LOWER MERION — For anyone with concerns over development in the eastern end of Lower Merion, there’s a major new plan for a section of Bala Cynwyd that includes several new buildings with over 750 apartment units, commercial space, a hotel and lots of green space.
But although the overall scale is large, the project will be built in phases over the next couple of decades.
Still, when the first public discussion came up at a recent Lower Merion Planning Commission meeting, many residents quickly raised concerns over the scale of the project, with some asking why so much of the recent construction in Lower Merion was taking place in Bala Cynwyd.
Located off City Avenue between Belmont Avenue and the Schuylkill Expressway, the plan covers the area of the three Bala plaza office sites. The properties are often referred to as Bala one, two and three.
Under the proposed plan, Tishman Speyer, the owners of the three sites, plan on adding hundreds of residential units, offices and other commercial space in the parking lots for the existing buildings.
The plan was outlined at a Lower Merion Planning Commission meeting this past week. Due to the size of the project, township officials asked the applicant for a discussion-only meeting about their plans. There was no vote on any aspect of the plan. Instead, they are expected to bring forth a formal plan at an upcoming meeting that will then go through the township’s standard approval process.
“This is a really big application,” said Chris Leswing, director of Building and Planning for Lower Merion.
One reason the township decided to have this preliminary meeting with no formal action was to allow the staff the chance to discuss the City Avenue corridor. This discussion included how City Avenue developed over the past 70 years, and the importance of the tax revenue Lower Merion receives from it. They also discussed how and why they believe City Avenue should evolve to compete with other commercial areas throughout the region. Investing in stock market or investire in borsa as they call it is one way to increase one’s revenue.
“City Avenue District is really the commercial hub of Lower Merion Township,” Leswing said. “It was developed back in the ‘50s as a response to the Schuylkill Expressway.”
The easy access to the expressway and City Avenue, along with no city wage tax on the Lower Merion side, made the idea of plunking down large office buildings surrounded by large parking lots an attractive concept.
Although City Avenue became prosperous due to its proximity to City Avenue and the Schuylkill Expressway, by around the year 2000, it had become dated. At the same time, there were newer office parks in the region that City Avenue needed to compete against, according to Leswing.
The township’s financial situation also became linked to the City Avenue area due to the amount of tax revenues it brought into the township. Half of the township’s commercial tax revenue comes from the City Avenue area, he said.
“The idea of having an office park that was beginning to decline was a concern to the township for a couple of reasons,” Leswing said.
He said a declining office park would hurt the surrounding areas, and it would have a negative impact on the township’s finances.
As a result, a new ordinance was discussed and eventually passed in 2012 that was designed to revitalize the area.
“The City Avenue District right now is defined by office buildings and parking lots. The idea was to start to fill in those parking lots and to create a much more sustainable, walkable area that would attract higher rent tenants and start to stabilize the tax base but then also provide uses that people from the community would want to come to,” Leswing said.
According to this development theory, instead of just having people coming into and leaving a 9-to-5 office park, there would be other things such as residents living among the office space and commercial activities for those and other residents.
Over the last year, another issue cropped up. With Lower Merion undergoing a major change to its township zoning code, property owners began submitting new construction plans.
These plans were submitted so that the property owners could preserve their zoning rights under the old codes.
Although many of the owners had no immediate plans to build, these plans were quickly put together with little or no consideration as to how they would fit in with the larger City Avenue District.
Among the plans that were submitted at the time were the plans for the three Bala plaza sites.
Leswing said over the past year, the plan that was initially submitted for the Bala properties has been cut back, and it has been made much greener with an emphasis on connections to mass transit.
So, what are the three Bala sites, and how big are they?
The Bala Plaza sites are a four-building complex constructed between 1967 and 1982.
Under the current configuration, One and Two Bala Plaza is a 47-acre lot consisting of three office buildings. One Bala Plaza is a six-story building and Three Bala Plaza includes two seven-story buildings.
The Two Bala Plaza property is an 11-acre site with a 10-story office building and the three-story Saks Fifth Avenue store.
