Suburban sprawl reaching new heights

Posted: June 24, 2007

As suburban downtowns go, Paoli's is about as low-rise as they get.

From the Burger King to the tattoo parlor to the shoe shop, the businesses that line Lancaster Pike top out at two stories, or roughly 30 feet. The only structure requiring a tilt of the head is the veterans memorial flagpole, a dizzying 60 feet, give or take.

But the squat skyline of this Main Line village could soon get a lift - a silhouette that to some eyes would look excitingly urban, and to others horrifyingly urban.

New ordinances are nearing adoption that would permit buildings as high as 70 feet in the shopping district. Granted, that's 905 feet shorter than the freshly topped Comcast Center in Center City. But five stories is plenty tall enough to cast a shadow of discord over a little town.

After a cup of coffee at Starbucks last week, shopper Barbara Zitin mulled the prospect of behemoths down the block and concluded: "I don't think I'd like that."

Nobody has to like it, but across the region, small-town habitues will surely have to get used to it. For older communities whose economic fortunes long ago went flat - and there are dozens of them - the gathering consensus among revitalization experts and local officials is that the way to salvation is up.

Height lures developers with money to invest and profit to make. It increases the property-tax base. And it "brings more people," said Mayor Jim Maley of Collingswood. "[That] is what's necessary to give the downtowns a fighting chance."

Under a redevelopment plan centered on the PATCO train station, buildings as tall as 12 stories could be lording over Maley's Camden County borough. In Ardmore on the Main Line, new height standards allow seven floors, plus a "penthouse." In Willow Grove, the max is six.

If Phoenixville's Borough Council gives the nod, two 10-story condominium towers will rise along the main drag, near where Phoenix Iron Works once made columns for faraway skyscrapers.

Tall buildings already do poke the skies over suburbia. But generally, they have kept a respectable distance from the Rockwellian Main Streets that are Mom and Pop's last stand. In Conshohocken, for instance, the office towers (up to 16 stories) that brought about its renaissance are massed by the Schuylkill's banks - an addendum to the tiny borough on the hill with a July Fourth Soap Box Derby.

For King of Prussia, two hotels of possibly 25 stories could be on the way. They'll sit on a former golf course as part of a $1 billion residential/office/retail/entertainment complex, for which ground will be broken this summer.

But try putting something even a quarter of that size in a small town. Impassioned debate will raise the roof.

Expect it tomorrow evening at a public hearing in Willistown Township, in which half of Paoli lies. Tredyffrin Township claims the other half. There, on July 16, the supervisors are expected to take up the new height regulations, allowing three-story buildings smack against Lancaster Pike and five-story structures just off the road around the train yard.

Tredyffrin Supervisor Warren Kampf is torn. "I do not want to create another urban area," he said. "On the other hand, I don't want to sign the death warrant on Paoli's redevelopment."

Nor does Willistown planner Rita Reeves. That's why she supports the height changes. "You've got to be realistic," she said. Lifting the lid on buildings "means an enhanced tax base."

And a visual jolt, predicted Cindy Shallcross as she shopped with her 8-year-old son for sneakers at one-story Marwyn's on Lancaster Pike. "Aesthetically," she said, even midrises "wouldn't fit in."

Aesthetics, though, have little to do with the knee-high skylines of suburban downtowns in Pennsylvania and New Jersey.

Almost without exception, their building heights are capped at 35 to 45 feet, or three to four stories, according to Tom Comitta, a West Chester-based town planner with clients in both states. Those zoning-code limits were imposed decades ago, based on the farthest reach of local fire company ladders.

Firefighting equipment has come a long way since then, while small, old towns have gotten, well, smaller and older. Almost all have revitalization plans of varying ambition, but few buildable acres with which to attract developers - unless, of course, they tap into vertical open space.

Since Upper Moreland Township opened a redevelopment area in Willow Grove to six-story buildings, the shopping district "is getting far more attention" from developers, said Commissioner Lisa Romaniello.

In Ardmore in Lower Merion Township, developer Tim Mahoney plans to take a two-story office building just off Lancaster Avenue to seven stories, the upper limit in the village's new redevelopment ordinance. The tower would hold nearly 30 condominiums averaging $1 million each, and probably a restaurant, over two underground levels of parking. (To passersby, it would appear to be eight stories, but under the ordinance, the "penthouse" - an apartment and a pool - will not count as another floor.)

Mahoney paid $2.5 million for the building about four years ago, he says, and will wind up with a property worth more than $30 million. Had he not been permitted to go higher than three stories, he adds, he never would have taken on the project.

"Every square foot in density that you can add reduces your land cost," Mahoney said, "and makes the project more likely to be profitable."

Profitable for local government, too. Ardmore's new height allowance can turn a quarter-acre property paying $20,000 in taxes a year into one contributing $500,000.

Scott Mahan, owner of Suburban Office Equipment, concedes that taller buildings are likely to be profitable for merchants, too, since they bring more foot traffic. Still, he frets over the intangibles.

"Ardmore is a village," he said. "It's not a city."

Suburban towns are "doomed" if they don't embrace density, concentrating more people and businesses in tighter and, yes, taller quarters, said Patrick Starr, who heads the regional office of the nonprofit Pennsylvania Environmental Council.

The trick, he added, is deciding what height is right.

West Chester has been grappling with that question for more than a decade. In 1996, the borough increased its height limit to 180 feet to accommodate a 125-foot county justice center.

No construction since then has come even close. But given the trend elsewhere, residents protective of West Chester's small-town charms began to fear their luck could soon be up.

On Tuesday night, after a battle that has raged for more than a year, the Borough Council is expected to lower the standard by more than half.

Preserving West Chester's character while promoting its growth, said Council President Carolyn Comitta, is "a real balancing act" - but one that should be a bit easier at 75 feet than 180.

To view videos of downtown Ardmore and Phoenixville, where midrises are planned, and to see a list of the region's tallest buildings, go to

Contact staff writer Diane Mastrull at 610-313-8095 or

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