Apartment building will be first step in City Avenue zoning project

By Carolyn Davis, Inquirer Staff Writer

Posted: March 06, 2013

Most of the lot at 335 Righters Ferry Rd. in Bala Cynwyd doesn’t look like much, with its tangle of trees and weeds on hilly ground. But to Lower Merion Township officials, it is the beginning of turning the unremarkable and unwalkable area around City Avenue into a pedestrian’s paradise.

The township’s Planning Committee on Monday night heard an initial presentation from Nolen Properties to construct an 11-story apartment building on the Righters Ferry site, bounded by Monument Road, Belmont Avenue, and St. Asaphs Road.

It is the first project to flow out of the City Avenue zoning project, meant to make one of the township’s major commercial corridors, from I-76 to Conshohocken State Road, an appealing place to live and work – and to ease traffic congestion that swells during rush hours.

The committee unanimously recommended that the Board of Commissioners approve the project’s sketch plan.

“It’s exactly the kind of project we hoped for in terms of bringing more people to live in the district,” said Angela Murray, assistant director of building and planning.

“There’s really no place for young people in their 20s and 30s to live, so we’re seeing this as a real opportunity to provide housing for young people who aren’t ready to buy houses.”

City Avenue separates Lower Merion from Philadelphia. While the jurisdictions coordinated on rezoning the area through the regional City Avenue Special Services District – which runs from I-76 to Lancaster Avenue – each is making its own effort on its side of the road.

Philadelphia may be further along in making City Avenue more attractive and walker-friendly, with wider sidewalks and fewer parking lots around new construction.

The span of City Avenue that Lower Merion is rezoning goes from the expressway to Conshohocken State Road, then skips over to Bala Avenue, and is divided into three distinct areas.

The Regional Center Area, bounded by I-76 and Belmont, is about walkable commercial and residential development.

The Bala Cynwyd Retail area runs from Belmont to Conshohocken State Road and features the Bala Cynwyd Shopping Center. This chunk’s mission is to preserve the shopping center as a place where residents can buy groceries, get their shoes repaired, or go to a dry cleaner.

Murray calls the Bala Village area, which has yet to be rezoned, “a main street” project for small, pedestrian-oriented businesses on Bala Avenue from City Avenue to Montgomery Avenue. (The Clearview Bala Theatre is there, along with restaurants, small non-chain businesses, and numerous empty storefronts.)

The Righters Ferry Project is in the Regional Center Area. The hope, Murray said, is that employees who work at companies in the office towers that line City Avenue and St. Asaphs Road (which becomes Presidential Boulevard) happily will rent newly built apartments, such as those planned at the Nolen development.

They will have to earn a pretty decent wage. One of the 176 one-bedroom apartments with 850 square feet of space will rent for $2,000 per month, said Rick Sudall, Nolen managing director. The 106 two-bedroom, two-bath, 1,150-square-foot apartments will cost $2,500 monthly.

Sudall wasn’t worried that new housing might contribute to the overcrowding at some Lower Merion schools that is prompting construction of temporary classrooms.

Nolen will market the apartments to empty-nesters and young professional couples. He doesn’t expect many families with children.

About eight township residents went to the planning meeting Monday, including several who live in the Hillgate townhome development across Righters Ferry from the proposed apartments, and one man whose house and property is almost surrounded by the Nolen land.

They praised the accessibility of Nolen officials, but had some concerns. What if the apartment building and underground parking bring more traffic, not less?

What about security of a planned public-gathering area and a walking trail, asked Sonny Elia, who lives in one of the town houses. What about storm-water management, they all asked.

Sudall told planning committee members that Nolen was willing to work on all the issues and keep in touch with neighbors.

Contact Carolyn Davis at 610-313-8109, cdavis@phillynews.com, or @carolyntweets on Twitter.