The discussion at the Lower Merion Planning Commission was to look at the overall master plan for the three sites and have a discussion on when it would all be built.
“This is a 20, 30-year look,” Leswing said. “This is a long plan.”
On the One and Three Bala Plaza sites, the plan includes several new structures with office, retail, residential and a hotel. The Two Bala Plaza site will consist of new construction of residential above retail that would be above parking.
The applications for the Bala projects are being made as two separate plans. One and Three Bala Plaza will be one project, and Two Bala Plaza is a second application.
Alfred Fuscaldo, the attorney representing the property owner, described the project as a multiuse, pedestrian-oriented development. It would produce a massive economic productive addition to the City Avenue District, he said.
“There’s no disguising it; there’s development here,” Fuscaldo said.
But then he went on to talk about the conversations they’ve had with the township that has reduced the overall scope of the project.
“There’s 900,000 square feet of reduction in square footage from the original plan we submitted,”
Fuscaldo said. Under the revised plan, there will be an additional 1.69 million square feet where they originally looked at adding 2.6 million square feet of new construction.
He went on to say there would be significant greening with the project and social gathering spaces. One of the green spaces, he said, would be called Bala Park. He described the park as a massive green space with a water feature that would use water from the roofs of the buildings and flow into a lake. A 900-person amphitheater that he described as similar to the one at Swarthmore College would also be located in the area.
“This is a social hub. It’s a community hub where people can go – concerts, plays, whatever,” Fuscaldo said about the amphitheater.
Other green spaces on the proposed site are listed on the plans with names such as Bala Woods and Bala Grove.
According to the diagram submitted as part of the application, the new construction and green spaces would be scattered throughout the existing parking lot of the sites.
Directly behind the existing two seven-story Three Bala Plaza building toward Righters Ferry Road, there will be a new office building next to a residential building. To the one side of those structures would be another residential building over retail space.
Moving to the front of the site along St. Asaphs Road is another residential building over more retail space with parking below. The park and the amphitheater would sit next to that building.
Another residential building would sit in front of One Bala Plaza with an additional residential building next to it.
On the Two Bala Plaza site that includes the office building behind the Saks Fifth Avenue store, there would be two buildings sitting next to those buildings.
These two new buildings would be a mix of 190 residential units with 45,810 square feet of retail space.
Fuscaldo said they have also scaled down the total number of apartments on the One and Three Bala sites from the 1,012 units that were orginally submitted to the township to 565 units.
For many of the construction-weary residents in the area that have seen several new apartment buildings constructed in Bala Cynwyd in recent years, the plans did not go over very well.
Each time a new apartment building has come up for consideration in recent years, neighbors have expressed concerns over the impact on roads, police and schools. The Lower Merion School District has renovated some of its schools in recent years and will soon begin construction of a new middle school to address enrollment increases over the past decade.
Thea Howey of Bala Cynwyd was one of several residents attending the meeting. She expressed concern over the future of the neighborhood with these types of projects.
“Most people live in Lower Merion Township because of the beauty of it,” Howey said. “That’s one of the first and greatest attractions for moving here is to be able to walk the streets, see the beautiful trees overhead. Many of the streets don’t even have sidewalks. You can feel like you are in a park by walking through your neighborhood. We are endangering our neighborhood.”
She also addressed the issue raised earlier by township officials over why Bala Cynwyd must be burdened with bringing in half of the township’s commercial revenue.
“Why should we bear the brunt of all the commercial revenue that Lower Merion Township needs,” she said. “There’s many other villages in Lower Merion that could be developed.”
Joel Rubin said he has been a resident of Bala Cynwyd since 1961 and asked why Lower Merion was trying to compete with other communities.
“I didn’t realize we were going to be a competitor of Conshohocken or King of Prussia,” he said. “I thought we were a residential community and that was the attraction of Bala Cynwyd.”
Leswing said the applicant has indicated to the township that they would like to begin the approval process next month by bringing a tentative sketch plan to the township.