township have been saying, “‘No more density. No more traffic.’ When do you say stop? At what point do you say it’s too much?”
Leswing responded by saying that was, in fact, the point. “I’m sensing a complete sense of mistrust …We’re listening to your ideas and putting [them] in a document to go forward to the Board of Commissioners.”
Howland responded to the comments about the City Avenue proposal by saying, “I too, am reeling from what’s being proposed on City Line Avenue, but this is not the forum for that.”
Planning Commissioner Brian Hirsch said he would have found it more helpful if during the discussion, the public had given examples of what they want regarding commercial areas, and talked about what their vision is for City Avenue.
“My problem is I don’t understand the vision for City Avenue,” Hirsch said. “I don’t understand what we want.”
Vilardo said business owners and commercial property owners have different wants than residents, and used as an example the issues of traffic and parking. Residents don't want more traffic, or more trouble finding a parking space. But for businesses, those problems mean business is going well.
Cheryl Gelber, a member of the Board of Commissioners, was sitting in the audience when she spoke toward the end of the meeting. She said if the Township wants people to walk, or use public transportation, it has to encourage that.
“If we keep improving our intersections …people are going to keep using their cars,” Gelber said.
Polis had said earlier in the meeting that the City Avenue rezoning was spurred on by an effort to solve the Township’s economic problems.
Gelber said the Township could establish an earned income tax and collect as much money as new development would bring in, but “We don’t want to do that as a community.”
“These issues are not as simple as just doing a comprehensive zoning plan,” Gelber said.