Bala Cynwyd's dying main street: Will $100 million save it?

Kevin Michals, 46, managing partner of Cross Properties, stands in the middle of Bala Cynwyd’s nearly-deserted business district, planning to revive it with $100 million in three big residential/retail developments.

Kevin Michals, managing partner of Cross Properties, was walking down Bala Cynwyd’s main street recently when Patti Pfeffer opened the front door of Walls & Windows, where she’s been an interior designer for 22 years, and asked him about the changes she saw happening in the long-vacant storefronts across Bala Avenue.

Suddenly, there are “NoBa” and “La Cabra Brewing” signs in the windows, eye-popping art on the walls by the Philly-based AUTOMAT artists’ collective and a fully furnished coffee shop awaiting the imminent arrival of Rival Bros. baristas.

Michals explained that the refurbished storefronts are among 20 properties that his company bought to develop for mixed residential/retail use, bringing in hundreds of new people and thereby transforming sleepy North Bala Avenue, which the developers rechristened “NoBa,” into the lively main street it was back in the day.

To get the pre-build buzz going, Michals said, the developers are welcoming the community on weekends with their pop-up NoBa art gallery, a live performance and gathering space, and those universal social lubricants: local beer and coffee.

Pfeffer smiled and nodded. “We need happenings here,” she said. “The street needs a little revitalization.” Then she pointed to the elephant on the block, and asked Michals, “Can you do something about the movie theater?”

Camera icon CLEM MURRAY / Staff Photographer
The Bala Theatre, a 1923 movie palace shuttered since 2014 and tied up in landlord/tenant litigation, is the elephant on the business block of Bala Avenue instead of the people magnet it once was.

The Bala Theatre, a magnificent 1923 movie palace with a faded Egyptian motif on its façade, closed abruptly in 2014 and has been tied up in landlord/tenant litigation ever since. The A in BALA is missing on one side of its massive marquee, and the B isn’t in much better shape. The Now Showing sign in what was once the display window just reads Now. The civil case is due in court next month. Awaiting the outcome, Michals said he would love to see a reopened Bala Theatre be part of the avenue’s renaissance.

The Bala Pizza shop adjoining the theater is also closed, as is the Bala Thai Bistro across the street. The avenue has one restaurant, Pescatore — open only for dinner — three hair salons, and two interior-decorator businesses. It’s usually as deserted as the main street in an old western, minus the tumbleweeds.

In recent years, Bala Cynwyd has been a graceful, green, middle-class community ($113,000 median household income) with a sad main street, hurt by too many vacant storefronts that you’d expect to find in a steel town after the mill shuts down.

Michals and his Cross Properties partners are investing more than $100 million to revitalize it, supported by the Lower Merion Township commissioners, who made zoning changes over the last two years to allow for new, taller residential developments.

Construction is underway on the first of Cross Properties’ three local projects, a $45 million, four-story, 110-unit residential development two blocks from Bala Avenue’s business district.

Camera icon CLEM MURRAY / Staff Photographer
A couple of blocks from Bala Avenue, Cross Properties is building 110 residential rental units that it hopes will help awaken Bala Cynwyd’s sleepy business district.

Watching the heavy machinery working on the site, Michals said a friend “once told me I’m in the resurrection business. I bring dead bodies back to life.”

His company has bought the properties to build the $27.2 million “1 Cynwyd” and the $33.6 million “202 Bala” residential/retail apartment communities along the avenue. Both projects are awaiting Lower Merion Township approvals.

Bobby Fijan, a Cross Properties partner, said his company has worked with the township since its historic conversion of the circa 1922 former Eastern Baptist Theological Seminary, listed on the National Register of Historic Places, into the Palmer, a rental/medical offices community on eight acres.

“We love to revitalize things that are overlooked and underused,” Fijan said. “Bala Avenue is not just an opportunity to revitalize a historic building, but a historic neighborhood.”

Fijan praised the avenue’s hilly personality. “The street isn’t straight,” he said. “The small-block feel rings true as authentic and is just so cool.”

Despite its village charm, the avenue has been declining for years. Excluding the newly redeveloped BMW dealership, Lower Merion Township’s business privilege tax ($15 per $10,000 in gross receipts) increased 40 percent township-wide from 2010 to 2016, but increased only 1.5 percent in the Bala Avenue business district.

Meanwhile, the township’s main streets in Ardmore and Bryn Mawr are flourishing thanks to zoning changes that allowed for major development.

Ten years ago, Bryn Mawr’s business district was struggling, said Lower Merion Township Commissioner V. Scott Zelov.

A new master plan that included major changes in zoning and design along the Lancaster Avenue “main street” led to developments such as Bryn Mawr Village, which preserved the historic facade of the former utility truck depot while turning it into a restaurant, a La Colombe cafe, shops, green space, and parking in the rear.

Zelov credited Juliet J. Goodfriend’s decade-long campaign to turn the town’s dilapidated circa 1926 movie theater, once slated to become a health club, into the Bryn Mawr Film Institute as a major factor in the street’s revitalization.

“She believed in Bryn Mawr,” Zelov said. “The theater has over 9,000 dues-paying members and is drawing thousands of moviegoers a week into the business district. It’s a remarkable success.”

So, too. are Bryn Mawr’s weekend farmer’s market, antiques market, and gazebo concerts, he said.

The one long block that is the Bala Avenue business district is tiny compared with Bryn Mawr’s main drag but has the same big dreams.

George Manos, an architect who has lived in Bala Cynwyd for three decades and is a Lower Merion Township commissioner, said: “Back in the day, when Bala Avenue was really going strong, we had the theater, we had three baby-shop storefronts, and we had Henry’s Hardware, a phenomenal place, an everything store. One by one, they all dropped off and the place shrank to almost no activity.”

Now, he said, with the Cross Properties big residential/retail projects underway, he sees a near future of “more feet on the street and a place for them to shop at, eat dinner, and, if the theater ever opens up again, have entertainment.”

Manos laughed. “I’m trying to be calm about it here,” he said, “but it would mean so much to the revitalization of the whole neighborhood.” He sounded excited about the possibilities. He sounded hopeful.

Camera icon CLEM MURRAY / Staff Photographer
Kevin Michals, managing partner of Cross Properties, tells Patti Pfeffer, an interior designer at Walls & Windows, his plans to revitalize Bala Avenue with $100 million in residential/retail development. Pfeffer asked if he could also find a way to reopen the long-closed Bala Theatre.