As Villanova University officials sat in the front row listening, resident after resident approached the podium to voice their concerns about the university’s plans to build on what Commissioner John Fisher called “the frontline” of their backyards.
Despite some scattered support for the ambitious development along Lancaster Avenue, community members demanded amendments to the plan that would add 1,160 beds, a parking garage, additional retail and a possible performing arts center to the campus. Others asked the Radnor Board of Commissioners turn down the university’s requests all together.
“You go up here and make a nice 20 to 30 minute presentation,” Radnor resident Kevin Geary said. “We have to live this for two to three generations.”
During Villanova’s pitch to the board, Ken Valosky, the university’s vice president for administration and finance, assured the packed audience Villanova has no interest in bringing in franchises to compete with local businesses or increasing student enrollment. Though Valosky said it would be counterproductive to admit more students, he said the university wouldn’t put a cap on enrollment for credit reasons.
Graham Wyatt, a partner at Robert A.M. Stern Architects, also showed photomontages and renderings of the plan, which he called beneficial to the institution and the neighborhood.
But despite Wyatt’s description of the gothic, collegiate-style architecture his firm would use to create a residence hall connected by a series of archways and pedestrian paths, residents focused on what wasn’t included: a pedestrian bridge or tunnel across Lancaster Avenue.
Though the university maintains there won’t be an increased amount of pedestrian traffic, Commissioner Fisher, who represents the Seventh Ward, reminded Villanova officials that students’ closer proximity to classes may mean they return to their dorms more often. Fisher also pointed out that the bookstore’s presence in the new development could increase foot traffic.
“We all remember what it’s like to go to the bookstore at the beginning of the semester, wait in line for forever or they don’t have your books and you have to return again the next day,” Fisher said.
“My concern is we have 10,000 students traversing the pike,” Fisher added. “That’s a lot of pedestrian traffic. If it’s at all possible you can include pedestrian bridges – whether it’s over or under I don’t care – but if [the bridges] are not there, I think the constituents will care.”
Commissioners John Nagle and James Higgins also favored Villanova figuring out ways to improve the intersection at South Ithan and Lancaster avenues. Referencing pedestrian bridges on campuses such as the University of Pennsylvania and Vanderbilt University, Higgins encouraged officials to look at what’s going on elsewhere to preserve the safety of students, faculty, Radnor residents and visitors.
“It’s a death waiting to happen,” Higgins said of the intersection.
Aside from working with the township to improve its plan, Villanova will petition the board to rezone the area with an overlay district to accommodate its needs. The university plans to begin its review and approval process this month and brief the Radnor Planning Commission in March.
The university’s current plans call for some four- and five-story portions of the parking garage and residence halls, which would sit closer to the road than is allowed through the zoning code. However, Villanova will not request variances through the Radnor Zoning Hearing Board. Instead, the university will go straight to the Board of Commissioners with an ordinance amendment. After a series of public hearings, it will go to the township's Planning Commission as well as the Delaware County Planning Commission for recommendation.
“The tone of this meeting is that this is going to happen,” Radnor resident Colleen Price said after expressing disappointment in the Board. “They should go to the Zoning Hearing Board and get shut down.”
According to the university’s timeline, Villanova would begin construction on the parking garage in May 2013 and begin work on the residence hall immediately after the garage is finished in May 2014.
"It sounds like it's all about them and what they want," Toni Bailey, an alumna of the school's graduate school and Radnor resident said after the presentation. "We're completely not in favor of this."