Municipality Links Redevelopment And Preservation In A Resurgence

Posted: July 11, 1999

Traveling down the roadways of Bensalem Township, Joseph DiGirolamo sits behind the steering wheel of his van, enumerating the township projects that have been completed or begun since voters decided to go to a strong mayor/council form of government in 1990.

"We've redeveloped a good deal of the commercial area in the township," DiGirolamo said. "One shopping center had 13 empty sites. Now it only has two. We've redone the township roads.

"We're buying more land for our Central Park, which surrounds the township building. We condemned the old George Washington Motel site for redevelopment. We are putting in a youth park at Richlieu and Galloway Roads that will have skateboarding, an in-line skating rink, basketball courts, and baseball fields."

DiGirolamo, 62, who is in his second term as mayor, quickly shifts his talk to his administration's visions for the 20.9-square-mile Bucks County municipality where he was born. Among them are more affordable housing for senior citizens, possible residential development of the township area along the Delaware River, and doubling the size of Central Park and putting in a 2,000-seat natural amphitheater.

"We're an old community with a bright future," DiGirolamo said. "This is a renaissance for us. We're doing it one day at a time, one building at a time."

The heavily industrial and commercial township of more than 60,000 people celebrated its 300th anniversary in 1992.

Leni-Lenape Indians were the first to live in what is now Bensalem. English, Dutch and Swedish settlers - primarily farmers - came during the 1680s. When the township was established, it was known as Salem, but about five years later it was renamed Bensalem - Son of Peace.

Bensalem remained largely a farming community until just before the middle of this century, when many families from Philadelphia began to move to the area and industrial development began to take shape.

The development often was haphazard, DiGirolamo said, with factories sometimes being built right next to residential neighborhoods. Now, he says, there are fewer heavy industries and more corporate office parks.

"There are not many big tracts left, so we're looking at redevelopment, particularly along our riverfront," said the mayor, a retired farmer. "There are about 200 acres in the river area. I'd like to see that turned into an area where people could live - condos, maybe."

Save for a few small subdivisions, such a development would be the first residential project in many years. Existing housing ranges from twins and ranchers to two-story Colonials. Prices start at $100,000 and go up to about $200,000.

There are also an estimated 9,000 apartment units in the township. Cindy Terlecki has lived in the township for 15 years, having come from the Mayfair section of Philadelphia. The city and Bensalem are the only two municipalities in the five-county Southeastern Pennsylvania area with the strong mayor/council form of government.

"I do like it here. I was impressed with how much cleaner it was than the city," Terlecki said. "Snow removal was another thing. I couldn't believe it when I saw snowplows the first winter I was here. That didn't happen in the city.

"It's not really country here, but it's not really the city either," she continued. "And I'm a city girl. It's close to the malls, close to everything, and there's a lot of good restaurants here."

As for municipal government, Terlecki said she was pleased that the mayor "talks to the people; he doesn't just take messages."

Chuck McMullin sees that firsthand.

"If I don't get to the mayor and keep him in touch, I hear from him," said McMullin, the township's director of parks and recreation.

McMullin heads a department that oversees 30 parks, the largest being Central Park. He was praying last week that rain would not wash out some preliminary grading at the $2.25 million youth park at Richlieu and Galloway Roads. McMullin says the township hopes to have the park open by the fall of 2000.

In addition to the natural amphitheater, major plans for the Central Park include its expansion to as much as 120 acres and construction of a boardwalk in the wetlands area.

"We're trying to diversify our recreation program as much as possible," said McMullin, a lifelong resident of the township. "Not everyone is a ballplayer."

He estimated that more than 4,000 adults and children take part in the department's activities each year.

"It's our goal to make our facilities the finest in Bucks County," McMullin said.

The township's large commercial/industrial sector tends to overshadow the historical treasures. DiGirolamo would like to see that changed too.

Andalusia, the home of Philadelphia's noted Biddle family, is situated beside the river. Although it is a private residence owned by James Biddle, the grounds have been opened annually for youth orchestra concerts.

The historical society wants to save another treasure, urging the township to take back the Growden mansion from the Bucks County Conservancy. The mansion was the home of Joseph Growden, who after receiving a grant of 5,000 acres from William Penn, called his estate the Manor of Bensalem.

"It is probably the gemstone of Bensalem," said John Diamond, a former township resident and member of the historical society. "The society is concerned about its condition."

VITAL STATISTICS

Population: 57,325 in 1998.

Average home price: $117,000 in 1998.

Estimated household income: $48,370 in 1998, 15 percent below the seven-county suburban median.

Public schools: Students attend school in the Bensalem Township School District, where spending per pupil is $9,589, ranking it in the top 25 percent of Southeastern Pennsylvania school districts in an Inquirer survey.

Public transportation: SEPTA bus and rail service links the township with other parts of Bucks County and Philadelphia. Amtrak rail service to New York and Washington is also available.

Parks and recreation: The township has 30 parks, ranging from tot lots to the 60-acre Central Park. Sports organizations in the area use the fields at the parks and help with the maintenance. Neshaminy Creek State Park is in the township, allowing boaters access to the Delaware River.

Shopping: There are numerous shopping centers in the township, including the Neshaminy Mall.

Emergency services: The township has a police department with 80 officers. There are six fire companies, all volunteer organizations. The Bensalem Ambulance Squad provides ambulance service.

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