Proposed apartments stir concerns in Lower Merion

Posted: September 10, 2013

LOWER MERION Alison Graham and her husband have moved twice since they first bought a house in North Ardmore 42 years ago - but never more than 900 feet.

She said the sense of community, not to mention the ability to walk to shops, restaurants, and a train station, has had a powerful pull, keeping them in the leafy neighborhood of single-family houses near Lower Merion High School.

"We have the same neighbors that we had in 1970," Graham said. "It really is a neighborhood."

But now her neighborhood - and others across Lower Merion Township - is on the cusp of arguably the most dramatic changes since the first suburban boom peaked four decades ago, as developers push plans for as many as 1,300 new apartment units over the next five years.

The unprecedented surge in rental units is targeting young upscale workers and retired couples seeking to downsize, and it mirrors a nationwide trend toward apartment living. But the proposals have also sparked some of the traditional worries about traffic, aesthetics, and whether an influx of more transient residents might alter the stable, communal nature of the affluent Montgomery County township.

And no one is watching the apartment boom more closely, or more warily, than the Lower Merion School District, which already is overcrowded and has been forced to hastily build lower- and middle-school classrooms - at a cost of $25 million.

But the most striking feature of the apartment debate so far is the mostly favorable response the proposals are receiving from township officials and involved homeowners like the Grahams, who sit on a number of advisory boards. The right mix of rental units, they argue, could breathe new life into a township that has had a slow decline in population since the 1970s.

The new units "will give a place where the young kids could stay instead of moving out," said Graham, who has watched her own children move west. At the same time, she noted, apartments might allow some of her older neighbors with big, empty houses to remain close by.

A 33-unit complex under construction at Athens and Walton Avenues in Ardmore is the first of the new projects, but also one of the smallest.

Lower Merion officials say proposals in the pipeline include 580 units in two six-story towers along the Schuylkill in Bala, a project on Righter's Ferry Road now pegged at 284 units, 115 apartments (plus offices) at the Palmer Theological Seminary at City and Lancaster Avenues, 250 units next to the Wynnewood train station, and 121 apartments on a municipal parking lot on Cricket Avenue in Ardmore.

They said a plan for 40-plus units near Ardmore's Suburban Square on Sibley Avenue is next in line for approval. If all the projects now on the boards are built, they would increase the total number of rental properties in Lower Merion by roughly 20 percent.

"We think there's a market for people who want to move out of their homes and want apartment buildings - but want something a little nicer," said Bernie Halfpenny Jr., who runs Halfpenny Management, which hopes to finish the one- and two-bedroom apartments on Athens Avenue by February.

The developer said the apartment plan was in part an invention of necessity, as banks wouldn't finance Halfpenny's original proposal for condominiums four years ago. Builders and officials agree banks generally stopped lending to condo projects after the 2008 financial meltdown, fueling the new emphasis on rental construction.

Nationally, Commerce Department statistics showed permits for construction of apartment units rose by 13.5 percent in July, even as permits for single-family homes were falling.

The high cost of homes - 54 percent cost more than $500,000 - discourages young college-educated professionals from moving in and older "empty nesters" seeking a new lifestyle from staying put.

"If people want to remain in the township but not have to manage big properties, they don't have an option for where to go," said Liz Rogan, president of Lower Merion Township's Board of Commissioners. Rogan, whose background is in planning, said the apartment proposals could jump-start the cycle of bringing young people back to Lower Merion.

Amara Briggs, president of the Neighborhood Club of Bala Cynwyd, said her group was closely monitoring the usual issues associated with bringing higher-density projects to the suburbs, including traffic, schools, and the impact short-term renters can have on "the fabric of the community." But she, too, expressed mostly optimism, particularly because the plans call for "quality apartments" aimed at well-off tenants.

"I think what we haven't had, frankly, are people - new blood, young professionals - move into the area," she said.

Although apartment dwellers are typically less likely to bring school-age children, officials agree the situation might prove different in Lower Merion, with its top-flight schools and some parents eager to escape a funding crisis next door in Philadelphia. Even before the apartment proposals, the Lower Merion district had been struggling to cope with overcrowding.

Melissa Gilbert, president of the Lower Merion school board, said the district was adding 20 classrooms to Gladwyne and Penn Valley Elementary Schools and Welsh Valley Middle School and updating classrooms in the district administration building to accommodate an anticipated surge in high school students.

"If the number of children in those apartments increases over our normal rates, there's no question we're going to respond with new facilities," Gilbert said. The district is considering allowing students to choose between the two high schools, Lower Merion and Harriton, an interesting twist as the district recently completed a lengthy court battle against mostly black parents to limit such choice.

Though school officials voice concern about more students, business advocates like Christine Vilardo of the Ardmore Initiative are gleeful over the prospect of new shoppers and diners to accelerate a renaissance already underway in her community, with several new restaurants opening in the fall.

"From a business perspective," she said, "the more people we have living within walking distance of our downtown, the better, frankly."


Contact Kathy Boccella at kboccella@phillynews.com, 610-313-8232, or follow @kathyboccella on Twitter.

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