A prolonged legal battle that embroiled public officials, a developer and residents in Philadelphia’s Main Line has ended not with a bang, or a whimper, but with the rumble of a construction truck.
Two years after Pennsylvania’s Supreme Court ended a decade-long campaign of opposition by residents of Ardmore to block a major redevelopment project, One Ardmore Place is rising from the parking lot that had become the epicenter of this suburban development struggle. It turns out – to some – that maybe this grand idea didn’t need to have so much of the town on edge, after all.
“I think what you’re seeing a little bit is that resistance to change. And I think once it happens and it’s done, people are going to realize it was more fear of the unknown than it was anything else,” said Carrie Kohs, a vocal proponent of One Ardmore Place and the owner of pucciManuli, a gift shop on the corner of East Lancaster Avenue just up the street from the construction site.
Other residents and business owners wary of overdevelopment are unmoved and cling tighter to their beloved town. It’s a place where some mom-and-pop businesses don’t open on Monday after a busy weekend and employees wonder about the well-being of their regular customers if they haven’t shown up in a while.
As a towering crane near Cricket Avenue looms over his town, Michael Frank, one of the development’s most ardent opponents, quietly ceded to the $58 million, eight-story residential and retail building.
“I’ve made my peace with it,” Frank, 52, president of the now-dormant Save Ardmore Coalition, said of the 110-unit loft apartment complex that will also house 337 parking spots and 8,400 square feet of ground-floor retail on Cricket Avenue, near the Lancaster Avenue shopping district. “We lost, and they’re coming.”
With Philadelphia-based Dranoff Properties at the helm, construction began on the 282,000-square-foot project in March 2017. It is expected to be finished in early 2019. Then it will be sold to Denver-based Apartment Investment & Management Co., or Aimco, along with more real estate that Dranoff Properties owns in and around Philadelphia.
“The township is really on the go to get more density in this town,” said Janice Martin, the owner of Janice Martin Couture, a custom dress shop on Cricket Avenue. Although she said she likes the density, One Ardmore Place – which stands tall across the street – is literally overshadowing her business.
“My shop is already darker than it used to be and they haven’t even finished it,” Martin said.
Carl Dranoff, president and founder of Dranoff Properties, said in an interview that One Ardmore Place was a “breakthrough” for Ardmore’s business revitalization. He declined to give rental prices for the loft apartments but said the building is a “top-of-the-line property.” He also touted One Ardmore Place’s “graceful” architecture.
One Ardmore Place “rises to the top” of some of the most difficult projects he’s worked on because of how long it took, but Dranoff said he never considered giving up on getting it built. He says he has “no animosity whatsoever” toward critics who took him to court a few years ago in an attempt to halt construction.
“I think many of them fought the good fight,” Dranoff said, adding that “it’s rare for a project to be held up for more than 10 years.”
And with the project finally underway, the parking lot structure is completed so far and work on the fourth floor is in progress, said Barbara Gall Sheehan, a spokeswoman for Dranoff Properties.
When finished, One Ardmore Place will have one-, two- and three-bedroom residential units, garage parking for residents and the public, more parking surrounding the building, around-the-clock concierge services, and a “lushly landscaped green roof garden with soft seating,” according to a fact sheet for the development.
Now that One Ardmore Place is being built, Lower Merion Commissioner Anthony Stevenson has a question.
Actually, two questions.
“How do you balance that with affordable housing for people in Ardmore who have been working-class folks?” Stevenson asked. “… It has the potential to create a gentrification movement in the Ardmore community by being a symbol of a high-rent district.”
Next: “How do we define if we have gotten to the point – or when we will get to that point – of overdevelopment?” Stevenson said.
For Kathleen Bradford, the delineating line of what constitutes enough development and change could be that Ardmore today doesn’t resemble the Ardmore of her childhood.
“I grew up here,” said Bradford, 55, co-manager of the Party Place, which directly faces one side of the construction site. “So it’s an emotional thing for me. I believe in progress. However – and I guess that’s part of it – I just don’t recognize the town anymore. It doesn’t have that small-town feel.”
Bradford and her daughter Katrina Conway, 37, who is also a co-manager at the Party Place, were part of the Save Ardmore Coalition, the group that fought to stop the project. Conway estimates she attended eight to 10 meetings as part of the coalition.
Parking is now temporarily scarce because of construction, and Bradford said there has been a dip in sales. The Party Place – formerly known as Party Land – is one of the businesses located closest to the development site. Development advocates say the township has been working with local business owners to provide extra parking space.
In a 2015 lawsuit, the Save Ardmore Coalition argued that the $10.5 million in Redevelopment Assistance Capital Program public funds allotted for One Ardmore Place was misappropriated, and contendedthat the project was architecturally overwhelming for the town. The legal fight ended in 2016 when the state Supreme Court affirmed the ruling of the Commonwealth Court and said the development could proceed.
“Ardmore was stagnating and losing its vitality,” Dranoff said, adding he thought that, if One Ardmore Place hadn’t been planned, residents and business owners would have seen Ardmore reverse on progress – so much so that he “wouldn’t be surprised” if “tattoo parlors and check-cashing places” began appearing downtown.
Money from Dranoff Properties has been providing small-business owners who complain of parking shortages with “microgrants” – infusions of up to $1,000 each to offset any losses in sales and help local entrepreneurs get through the construction.
“It sounds silly,” said Marie Suvansin, executive director of the pro-development organization Ardmore Initiative, “but microgrants can help to pay for services like power-washing,” so small-business owners can scrub grime off their store awnings without reaching into their own wallets. Microgrants fund other services, too, Suvansin said, and a peer review committee looks at business owners’ microgrant requests and determines who needs extra help.
The construction hasn’t inhibited new commercial growth. Common Space, Nam Phuong Bistro, Ripplewood Whiskey & Craft, and Bercy Brasserie opened in the last month, Suvansin said.
Of those businesses, Justin Weathers, co-owner of the Bercy, said he and chef Joe Monnich, also a co-owner, “absolutely” chose 7 Lancaster Ave. to house the restaurant because of its proximity to new development that includes One Ardmore Place.
“With growth comes uncomfortable transition,” said Weathers. “But the end result is a more vibrant, lush, accessible downtown area.”