Experts' panel rejects Ardmore renewal plan
The Philadelphia Inquirer, 9/24/04

The thumbs-down could doom a proposal to demolish buildings. The experts urged a more preservationist approach.

By Matthew P. Blanchard

The plan to demolish 11 buildings in downtown Ardmore suffered a likely death blow yesterday when a panel of national architecture and planning experts issued a public rejection of the idea.

The team of nine experts from the Urban Land Institute in Washington had been called in to referee a nasty dispute over the Ardmore Transit Center Plan, a $140 million proposal to remake 10 blocks of Ardmore into a vibrant urban shopping village.

The plan called for demolishing shops on the north side of the first block of East Lancaster Avenue. That provoked 200 merchants and their supporters to march in protest twice this summer. Accusations and conspiracy theories were commonplace, and public meetings often filled with rage.

After a weeklong study, the experts pronounced the proposed demolitions a mistake and urged a gradual, preservationist approach to fixing Ardmore's vacancy-plagued shopping district.

"Cities need old buildings so badly it is probably impossible for vigorous streets and districts to grow without them," panel chairman Charles R. Kendrick said, quoting a prominent urban-design guru. "This panel agrees with Jane Jacobs, which is why we think there should be no demolition."

"Sometimes," Kendrick wrote in the final report, "it's what you don't do that makes all the difference."

The report carries no legal weight but wields considerable influence by virtue of brain power. The nine experts are prominent architects, traffic planners, real estate developers, and consultants from cities including Boston; Fort Worth, Texas; Cincinnati; and Baltimore. They were invited by township government to provide a fresh look at the project.

The decision rests with the 14 Lower Merion commissioners. The commissioners' president, Joseph Manko, called the findings in the report "excellent." He said he favored abandoning demolition and predicted that many of his fellow commissioners would agree.

Begun in public "visioning" sessions last year, the transit center plan has more recently been championed by township planning staff as local resistance grew intense. Yesterday's report opens a window for all sides to reject parts of the plan that involve eminent domain or demolition.

Merchants celebrated, some after months of fretting about where they would go if forced to sell their properties. Betty Foo has owned and run Hu-Nan Restaurant at 47 E. Lancaster Ave. for 30 years, working 362 days a year.

"This is incredible. We have been under such stress for such a long time," she said. "Now, we will definitely do whatever we can to work with the township."

There is much to do. Of the original six proposals in the plan, the team urged immediate work on three:

Build a parking structure on the lot occupied by Main Line Honda, east of the Township Building.

Replace Ardmore's low, bunkerlike train station with a grander structure and fashion a narrow "town square" on Station Avenue.

Restore building facades on Lancaster Avenue, many of which are scarred by neglect or ham-handed renovations.

The remaining proposals can wait, the panel said.

Quoting author Malcolm Gladwell, panelists stressed that instead of dramatic demolitions, Ardmore should gently push itself toward the "tipping point," at which the accumulation of small improvements will precipitate a turnaround for businesses.

"Other communities would give their eyeteeth to have what Ardmore has: a train station, a historic downtown, Suburban Square," said panelist Christopher Kurz, a real estate financier from Baltimore.

"It's a great town," added panelist Sandra Kulli, a real estate marketing consultant from Malibu, Calif. "We think the tipping point is very close."

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