Radnor approves Villanova's controversial cross-adorned pedestrian bridge

The Radnor Township Board of Commissioners late Monday approved a controversial pedestrian bridge that would link Villanova University's main campus with a planned expansion on the southern side of Lancaster Avenue.

The 6-0 decision, with board President Elaine P. Schaefer abstaining, came after an hour of debate and discussion over a key element of the bridge's design: 4-foot, 7-inch metal crosses atop stone pillars on opposite sides of the structure. In the end, the board concluded that it did not have the authority to regulate or prohibit the crosses.

Proposed Pedestrian Bridge at Villanova

The design of the bridge, which would connect Villanova University’s main campus on the north side of Lancaster Avenue with an expansion planned for the south side, would include two 4-foot, 7-inch crosses on each side.

SOURCE: Radnor Township
Staff Graphic

Chris Kovolski, Villanova's assistant vice president of government relations and external affairs, said, "We're pleased that the conversation tonight resulted in an outcome that allows the university to move forward."

One of the opponents of the project, Sara Pilling, a longtime resident who lives a couple of blocks from the university, said she understands the township is constrained by the law.

"But I believe that Villanova is not following the spirit of the law," Pilling said.

The bridge, part of a $285 million expansion project, is to be built over Lancaster Avenue and scheduled to be completed by 2018.

The controversy arose when some Radnor residents called it an audacious show of religion that has no place in a township of many faiths.

“I think they are overstepping their sense of ecumenism to shove these crosses in our faces,"  Pilling said in an interview before the meeting.

Villanova officials, however, maintained that the school was within its rights to include the crosses, which will be on school property and which the university will help fund.

“On every building on campus, there’s a cross,” said the Rev. Peter Donohue, university president. “I understand people’s sensitivities, but it’s just something we’ve always done. It’s just part of who we are. We are a faith-based institution.”

Before the meeting started, one of the seven commissioners, Richard Booker, said he did not believe the township had the jurisdiction to reject the crosses, because they are on university property.

"I'm surprised how little authority we would have to regulate in this instance," Booker said.

Kovolski, however, said the university also believes the crosses are exempt from township ordinances, but recognizes they are of concern to residents.

Luke Clark, a commissioner whose ward includes part of the university, said the question for commissioners is whether the crosses are allowed under the township sign ordinance. He’s heard from people in support of and opposed to the crosses.

Some residents, he said, have questioned whether it is constitutional to have crosses connected to a bridge over a state road (Route 30) and funded in part by state dollars.  The university is receiving $4.5 million in state funding toward the project.

“We are not funding it in any way, and I don’t think we have any say in that,” said Clark, a lawyer. Residents, Clark said, would have to take that up with the Pennsylvania Department of Transportation.

The 400-foot stone bridge would start at the Norristown High Speed Line platform and extend to the walkway of the university chapel on the other side. The crosses, which would not be lit, would be 10.5 feet from the right-of-way on the north side of the road and 14 feet on the south side.

Villanova spokesman Jonathan Gust said the full cost of the project has not yet been determined but the university also will make a multimillion-dollar contribution. Once construction is completed, the university will own the bridge and be responsible for maintaining it, Gust said.

The bridge will connect the main campus on the north side of Lancaster Avenue with the expansion planned for the south side. The plan includes a parking garage, which has been erected; a performing arts center; and six apartment-style residence halls with retail space, a fitness center, and a bistro. The expansion covers about 13 acres of the 260-acre campus.

The south side already is home to other residence halls known as South Campus and a student cafeteria. When those were built, there was talk of putting in a tunnel for students to cross.

“For a long time, people have been saying we needed this,” Donohue said of the bridge.

Some residents have suggested that it would be more tasteful for the crosses to be incorporated within the bases of the pillars, said Philip Ahr, another commissioner whose ward includes part of Villanova.

And some residents, he said, have raised safety concerns with having crosses more than 30 feet in the air.

“When people get celebratory, they like to climb,” he said. “This could be an object to climb.”

The League of Women Voters of Radnor Township also raised questions about the crosses.

“While we recognize the importance of Villanova to our community and the notoriety it brings to Radnor, are there less ostentatious ways to reflect a Catholic institution?”  said the league’s Roberta Winters in an interview.

“What risks, both real and imagined, might be incurred through such ornamentation? Since young adults can act in unpredictable ways, are adequate safeguards in place to prevent drivers from being distracted, debris being tossed onto the roadway, or students being injured through their own actions or those of others?”