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Merchants to protest plans for demolition


Ardmore is a wealthy suburb along Philadelphia's old-money Mainline. I think it's interesting that they seem so unwilling to just move the project over a couple blocks... it seems to be a trend that these utopian mixed-use developments are being plopped down in the middle of active commercial neighborhoods while they ignore blighted areas that aren't quite as posh, while revitalization seems to be the presupposition upon which they're intended to operate.

From the Philadelphia Inquirer
Posted on Tue, Jun. 01, 2004
Merchants to protest plans for demolition

A redevelopment plan targets a block near the train station. Retailers there say to raze vacant storefronts instead.

By Matthew P. Blanchard
Inquirer Staff Writer

Angry merchants of downtown Ardmore say they will march through the streets Thursday to protest a Lower Merion Township redevelopment plan that would demolish their block.

The Ardmore Transit Center Plan is designed to remake Ardmore into a vibrant urban village centered on a new train station on SEPTA's R5 line. Planners say the $140 million project is essential to reverse an exodus of businesses from the Lancaster Avenue strip, which they say could be a showplace of the Main Line.

To build the centerpiece of the plan, a $40 million retail complex and parking garage, planners chose the first block of East Lancaster Avenue because of its prime location beside the train station.

But in a downtown spotted with vacant storefronts, that block was one with no vacancies, and a chorus of local merchants denounced the choice.

Several family-run businesses count 20, 30 or 70 years here and are now stockpiling placards and hiring lawyers to fight relocation.

"I think it's an obvious abuse of eminent domain," said Scott Mahan, 42, a firebrand in polo shirt and chinos who was making protest signs inside Suburban Office Supply, a store his grandfather founded in 1926. "This block is far from blighted. A lot of towns try to create this kind of mix, and they never succeed. Lower Merion wants to bulldoze it."

Targeted for demolition are 11 buildings, from the Pennywise Thrift Shop west to Brownie's nightclub, with an option to take 9 E. Lancaster Ave. as well, home to Radio Shack.

In their place would rise the "Gateway Mixed-Use Development," with 50,000 square feet of street-level retail, 30 apartments and an 850-car parking garage. Existing businesses would receive financial compensation and help relocating to nearby buildings.

But time has gathered a rare mix of enterprises to this block, with dedicated denizens who do not want to leave:

The ballroom dancers of the Quickstep Studio swear by their 1950s-vintage cherry dance floor and say it cannot be replicated elsewhere. "You can dance for eight hours on this floor," said owner Trudy Sellers, floating away with two sweeping steps and then drifting sadly back.

Members inside Veterans of Foreign Wars Post 843 at mid-block say they feel the burn of betrayal in the township's plan to raze their post. "They feel it is decidedly un-American to take their property and rezone it, give it to a developer who is going to put a boutique retailer in there," post commander Maj. Grant E. Goldsmith said.

And in his small shop around the corner, 85-year-old master tailor Joseph Centofanti says that if the township decides to take 9 E. Lancaster after all, he'd sooner retire than relocate. The luxury lifestyle magazine the Robb Report recently named the Centofanti one of the finest custom-suit makers in America.

"It's all nonsense. I would not relocate. Here, feel this," Centofanti said, proffering a $3,000 sports coat of worsted cashmere. "We make the finest anywhere."

At 5:30 p.m. Thursday, merchants and customers from 14 establishments plan to march from the block to a 6:30 meeting of the Lower Merion Planning Commission at the Haverford School. The commission plans to discuss a preliminary step of the transit plan: designating portions of Ardmore a redevelopment district.

Township officials caution that Thursday's meeting is the wrong event at which to protest. Project director Angela M. Murray said the creation of a redevelopment district is a necessary step to any improvements, including traffic control and replacement of the train station - two popular parts of the larger transit center plan.

Murray also said that no property could be taken by eminent domain until three more entities weighed in: the Montgomery County Planning Commission, Lower Merion Township, and the county commissioners.

Defending the project, Murray and leaders of the Ardmore Business District Authority said major reinvestment must happen in "inner-ring" towns instead of in the sprawling suburbs.

"We just lost Bernie Robbins Jewelers, and you continue to see the more high-end shops going farther and farther west," Murray said. "If we don't continue to invest in our older areas, then all will be lost. There will be nothing but 15 nail salons out there."

Support for the project among the 14 township commissioners also appears solid. Board president Joseph Manko pointed to the charming towns of Wayne and Ambler as Ardmore's future: "The other choice is to sit back, do nothing and let it die."

Merchants on other blocks, meanwhile, expressed considerable frustration with the decline of retail in Ardmore, mixed with sympathy for the businesses facing eviction.

At Societe Salon, the street's downslide can be traced in the price of haircuts, from $70 to $50 to last week's price of $35, with $20 specials. A recent afternoon found stylists cutting sheets of promotional coupons instead of clipping hair.

"Everything you need is here in Ardmore, but customers walk by because everything looks so old," salon owner Kerri Smith said. Yet she added: "I feel bad for all those people having to leave their stores. It doesn't seem right."


But where is the Starbucks? Oh, sure, you can have your locally-owned, diverse retail and restaurants in old buildings, but that isn't New Urbanism. We need fancy new buildings with apartments above a Gap to have a desirable community. The block these locals are on is the most viable one in the district, and it only makes sense to kick out the existing residents and businesses if it will bring in an Atlanta Bread Company. You can't expect some outside developer to take the risk of locating a block away, in a lesser-quality location. The national retsailers are not going to go to a "second-choice" location. Leave those places to the locals. They aren't trendy and they will probably just go out of business when Walgreens opens up anyway.


I never thought of Ardmore as being even slightly run down. I've seen a lot of opportunities for infill there, sure. It also looks to me like the town needs to get on some property owners about basic maintenance but alas . . . tearing down the most viable properties is always the way to go!