After a long and spirited discussion Wednesday night, the Lower Merion Board of Commissioners' Economic Revitalization Committee voted 8-3 to recommend approval of an amended agreement with Dranoff Properties for the development of the Cricket Avenue parking lot in Ardmore. The full board will vote on the agreement Dec. 19.
Dranoff's mixed use project will include 121 apartments, retail space and a mix of public/private parking on the current site of the Cricket Avenue municipal parking lot. The Cricket lot development was originally one part of a revitalization effort focusing on transit improvements and a commuter parking garage, but the two projects will now be pursued separately as efforts to secure public funds for the transit improvements project continue.
In June, commissioners voted to extend the township’s agreement with Dranoff Properties through Dec. 31 to give the Township Negotiating Committee time to work with Dranoff on a modified development agreement, the product of which commissioners recommended for approval on Wednesday. Commissioners will still need to approve any land development plan brought forth by Dranoff.
The revised development agreement ties Dranoff exclusively to the Cricket lot development, but several commissioners expressed confidence in the viability of the train station and parking garage project despite its separation from the Dranoff plan.
Dranoff's plan will bring in new residents and retailers as well as an estimated $380,000 per year in property taxes, the majority of which would go to the school district, Commissioner Cheryl Gelber said. The apartments are projected to add few students to the school district, she added.
Construction would add an estimated 900 jobs and $37 million in earnings, and after construction, an estimated 80 retail jobs annually and $2 million in earnings, Gelber added.
The township has no monetary obligation for the Cricket site, but $8 million, $10 million or $12 million in Redevelopment Assistance Capital Program funds—of $15.5 total in RACP funds that have been designated for the Ardmore revitalization project—would be used for the Cricket lot project, said Angela Murray, Assistant Director of Community & Economic Development. Which of the three amounts is used for the Cricket site depends on the size of the parking portion of the site.
Dranoff presented three options for size and parking, which commissioners will eventually vote on, with a deadline of September 2013, according to the new agreement. The height along Cricket Avenue will remain at four stories, with another side of the building either six, seven or eight stories, based on the amount of parking, Dranoff said. Only in the 8-story plan would there be a net gain in public parking for Cricket Avenue, and even that gain is moderate, with approximately 30 additional public parking spaces, for a total of 210 public spaces.
The small parking gains, or possibility of a net loss in parking, was a major focus of resident comment. Several business owners spoke up during the public comment portion of the presentation to tell commissioners they fear they will be negatively affected during the construction phase.
“I’m very concerned I won’t be able to sustain my business or stay in that space if this project goes forward,” said Maria Love, of Gymboree Play Music on Lancaster Avenue. Since Love’s business caters to mothers with young children, having no parking for families “would be putting me out of business,” she said.
Dranoff would be responsible for finding temporary parking for construction vehicles and workers during the construction phase of the site. The township will identify temporary parking for businesses, a process that's been in the works for years, Murray said in an email.
Commissioner Jenny Brown raised strong concerns with the potential for a net loss in parking spaces if the project moves forward. To say the township wants to do the project for the existing businesses, but come out with less parking or only moderate gains in parking doesn't make sense, Brown said. Eight years ago, were this the original proposal, no one on the board would have voted for it, she said.
“Give me a little credit,” Dranoff told commissioners and residents in a heated speech, after several suggestions that a new developer be considered for the project. “… Some things I’ve heard tonight are positively ridiculous,” he added, emphasizing his commitment to the project and the estimated $44 million his company will put into it.
I can’t believe that I’m hearing some of the comments that I’m hearing, so many years later, and it convinces me that some people don’t want to see anything happen, despite what they actually say," said Commissioner Philip Rosenzweig, who argued for approval of the agreement. Rosenzweig reminded residents that some project funds were procured by Dranoff and if Dranoff doesn't build the project, "the money goes away."
Part of the reason PennDOT and SEPTA are interested in the revitalization project is because of the momentum created by the Cricket project, he added.
"I think that it is the only way we get ... the positive development momentum, the only way we get the actual transit improvements that we want, it's the only way we get the revitalization, the people on the street—we take Ardmore, and we turn it into the vital center that will endure for decades. It is a game changer."
"We are trying to do a revitalization project. We’re not trying to do a parking project, we’re not even trying to do a residential project. We’re not even trying to do a commercial project. We are trying to make this place a place that is vibrant, alive, and we’re only doing that by doing many things at once," said Board President Liz Rogan. To make a decision based on the number of parking spaces is losing sight of that, and voting down the project would mean not even being able to start on transit improvements, she added.
After a four-hour discussion, the board voted 8-3 to approve the agreement, with Commissioners Daniel Bernheim, Lew Gould and Brown voting against. Board Vice President Paul McElhaney, along with Commissioners Jane Dellheim and Steven Lindner—both of whom represent part of Ardmore—were absent.
If the project moves forward as anticipated, Dranoff would submit a sketch plan by October 2013, and pending final plan approval, construction would begin in December 2014.
View the full schedule, as well as more details on funding and design, in the attached PDF.
Updated 11:30 am: the approval vote was a function of the Economic Revitalization Committee, not the Building and Planning Committee.
Updated 1:30 pm: Information on use of RACP funds, and temporary parking during construction, has been added.