Planning Commission and Lower Merion residents talk timeliness of City Avenue changes

As the clock ticked toward 10 p.m. yesterday, Lower Merion Township residents who supported and opposed the re-zoning ordinance to City Avenue rose from their seats and left. While the Planning Commission recommended approval to the Board of Commissioners, few audience members remained to hear the discussion leading up to the decision.

But Terri Simon, president of the Wynnewood Civic Association, stayed. The ordinance would create two zoning districts, and the commission debated the nature of the plan, which was amended after public workshops.

Phone in hand, Simon tried to capture some of the discussion so she could post the comments on YouTube. Occasionally taking pauses in her recording, Simon held her phone up again when Robert Gray, co-chair of the commission, challenged claims that the ordinance would affect traffic negatively if put in place.

“The pass through traffic will not be increased by the additional square footage,” Gray said. “If we don’t make any improvements, this intersection would be in far worse shape.”

If the ordinance is passed, Gray said, the private and public sectors – on the city, township and state levels – could fund traffic issues together, whereas now, there aren’t enough funds available from one source in particular.

But hours earlier, as community members spoke to the commission, Aimee Katz of Presidential Boulevard said her neighbors are already worried about the safety of the area.

“Our concern has to do with the density [of the area] and the increase in traffic,” Katz said, noting that there are frequent accidents in the area.

On top of urging the commission to take more time with the ordinance, Katz asked an independent study be done to measure the number of cars during rush hour.

And so it went. The debate of the night came to be of one issue: timing. Some, such as Lita Cohen, said without pushing the ordinance through as soon as possible, the township could suffer.

“We’re on a downslide,” Cohen said of Lower Merion. “This is not a perfect ordinance, but it’s the best we can come up with. Please don’t let our neighborhood go on a downslide and disintegrate.”

Others pinpointed the blighted economy and asked why anyone would want to place a rush on an imperfect plan.

“Because of the dormant local real estate demand … there is no urgency,” said Mark Kocent of the Neighborhood Club of Bala Cynwyd as parts of the audience cheered.

Kocent said despite the tremendous amount of work put into creating the ordinance, “little vision” exists for what City Avenue could be.

Simon said she didn’t understand the rush, unless discussions were already in place with developers.

“If there are already developers, the public deserves to know about it,” Simon said. “I get the sense the roller skates have already been put on.”

But as the meeting winded down, the commission favored passing the ordinance, despite imperfections regarding transportation and questions about a possible master plan for what could be.

“The area desperately needs new investment,” Planning Commission member Brian O’Leary said. “The trend is for this type of mixed use development.”

Gray alluded to the jump in vacancies to make his point. In 2005, the City Avenue area had a 14 percent vacancy rate. In 2011, it is in excess of 20 percent, Gray said.

“We shouldn’t delay in trying to address the need,” he said, adding that economically, City Avenue is crucial to the township’s revenue.

For Charles Howland, the last member of the commission to vote, the decision could not be made in black-and-white terms.

“I don’t have a sufficient grasp in my mind of what the vision is,” Howland said. “I agree with the need to develop, but we need to make the City Avenue area a more desirable place.”

“I don’t see why we wouldn’t do the further analysis on this first,” Howland added. “The way we’re going at this is not the best way.”