Philadelphia's struggle to coax walkable, urban neighborhoods from the fallow land near its two rivers is a much-told tale, filled more with disappointment than triumph. But it's a mistake to think this is a uniquely Philadelphia story. Lower Merion's got waterfront troubles, too.
If you're having difficulty picturing a Lower Merion coastline - other than the Gold Coasts of suburban Gladwyne and Penn Valley - it's probably because you've never had reason to venture down to those bottomlands on the Schuylkill. Downstream from the Flat Rock Dam, the banks were dominated for more than a century by the smoking furnaces of steel fabricators. Later, I-76's rumbling viaduct cordoned off the area from Lower Merion's manicured residential enclaves.
But just like Philadelphia, Lower Merion is now beginning to see its 20th-century industrial zones give way to new 21st-century neighborhoods. O'Neill Properties, the developer of the Riverwalk complex on Conshohocken's Schuylkill waterfront, is seeking township permission to build a 580-unit apartment complex at the end of Righters Ferry Road, on a 13-acre site that sits eyeball-to-eyeball with Philadelphia's Manayunk neighborhood.
This project could be transformative, not just for Lower Merion, but for that ambiguous bit of geography we call the Schuylkill Valley. There probably isn't another spot on the lower Schuylkill where two such urbane neighborhoods have a chance to bracket the narrow river channel so tightly, effectively completing it. There are two existing footbridges just waiting to take residents over to Manayunk's towpath and its Main Street restaurants.
Altogether, Lower Merion has almost a mile of undeveloped coast, including a 10-acre site owned by the Penn Real Estate Group. As the first development on Lower Merion's side of the river, the O'Neill site cries out for a plan that goes beyond the standard box-in-a-parking-lot model. Its architecture and open spaces need to forge a single urban space with Philadelphia.
Unfortunately, developer Brian O'Neill's proposed scheme is Riverwalk-redux, a barely improved variation on the atomized boxes that litter his section of Conshohocken's riverfront. The collection of apartments and offices, which are being rebuilt after a devastating fire last summer, are barely conscious of the Schuylkill's existence or, for that matter, the existence of the hilly streets of the old town.
Given the large site that O'Neill had available in Conshohocken, it's also bizarre that such a high proportion of his units have no water views. That's not just poor planning; it's poor business.
At least, the Lower Merion structures would all face the water. The plan calls for five U-shaped buildings, each one five stories tall and set on stilts over an open parking level. Roof height is 70 feet.
Orienting the buildings to the river isn't enough, however. Not only do those U-shaped apartments look like something O'Neill picked out of a pattern book, but they would actually be stranded in a lake of asphalt, containing 807 surface-parking spaces.
Why is that so many riverfront developers insist on paving over their verdant wetlands?
As O'Neill's plan is now configured, there's barely enough space on the site for the township-required walking trail and "public gathering space." Believe it or not, O'Neill is trying pass off a small parking area at the trailhead as the public space.
The developer refused to be interviewed for this column. Both the Lower Merion and Montgomery County planning commissions already have sent up red flags, questioning O'Neill's approach. But the final decision will be made by Lower Merion's building and planning committee, which resumes hearings June 23.
One might expect that the suburban planners rejected O'Neill's project because of its high density. In fact, they applaud his effort to bring people to the river. What they don't like is the height of the five buildings: They wish they were taller.
With good reason. If O'Neill piled on more height, he could build fewer structures. Township zoning allows him to go to 120 feet, about 12 stories, in part because the waterfront site sits below a high ridge. Nobody's views would be blocked. Even better, the towers could be designed with structured parking on the lower levels, eliminating the need to pave over precious waterfront.
Taller buildings also would leave room for a more gracious walking path, which will be linked into the growing regional trail network on both sides of the Schuylkill. O'Neill's previous effort at waterfront green space in Conshohocken makes no connection to anything.
Looking at the site plan, it would appear that O'Neill's rationale for a low-rise, asphalt-heavy development is driven by short-term interests. The state building code allows structures under five stories to be framed in wood, rather than more expensive fireproof steel. Surface-parking lots also are cheaper than a parking deck. But I'd wager that better design and landscaping would command higher rents in the long run, especially in a desirable location like Lower Merion, the most affluent town in Montgomery County and home to the some of the highest real estate prices in the state.
In an ideal world, the township would insist that O'Neill follow the same standards outlined for Philadelphia by PennPraxis' Delaware Waterfront study. Lower Merion would demand that Righters Ferry have a real street grid, with blocks and sidewalks. And instead of just requiring riverfront developers to include a walking trail, Lower Merion would hand the builder a list of design guidelines.
But the part of the world that is Pennsylvania is far from ideal. The state does not allow its townships the same latitude as its cities in dealing with developers, complains township commissioner Elizabeth Rogan. So, while Lower Merion may weigh in on matters of use, density and safety, it is not permitted under state law to demand good urban design.
What Pennsylvania's government hasn't learned is that the boundaries between suburbs and cities are fast losing their meaning. Places like Lower Merion and Philadelphia are bound together by a common geography, the Schuylkill.
The river has shaped the region's political organization since colonial times, linking the settlements of Pottstown, Norristown, Conshohocken, Manayunk, and East Falls into the heart of Center City. The industry that formed them may be gone, but their close relationship remains just as important in the 21st century.