Conshohocken retains its sense of community

A cyclist heads east along a bike trail in Conshohocken, where an influx of young professionals over the last decade has replaced many of the borough's blue-collar workers.
A cyclist heads east along a bike trail in Conshohocken, where an influx of young professionals over the last decade has replaced many of the borough's blue-collar workers. (DAVID SWANSON / Staff Photographer)
Posted: April 30, 2013

Forty-nine years ago, Conshohocken leaders began crafting a comprehensive plan to transform the grimy old mill town into a modern, livable municipality, albeit a small one.

At just over one square mile, Conshohocken is shoehorned into a bend of the Schuylkill River, but is within earshot of I-476 and the Schuylkill Expressway, two of the region's major arteries.

It took several decades, but between the vision of past leaders and the impact of that pair of highways, Conshohocken has become one of the region's hottest neighborhoods, with sleek condo towers, destination restaurants and corporate headquarters along the waterfront, and a locally owned, family-friendly strip of restaurants, bars, and stores along Fayette Street.

Over the last decade, Conshohocken's population has grown younger, wealthier and whiter, according to U.S. Census data.

The black population dropped 6.5 percent from 2000 to 2010 as total population grew 3.2 percent. By 2040, borough officials project the total population to increase nearly 27 percent.

Young professionals have replaced blue-collar workers. In 2010, 49 percent of working residents were classified as management, and 34 percent were working in offices, restaurants, law enforcement, personal care, and other middle-class industries.

From 2000 to 2010, the population of adults 25 to 34 went up 73 percent. Meanwhile, the 5-to-17 cohort dropped 45.3 percent, and the number of people over 65 dropped 23.4 percent.

Conshohocken's average household size - 2.05 - is the smallest in Montgomery County. It's the county's third-densest borough, yet nearly 40 percent of residents live alone.

The vast majority of those new, younger residents live in apartment complexes, condos, and other multifamily housing. More than 80 percent of all multifamily units in the borough were built since 2003.

With the boom years waning and the land almost entirely built out, Conshohocken now has the luxury of turning away developers even if they guarantee to bring a flood of people and tax revenue to the borough.

Which brings us to Wawa.

A proposed convenience store and gas station for the borough brought heated, protracted debate among residents.

Some were eager to see the abandoned site - the former Moore Chevrolet dealership on upper Fayette Street - replaced by a Wawa, which they saw as a community-oriented corporate partner and source of less expensive gasoline. Others argued that increased traffic and neon lights would destroy the borough's "small-town atmosphere."

On April 17, Borough Council voted, 6-1, against a zoning amendment for Wawa, sending the developer to plead its case before the Zoning Hearing Board.

Council President Paul McConnell said the vote was "a very strong and definitive recommitment to the master plan."

Conshohocken's 1964 Comprehensive Plan created "a framework to protect its character of place," and in the 2011 Conshohocken Revitalization Plan, officials reiterated that "property owners value the small-town feel and family-oriented qualities of the borough," which could be threatened "if not addressed through prudent planning initiatives."

Donnie MacIntosh, owner of Donnie Mac's Deli, said he had a steep learning curve when dealing with borough regulators after he bought the deli at Fourth Street and Fayette in 2009.

Confronted with strict requirements for signs, frontage, and other details, MacIntosh said: "They seemed like they weren't business-friendly. Of course, now I go about things the right way. I ask first."

He recently replaced the ceiling and lighting, and added a new awning and sign out front. He had no problem getting the permits, and was pleasantly surprised when the zoning board warned him about a potentially shady contractor. "I thought, 'Wow, they're actually looking out for me here.' That's nice."

McConnell said the rules - and their consistent enforcement - should indicate to business owners "this is a borough that knows where it's going."

The Wawa debate brought the dichotomy of Conshohocken's past and present out in stark relief. As residents lined up to speak, it was easy to tell the newcomers from the long-timers, the blue-collar families from the river-dwelling office workers.

There were hints of tension; neither group was monolithic in its opinions about Wawa. And even those who supported the development spoke of a certain "Conshohocken character" that smacked of nostalgia and allegiance.

A young man said he and his wife had moved there because it seemed like a good place to start a family. A boutique owner said she wanted to see more small-business competition. A lifelong resident scolded a lawyer for being divisive: "That's not how we do things in Conshohocken."

MacIntosh said that strong community identity made being accepted difficult when he moved there from Havertown. He took over the deli and kept it traditional, with low prices and friendly faces. His clientele includes "lots of locals. And lots of what the locals call yuppies."

"I was considered an outsider," he said. "But it's getting better."


Contact Jessica Parks at 610-313-8117, jparks@philly.com, or follow on Twitter @JS_Parks.

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