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In Ardmore, a fight over funding for development

Things should have been easy after Lower Merion Township announced plans a decade ago for a redevelopment of downtown Ardmore, a Main Line town with its own Amtrak and SEPTA train stop.

A rendering of the $60 million, eight-story Ardmore residential tower that is at the center of the battle.
A rendering of the $60 million, eight-story Ardmore residential tower that is at the center of the battle.Read moreCourtesy Dranoff Properties

Things should have been easy after Lower Merion Township announced plans a decade ago for a redevelopment of downtown Ardmore, a Main Line town with its own Amtrak and SEPTA train stop.

The township picked a private developer. He planned to spend millions to rebuild a puny, aging train station and surround it with a multistory complex of luxury residences, parking, and shops. The state agreed to kick in up to $15 million.

But what transpired instead is a big-money saga now before the Pennsylvania Supreme Court that focuses on a highly political grant pool controlled by the governor and state lawmakers.

A small army of residents wants to stop the cash-strapped state from making good on its 2008 pledge to give Carl Dranoff a $10.5 million "Ardmore Station Project" grant approved by the legislature. The argument: Dranoff's project no longer contains a train station upgrade - or is even along the train tracks.

"It's a misappropriation of a very large amount of public funds that are being used for a private development," said Mark Landis Freed, attorney for the plaintiffs, the Save Ardmore Coalition.

Supporters call it a worthy revitalization project wrongly hijacked by activists in a community packed with lawyers, professors, and savvy advocate-citizens.

After a Commonwealth Court judge dismissed the case in December, residents petitioned the Supreme Court. Their appeal names the governor, his budget office, the local redevelopment authority, and commissioners.

"It's maddening because we're kind of held hostage here," said Christine Vilardo, executive director of Ardmore Initiative, a business improvement district eager to see the project come to fruition.

"I just can't imagine how much has been paid in legal costs just trying to battle this thing forward," said John Nugent, executive director of the Montgomery County Redevelopment Authority, conduit for the contested grant.

"Do you have any idea what we're paying in lawyers? It's insane," said Angela Murray, Lower Merion's assistant director of community and economic development, declining to say just how insane the total is.

Dranoff has approval to build on one of Ardmore's few large undeveloped tracts - a surface parking lot on Cricket Avenue behind its Lancaster Avenue business district. Deed to the township-owned lot, several blocks from the train station, will be transferred before construction begins.

Dranoff says the $60 million, eight-story residential tower with stores, restaurants, and a parking garage is "a poster-child project" for transit-oriented development.

"I feel like I'm delivering an exceptional project here," he said in an interview Friday, "and I'm going to see it through."

But it cannot be built, he said, without the $10.5 million. The subsidy helps satisfy a township demand that the project include public parking.

Dranoff plans to build a structure that replaces more than the 133 metered spaces on the lot. He will set them aside for municipal parking under a $1-a-year township lease.

"The business community insisted on getting a three-story garage there," Dranoff said. "That wasn't my decision."

Ardmore is a densely developed enclave of Lower Merion, itself a magnet for its housing values and highly rated public schools.

Recently abuzz with new restaurants, brewpubs, and apartments, its downtown was less rosy when Dranoff won the project.

Officials selected him in March 2008 only after the township's first choice pulled out, saying the financing had vanished as credit markets tightened and the economy was beginning its swoon.

Dranoff's plan included the Phase One project along the tracks and a Phase Two development at the Cricket lot. With an old business district pocked with vacancies, officials were eager for a spark.

Dranoff secured a Redevelopment Assistance Capital Program (RACP) grant in July 2008, under Gov. Ed Rendell, for parking and station-related improvements.

But in 2013, the transit project derailed. Amtrak refused to allow development on a significant portion of land it owned near the station. The township allowed the project to move to Cricket Avenue.

As it migrated, so did $10.5 million of the RACP grant. Only $3.5 million remained earmarked for station improvements. And that work was taken over by SEPTA, the beleaguered transit agency.

RACP grants are issued largely at the discretion of the governor and state lawmakers, so they often involve lobbying. Gov. Tom Corbett took office in 2011 pledging to scale back the program.

In December 2013, he struck at Ardmore.

"Given the major project scope changes," Corbett's budget office told county officials, it would release only $3.5 million - and for station work.

Dranoff and other supporters made a lobbying push. Dranoff donated $10,000 to Corbett's 2014 reelection campaign. In August 2014, the budget office changed its mind.

In explaining why, then-Budget Secretary Charles Zogby told county officials the project had been "re-scoped" and "rescaled."

Dranoff called "laughable" the notion raised by critics that his donation made a difference. "We were approved by Governor Rendell, upheld by Governor Corbett, verified and extended by Governor Wolf," he said. "This is not a controversial project."

What changed in scope?

"I have no idea," Dranoff said. "The plan was the same plan."

A spokesman for Wolf did not make anyone available last week to discuss the grant.

Opponents say they remain resolute.

"The tax dollars are mostly going to what's going to be a private apartment building, into which most of us will never set foot," said Save Ardmore president Mike Frank, a musician. "We would be happy with exactly what Mr. Dranoff has proposed if he were paying for it entirely himself."

Today, the train station is unchanged. Its 109 commuter parking spots still do not match demand. A $30 million, 300-car garage is on ice, SEPTA deputy general manager Richard Burnfield said.

"We don't have any funding," Burnfield said, "identified at the moment."

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