Lower Merion gateway gets a makeover

Near this intersection with Belmont Avenue, Rock Hill Road will be home to a CVS pharmacy that is under construction.
Near this intersection with Belmont Avenue, Rock Hill Road will be home to a CVS pharmacy that is under construction. (MATTHEW HALL / Staff)

Big changes coming to post-industrial Rock Hill Road.

Posted: August 15, 2014

Like a sentry who doesn't know how to dress for the job, Rock Hill Road looks too post-industrial- disheveled to be one of the main gateways to Lower Merion Township.

After more than a decade of planning, work finally is beginning that could dress up a thoroughfare where once-mighty quarries have been supplanted by a hodgepodge of small buildings, body shops, and open lots.

On the south side of Rock Hill Road near Belmont Avenue, not far from the Schuylkill Expressway, the steel skeleton of a 14,000-square-foot CVS pharmacy is rising.

In partnership with Lower Merion Township, the property's developer, Summit Realty Advisors, is digging up the township-owned site next door where a gas station once stood, installing a public storm-water management system, eventually to turn the site into a parking lot for users of the nearby Cynwyd Heritage Trail. In return, the township will allow the CVS to have an entrance through its lot from Belmont Avenue.

The trailhead lot will include 16 parking spaces dedicated to trail users, bicycle pump, benches, and landscaping, said Chris Leswing, a township assistant planning director.

The projects are the first fruits of a rezoning effort that began in early 2000.

"It was so automobile-oriented and truck-oriented," said Lower Merion Commissioner George Manos, a supporter of redeveloping Rock Hill Road. "The whole idea was to change its character to be much more pedestrian-friendly."

In the early 1900s, the corner of Rock Hill Road and Belmont Avenue was the site of a mill "that made cloth from woolen waste," according to the Lower Merion Historical Society. By 1920, the mill was nil, its spot taken by the Belmont Cement Burial Case Co.

Quarrying continued intermittently on the north side of Rock Hill Road, the historical society says, "until the 1950s, when complaints from householders on the bluff above stopped the blasting."

The road's rough-and-scruffy nature remained.

"One of the concerns with Rock Hill Road years ago was that you were getting junk-drawer type usages," Leswing said. "They're the kind of things typically a zoning ordinance prohibits in other districts so it falls into just that one district."

So, about a decade ago, at the prodding of the Neighborhood Club of Bala Cynwyd, the township changed zoning along Rock Hill Road. Bala Cynwyd is the section of Lower Merion along Rock Hill Road.

The goal, Leswing said, was "to have more economically useful and attractive mixed-use development along that corridor. The resulting ordinance allows good uses but has one of the best streetscape requirements and architectural standards in the township."

The zoning amendments require developers to buffer new buildings from the road with a 10-foot-wide grass and tree-lined strip by the curb and a 10-foot-wide sidewalk next to it. The hope is that the sidewalk will become an extension of the Cynwyd trail.

As part of its arrangement with the township, the CVS developer will straighten the intersection of Belmont Avenue and Rock Hill Road, and add right-turn lanes.

Another development is in the works.

Next month, ground is set to be broken on the north side of Rock Hill Road for a five-story luxury apartment complex. The $70 million project will have 332 one- and two-bedroom apartments, said Kevin Kyle, vice president of multifamily development for O'Neill Properties.

Its site, on two old quarries, has a cliff at the back end of the property. Kyle said that rock will be stabilized and storm-water improvements made on top.

Like the CVS developer, O'Neill will place a grass strip and wide sidewalk by the street.

The apartment complex also includes street improvements - O'Neill will straighten some of the curve on Rock Hill Road in front of its property to improve visibility and safety.

Amara Briggs, president of the Neighborhood Club of Bala Cynwyd, said the group has concerns about traffic, but is glad that the vacant gas station on the corner is gone.

"In an ideal world, would we love a CVS? No," she said.

Still, momentum could flow from it and attract other retail and residential projects - which would make a much nicer gateway to Bala Cynwyd and Lower Merion.

"It's definitely progress," she said.




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