LOWER PROVIDENCE — An ambitious agenda brought local officials and state representatives from near and far to Lower Providence Township Building.
They heeded the call of state Rep. Joe Webster, D-Montgomery, who hosted what was referred to as a community policy hearing on Revitalizing the Ridge Pike-Main Street Corridor.
Webster, who was joined by Policy Committee Chairman Mike Sturla of Lancaster, as well as many state representatives and experts in development, said his goal with what he said was, in essence, a meeting of the Democratic Policy Committee, was to bring the community together to discuss any and all issues related to prospective development along Ridge Pike, embracing four municipalities.
“My vision was to get the ground truth of where we are and how we’re thinking about the future,” Webster said. “The municipalities themselves — West Norriton, Lower Providence, Collegeville and Upper Providence — are developing projects and that’s playing out in different ways, from east to west, across the district. There are big issues in terms of autonomous vehicles and really futuristic kinds of things that we probably don’t have our hands on. I was just looking to get an idea of where we are today, what the future might be, and my role as a state representative what should I be doing in Harrisburg to help these municipalities make it so. The truth of the matter is there are 22 traffics and the zoning rules change every 4.5 red lights So how do you develop an economic vision for that group?”
A fifth municipality marginally affected by the Ridge Pike-Main Street Corridor, Skippack, was also included in the discussion.
At the end of the 2½-hour meeting on July 24, Webster admitted he was “pretty excited. I think everybody came with some ideas and I think there is networking happening as a result of this hearing and that’s always a good thing. Things that may have not been happening until we put everybody in the same room.”
In addition to Sturla, state representatives who attended the session were Urban Affairs Committee Chairman Thomas Caltagirone; Steve McCarter; Ben Sanchez; Steve Malagari; Mary Jo Daley; Dan Frankel; Chris Sainato; Scott Conklin; Kyle Mullins; Dan Williams and Mark Longietti.
“When we work together we’re stronger in Harrisburg, we’re stronger at the county level,” Webster told the crowd at the opening of the discussion “And my goal today is to plant that seed. The idea is that if the seed is planted we can provide a little water and fertilizer along the way and see where we go in the next two or tree years.”
Two separate panels faced the legislators, the first of which included John Cover, Assistant Director Montgomery County Planning Commission; Maggie Dobbs, Senior Planner, Montgomery County Planning Commission; Rob Henry, co-founder of the King of Prussia Rail Coalition and Executive Director of GVF and Steve Barth of Barth Consulting Group.
“The issue when you’re driving down Ridge Pike, you don’t know what community you’re in … all along the corridor there is no consistency and no cohesion,” Cover pointed out. “With the benefits of working together, I think the first step would be for the municipalities that are on the Corridor to come together and try to plan not only the land use along the Corridor but how that land use will be regulated for zoning and design (control.)”
Barth explained that he had been asked to specifically discuss brownfields in the region. (Mirriam-Webster defines a brownfield as a tract of land that has been developed for industrial purposes, polluted, and then abandoned.)
“My firm is a small boutique economic development and revitalization consulting firm,” Barth explained. “We have revitalized $100 million of blighted brownfield properties … in Montgomery County. In general, they take five to six years from day one to the day you’re breaking ground. There are a lot of hurdles, but from a legislative standpoint the most complicated piece is the process itself. There isn’t anybody acting as the concierge (for) developers, so oftentimes in small municipalities (the properties) sit vacant for decades; the small municipalities don’t know how to proceed forward.”
According to its website, barthconsultinggroup.com, Barth Consulting Group “creates sustainable municipal revenues through “Real Estate Transfer Taxes, New Real Estate Taxes, New Earned Income Taxes, Increased Property Values and New Local Service Taxes.” It also helps developers in a variety of ways, including “Troubleshooting Projects; Navigation and Site Location (finding key, unlisted properties for development) and creating tax incentives.”
Barth noted that his firm was just hired by Collegeville Borough “to help ignite a revitalization initiative that was created by the Collegeville Economic Development Corporation.”
Daley noted that she had recently been discussing the “noise pollution” issue with residents in the area of the Blue Route. Citing the problem as an “environmental issue,” she inquired about a tree that allegedly serves as a sound barrier.
Henry responded that “there are natural barriers trees and bushes. I’m not an expert but I can certainly try to get an answer for you.”
Sturla said he wanted to take a second to “tout his own town. Lancaster County has urban growth boundaries so we can control the sprawl that occurs in a lot of these downtowns in a lot of cases. But it’s a town of 50,000 and there’s not a single vacancy in that town. And that’s a town that the average income is about $30,000 a year. We were written up in the New York Times as one of the top ten places to go in the entire United States. If I started to list all the things that went into having that happen, we’d be here until tomorrow because there’s not a single silver bullet that did that.”
Sturla cited a $40 million shopping center development recently completed in his district.
“The developer said ‘there’s buildings out front near the road and there’s a set of buildings in the back and the spacing of that is based on how much room we needed to put in another set of buildings where all the parking is. We don’t have to have parking because they’ll be driving their car to the shopping center, taking an autonomous vehicle, getting out, shopping, and when they’re ready to leave, another autonomous vehicle will pick them up.’ So, the guy who is spending $40 million is already planning on autonomous vehicles, congestion pricing and that kind of stuff. Are we planning that? How are we working that into what we’re doing and what you’re doing in terms of how you develop a really congested road that, 20 years from now, may not be congested … not because of anything you’re doing now but because technology is going to get us there anywhere?”
Cover responded: “I think what works well now can be applied to the future. A good transportation network still needs to be in place. A good design of development will work now as it will in the future. If you have good standards that are consistent and applied evenly across the board, I think that as technology changes and transportation options and alternatives come on board, they will get accommodated well. The problem we’re facing now when we’re concerned about the future is the mashup of the way development is handled, how communities are built and how corridors are planned for… the incremental aspect of it, that really causes problems … that’s why good standards in place are applicable not only today but also in the future.”
The second panel included Lower Providence manager Lower Providence Township Manager Don Delamater; Catherine Kernen, Collegeville Borough Council member and president of the Collegeville Economic Development Corporation; Jason Bopst, West Norriton Township Manager and Chris Heleniak, Skippack Township Manager.
“The Township help an open house in 2017 and invited all the property owners and business owners in the area to explain the strategy behind the new zoning district and the potential of this corridor,” Delamater said. “Significant improvement has already taken place in this area with the old Collegeville Inn, and all major development there with Providence Place.”
A comprehensive traffic study revealed the need to address traffic movement in the area, he noted.
“The township received a grant to prepare a study analyzing the existing transportation network in the Ridge Pike-Germantown Pike area. An analysis of this location (calling for) a proposed second bridge across the Perkiomen Bridge was an integral component of this study,” Delamater said, adding that the study was completed in 2018 by the Township engineer, with the Board of Supervisors approving the conclusions and recommendations and the official map.