One year has passed and one major flood has washed through since Upper Dublin Township hired a retired civil engineer to serve as part-grant finder/part-cheerleader for a radical $68 million rescue plan of the often-waterlogged Fort Washington Office Park.
Last night, the township commissioners were expected to take two significant steps toward making the 563-acre complex of 340 businesses and 15,000 employees drier and safer:
They were to retain that engineer-turned-consultant, Steve Lester, for at least another year of work, at a salary of $60,000, and approve, as part of Upper Dublin's 2010 budget, $718,112 in capital expenditures for a storm-water management project.
"The Board of Commissioners is in complete support of solving the flooding problems in the Fort Washington Office Park," said Commissioner Robert J. Pesavento, chairman of the township's economic development and finance committee. "The office park is the economic center of the township."
But it was built in 1953 on what was largely marshland, at a time when storm-water management was not required of developers. As growth increased in the office park and in towns upstream, so did the severity of the flooding and the consequences. Those have included one death, a number of near misses, and tens of millions of dollars in damage to businesses there and along Pennsylvania Avenue in neighboring Whitemarsh Township.
In addition, the flooding has chased off countless tenants and potential tenants, threatening the sustainability of what started as an industrial complex and is now mostly offices. With the park's flooding problems so widely known, in recent years most new tenants have gone to buildings on higher ground.
That's where Horsham-based Nutrisystem Inc. plans to relocate, Township Manager Paul Leonard said, with fit-out work already begun on a three-story building managed by Acorn Development Corp. on Office Center Drive.
Code-enforcement director Rick Barton said plans for the 123,000-square-foot space were received for review last week, "and I expect that permits could be issued in one to two weeks."
When asked about the move, Susan McGowan, a spokeswoman for the weight-loss company, said yesterday, "We're not ready to confirm that at this time."
What the efforts on several fronts to reduce the office park's exposure to damaging flooding still need, Leonard said, "is the big money."
Big money is what Lester will go after in 2010 - specifically a $20 million grant through the state's H20 PA program. Established by the General Assembly in July 2008, it provides 2-for-1 matching grants to municipalities or municipal authorities to help with storm-water management projects, among other things. The application deadline is Aug. 4, with awards expected the following November.
Upper Dublin officials estimate that close to $30 million will be needed to design and install the storm-water management systems recommended for the office park by Temple University late last year. The school's Center for Sustainable Communities studied the flooding problems for two years, with funding from a $420,000 federal transportation grant.
Temple also recommended an additional $40 million in infrastructure improvements, including ripping up about a mile of the park's main thoroughfare - Virginia Drive, where the most severe flooding occurs - and converting it to a planted area.
Because this is a process that, given environmental and other concerns, could take 10 years, Lester said his preference in the interim was to upgrade the deteriorating roadway and, in the process, raise those portions usually underwater in heavy rains.
Yesterday, a nine-member committee of local officials and planning and development experts narrowed to five the field of contenders for a $90,000 contract to evaluate redevelopment options for the office park, with a final selection planned for early next year. The Delaware Valley Regional Planning Commission is providing $70,000, with Upper Dublin and Whitemarsh splitting the rest.
Among the things the selected consultant will be expected to assess is the applicability of a complex concept Temple has recommended to encourage property owners in the park's high-flood-risk areas to relocate to drier ground, where greater density (namely more building height) would be allowed.
Known as "transfer of development rights," the land-use tool is typically used to protect open space from development.