Published: Wednesday, February 27, 2013
By Cheryl Allison
When Lower Merion Township and members of the Bala Cynwyd community in particular were engaged in the long, controversial process to create new zoning that would foster redevelopment in the City Avenue corridor, it was generally framed as a change that would come at some distance in the future.
That future, though, could be much closer.
Next Monday night, March 4, the township’s planning commission is scheduled to review a first project making use of the increased density and other provisions of the not-quite-one-year-old rezoning ordinance.
On the agenda for the meeting, beginning at 7 p.m. at the Township Building, is a tentative sketch plan for a new 11-story, 284-unit apartment building on a five-acre parcel at 335 Righters Ferry Road.
Developer Nolen Properties of Philadelphia has submitted the sketch plan, the first step in land development review.
In plans on file with the township, the proposal calls for preserving a single-family three-story house near the property’s frontage on Righters Ferry Road, on a part of the parcel that retained its R-6A residential zoning in the rezoning. Although the house is not listed on Lower Merion’s historic resources inventory and thus has no historic preservation protection, it is believed to include a 17th-century core, making it one of the 10 oldest houses in the township, according to the Lower Merion Conservancy.
The new apartment building would sit farther back on the lot, which is wooded and largely open today, as it slopes up to abut the One Bala Plaza property above it on St. Asaph’s Road. The four-acre upper part of the parcel is now included in the new Regional Center Area zoning, which permits greater density and building height.
The parcel is above the former industrial area at the foot of Righters Ferry Road, where O’Neill Properties Group is also seeking approval for a 593-unit apartment complex. The adjoining property owner on the Schuylkill riverfront, Penn Real Estate Group, also reportedly has plans to develop upwards of 300 apartments on its land.
According to the plans, the new building would include nine stories of residential apartments above a three-level parking garage, most of which would be below-grade. In an initial sketch plan submitted to the township late last fall, the apartment units would have been a 50-50 split between one- and two-bedroom units. After meeting with township planning staff over recent months, a revised plan has been submitted, in which the mix of units shifts more heavily to one-bedroom units (now 62 percent). With the smaller units, however, the total number of apartments increased by 25, to 284.
The building is proposed at the 120-foot maximum height for this portion of the Regional Center Area. To achieve the proposed square footage of 333,893 (out of a maximum of 359,490), the developer is making use of several incentives to increase density that were built into the new zoning, including providing structured and underground parking. A total of 438 parking spaces, including six car-share spaces, is proposed to serve the apartment building. Eighty-nine percent of those spaces will be below-grade.
In addition, the plan includes a public gathering space of 35,000 square feet. Following guidelines of the Official Map adopted with the rezoning, a multi-purpose public path will run through the property.
As a part of City Avenue rezoning, Lower Merion Township followed a process to designate a Transportation Services Area for the corridor, an action that allowed it to develop a Transportation Capital Improvement Program for future roadway and intersection improvements, and to assess a traffic impact fee, based on new peak hour trips that are generated by development.
Nolen Properties will be required to pay that impact fee. Based on a traffic study submitted with the plan, the new apartments will generate an average of 1,846 weekday trips, including 174 new trips in the key afternoon peak hour. At $1,544 per trip, its total fee, which will go into a general fund for improvements, comes to $286,656. The traffic study indicates that increased traffic on Righters Ferry Road from planned development will be accommodated by a proposed new traffic signal at Righters Ferry and Monument roads, and with signal phasing changes at the Righters Ferry/Belmont Avenue intersection.
Nolen Properties, which has a long history in building and construction in Philadelphia and has won awards for its renovation of older buildings in the city as senior housing, came to a meeting of the Neighborhood Club of Bala Cynwyd in January to present its initial plan, Amara Briggs, the civic group’s president said when contacted this week.
Briggs said she had not yet seen the revised plan and did not want to comment in specifics until she has reviewed any changes, but said Nolen’s director of operations, Rick Sudall, “has been very proactive in meeting with us.”
She said the plan, as it was presented, is essentially a by-right plan under the new zoning. Asked about community members’ response, Briggs said the “overarching concern was not the plan itself, [but] was with respect to traffic.”
“This is just one project of several being considered for the area,” she said. A question will be “Overall, what is our tolerance” for additional traffic.