As a child, Amanda Olsen recalls, she ventured down to Bala Avenue to meet friends, check out the shops, maybe even see a movie at the theatre.
“I remember it being a vibrant, awesome place," said Olsen, 36, who eight years ago moved back to the neighborhood with her young family. Now, “it’s kind of sad — but it’s growing.”
When the first few residents moved into a luxurious Bala Cynwyd apartment complex last month, Kevin Michals said he saw signs of such growth. To him and his colleagues at Cross Properties, the opening of the Kelly apartments marked the first wave of revitalization for a sleepy area off City Avenue that he and his fellow developers have coined “NoBA,” short for North Bala.
“NoBA was just a way for us to signal there’s a new sheriff in town, new money coming into town," said Michals, the manager partner for Cross.
He hopes others will follow their lead, he said, and invest in the small community on the edge of Lower Merion Township, which has a median household income of more than $125,000. He wants to transform the main drag on Bala Avenue from its current, ghost-town-esque state, he said, to a happening suburb similar to Phoenixville or Media.
With its rooftop dog park and sundeck, clubhouse and private conference rooms, and 24-hour front-desk concierge, the Kelly certainly looks and feels as if it belongs in a trendy town.
The $50 million, 109-unit building (16 of which were occupied or pre-leased as of last week) is the first of three complexes Cross plans to open in coming years. In all, they say, they’ve invested $110 million, bought 20 properties, and made plans to incorporate an upscale food court and community gathering and co-working space alongside the 258 new apartments.
Lower Merion Township Commissioner Mike McKeon said he thinks Bala Avenue declined due to “changing times.”
“It’s very typical for a lot of our old main streets,” he said. “Market conditions and what people want changes over time.”
CVS and Rite Aid replaced local pharmacies, he added, and megaplexes replaced many small-town movie theaters (although on Bala Avenue, a personal feud also contributed to the historic movie palace closing its doors).
McKeon believes that these developers could bring life back to the area, he said, because they aren’t focusing on purely residential projects.
“You can’t just dump people in some place,” McKeon said. “On Bala Avenue, what I think is helpful there is you’ve got a concentrated effort between people and retail.
“If that type of thing is going to succeed,” he added, “it’s going to succeed there.”
In the works for several years, these efforts play into larger goals of the City Avenue Special Services District. Officials with the district have been working to reinvigorate the congested, three-mile stretch that straddles Philadelphia and Lower Merion, a strip that often goes by the misnomer “City Line," especially in Delaware County, said Terrence Foley, the district’s president and CEO.
McKeon said he expects improvements along City Avenue to take more time.
“There’s been good work done,” he said, “but the commercial side is trailing really far behind.”
That’s no one’s fault, McKeon said — it’s simply a product of the market. Residential projects have been constructed there because they’re selling, he said. Yet on the commercial side, City Avenue has for years struggled to compete with the likes of King of Prussia, not to mention online shopping options.
Foley said he has seen positive signs, however. The corridor has gotten younger in recent years, he said, with more millennials moving into apartment buildings such as the revamped Presidential City and the Mansion at Bala.
“A lot of young people would like to be in Center City or University City, but the rents are too high,” said Foley, noting that City Avenue dwellers can drive to the city in about 15 minutes. While apartments can still be expensive closer to the suburbs (rents at the Presidential are more than $3,000 for some two- and three-bedroom units), he said residents often get more for their money: more space, easier parking, and plusher amenities.
The district has been working to make the area even more attractive, Foley said, with a focus on bringing in a wider variety of businesses, making it more pedestrian-friendly, and decreasing road congestion, thanks in part to real-time traffic-flow-improvement technology.
From Overbrook to Bala Cynwyd, residents should be rooting for the success of City Avenue, Foley said.
“Our success is critical to the financial well-being of taxpayers on both sides of City Avenue,” he said.
On the suburban side, residents said they had hope for a NoBA revitalization but tempered expectations for City Avenue’s future.
“I feel like Cross Properties has an opportunity to be very revolutionary” on Bala Avenue, said Olsen, a mother of two young sons. “There’s no reason that couldn’t be a destination place and a place for people to connect and come together.”
Having lived near East Passyunk Avenue during its rebirth, Olsen said she would love to see more restaurants and a wider variety of community-invested businesses come to this neighborhood.
As for City Avenue?
Olsen said she avoids going there whenever possible. Too much congestion, she said, and not enough places to eat that aren’t chain restaurants.
“It’s like a highway,” she said. “I don’t know how you make City Avenue a walkable place.”
When her family is looking to go out, they’ll drive to Ardmore, Bryn Mawr, Wayne, or the Fairmount section of the city — “We go like everywhere else” aside from City Avenue, she said.
Matt Weiss, 34, who lives in Bala with his wife, Liz, said he’s looked at the City Avenue plans and thinks — cautiously — that they could work.
“We think it still has a long way to go,” he said. “But, in general, it’s better than it used to be.”
His family moved out of the city six months ago, he said, but still wanted walkability. They found that in their home, a few minutes’ walk from Bala Avenue, and are hoping new development will soon give them more places to walk to.
In Gladwyne, John Appleby, 41, a software executive, said he loved living in the City Avenue District a decade ago. His family moved, he added, only because they wanted more privacy and space.
“At the time, there were places that looked a little bit tired,” he said. But “it’s safe. It’s walkable, and it’s nice to be close to the city.”
Although Appleby has broader concerns about the density of Lower Merion, he said, he believes the “NoBA” projects are much-needed.
“It’s been an eyesore for the last 10 years," he said. “It’s been run-down.”
“It’s not Narberth yet,” he added. “But it could get there.”