With its mom-and-pop shops, restaurants, movie theater, train station, and nearby walkable neighborhoods, downtown Narberth is the sort of suburb even an urbanist can love.
But the departure in recent years of several long-running local businesses, a proposal to redevelop 11 older commercial properties as part of a larger residential project, and the prospect of three new apartment buildings have some in this Montgomery County borough worrying that Narberth could lose its distinctive identity.
“I want Narberth to look like Narberth,” said borough commission president Fred Bush, who moved his family there six years ago largely because of its walkability and urbane yet small-town flavor.
“For a long time, there hasn’t been a lot of development. But property values are going up all around us and going up in Narberth, making us more attractive to developers,” he said. “So we need to make sure developments that are proposed fit with the character of Narberth.”
Tim Rubin, the developer of two apartment buildings on the town’s main thoroughfare that together total 24 units, says that’s what he’s trying to do. “These are small-scale, mixed-use projects, with ground-floor retail. We would never want to do anything to change Narberth’s charm.”
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Although a “tentative sketch plan” he filed with the borough in December 2019 envisioned construction of more than a dozen residential units behind the 11 commercial properties he owns along Haverford Avenue, Rubin described it as “extremely” preliminary.
“I can’t give you anything concrete, but it would be some sort of mixed-use similar to the two apartment buildings we have under construction,” he said. “Even if we wanted to bring in a national retailer, which we don’t — that is absolutely not our objective — downtown Narberth is not conducive to that kind of tenant.
“Anything that happens there will be done in a way that is complementary to the architecture and scale of Narberth.”
Like something out of TV
The borough, which is surrounded by Lower Merion Township, was established in 1895 and has long been viewed as less ostentatious than other Main Line communities. With 4,300 residents in half a square mile, Narberth also is far more densely populated than the average municipality in the nation’s most densely populated state, New Jersey. But Narberth seems cozy, rather than crowded.
Some locals — aka “Narbs” or “Nearbs,” depending on whether they reside in the borough or just outside its borders — even liken Narberth to Mayberry. Others say it resembles the fictional Stars Hollow, the setting for a far more recent TV series, Gilmore Girls.
But in worrying that new development will worsen traffic, make parking more difficult, yield bigger buildings, and drive out local stores, Narberth resembles other inner-ring suburbs across the Philly region. These older Pennsylvania and South Jersey towns often have leafy streets, lively business districts, and good transit connections. They also are facing pressure to build more housing, particularly given the red-hot market for apartments.
“Narberth is a very small town, it has a special character, and some people think it’s going to be all messed up” by development, said Soheila Sobhani, who owns the Cheese Company on the 200 block of Haverford Avenue, the main street.
“For a businessperson, I think the new apartments are going to be good,” she said. “But my customers mostly drive here, I get deliveries here, and parking can be a problem.”
Having more people living in and near downtown will boost foot traffic and help Narberth retain its idiosyncratic mix of local businesses, said Jackie Maki, who owns Character Development, a book and toy store on the eclectic 200 block.
“Everything is different; every place is different,” she said. “Overall, it makes downtown a great place to be.”
Out with the old?
Nevertheless, after 26 years, McShea’s Restaurant and Bar is set to close on the 200 block in August, said owner John McShea.
“What the owner [Rubin] wants to do with the buildings — and those are not great buildings — is up in the air,” said McShea, who will continue working at the Ardmore location of his family’s bar and restaurant business.
Rubin “offered us a chance to be part of [redevelopment] going forward,” he said, “but things change, and I’m cool with it. I’m ready for the next adventure.”
Also uncertain about its future is the American Family Market, another beloved Narberth institution.
Paul Bovo, 86, still works seven days a week at the store, as he has since it moved to Narberth from South Philly 57 years ago. There’s a photo of the late singer Bobby Rydell, a friend from the old neighborhood, on the wall.
“We’re the only store around that still grinds our own ground beef,” Bovo said. “I’m old-fashioned.”
A former A&P, the store “is absolutely the heart of Narberth,” said longtime customer Rosemary McDonough, who wrote an appreciation of American Family Market for the WHYY website.
“Everybody from I don’t know how many miles around knows that this is the place where you come not just to get your groceries but to find out what’s going on,” she said.
Bovo runs the store with the help of his daughter, Gina Bovo Volpe, who commutes several days a week from Longport at the Jersey Shore.
“We’re taking things day by day,” she said. “Narberth is a charming town, a family community, and I think the charm will still exist even with the new buildings that are happening. If Tim [Rubin] decides to keep this, and just give the [facades] a little uplift, it will be a great spot.”
In with the new?
However old-fashioned the market may seem, it recently has served as an incubator for a cutting-edge pop-up shop that’s expanding into its own space in another Rubin-owned building just up the avenue.
Called Shift and co-owned by business partners Eleisha Eagle and Kimberley Bezak, the business sells green household cleaning agents and personal-care products to consumers who bring in their own reusable containers.
“As a business, we would not be moving down the street if all this [block of real estate] was going away,” Bezak said.
Narberth Mayor Andrea Deutsch has been a downtown business owner for nearly 20 years. Her pet store is called Spot’s (the place for paws).
“Narberth for so long was kind of stuck in a time warp,” she said. “It feels like a lot of development is happening in a fairly short time frame because Narberth hasn’t had major development in decades.”
Said Ed Ridgway, a real estate professional who heads up the Narberth Business Association: “It’s not like the Narberth of 1980 was the best it could ever be. Narberth has been changing since it was founded. "
But historian George Lonsdorf, who created the Friends of Narberth History website, sees the scale and number of downtown developments as without recent precedent.
“So much [rental] housing all at one time is a departure,” he said. “The buildings are more massive than what preceded them.”
The largest of the latest developments is the Elm, a four-story, 52-unit apartment building at Forrest and Windsor Avenues.
“We’re 90% leased,” said Bob Kagan, who developed the Elm with his business partner Max Berger. The two had owned the office building that formerly occupied the site.
“We had a dialogue with Narberth,” Kagan said. “We wanted them to understand what our needs were, and they didn’t want the town’s character to be overwhelmed by some generic building.”
Narberth has new zoning requirements that limit the height of buildings along Haverford Avenue to two stories. Last fall, the borough also established a Historic Architectural Review Board that will examine any proposed changes to or demolition of properties owned by Rubin and others in Narberth.
“I’m not against development, but Narberth is a special place,” said Deborah Lonsdorf, who oversees the Narberth Community Network page on Facebook.
“Narberth has a little town center that is not on a main thoroughfare,” said Lonsdorf, a Realtor who is married to George Lonsdorf.
“We have a quiet street with a tiny little business district [from] the early 20th century,” she said. “I just hope developers are mindful of the look and feel of the town.”