Skip to content
Link copied to clipboard

Will highway project bring prosperity for Norristown?

It has assets that other towns would envy: Excellent transportation access, proximity to employment centers, the seat of one of the state's wealthiest counties.

Norristown has assets that other towns would envy: Excellent transportation access, proximity to employment centers, the seat of one of the state's wealthiest counties.

Yet it has not enjoyed the prosperity of its counterparts in Bucks, Chester, and Delaware Counties - Doylestown, West Chester, and Media, respectively - and Norristown has issues that no other town would envy, including high crime, poverty, and property-tax rates.

But after years of false starts, regional planners think that a major highway-construction project could be just the thing that can get the municipality on the road to recovery.

On May 17, the Pennsylvania Turnpike Commission approved funding for construction of a new exit off I-276 near milepost 331 that will link up with a planned extension of Lafayette Street. The interchange is expected to be completed by 2024, and the Lafayette Street extension is due to open by 2019. Together, the projects will cost about $165 million, and officials believe they will go a long way toward luring new development.

"I think it's going to have a very positive effect," Valerie Arkoosh, a Montgomery County commissioner, said last week. "It's already looking like this is going to be an example of 'If you build it, they will come.' "

Indeed, Norristown officials say that they have received overtures from developers who are interested in building on the land that will become available with the Lafayette Street extension.

"We've had inquiries from about four developers so far," said Jayne Musonye, director of planning and municipal development, who said that they expressed interest in building properties ranging from condos to a hotel.

But experts say that revitalizing the municipality is no done deal.

"The general trend right now is to go back to the city," said John Landis, chair of the University of Pennsylvania's City and Regional Planning Department. "Norristown is not Brooklyn. People are not going back to Norristown as urban pioneers."

Officials cite neighboring Conshohocken, which experienced a major revitalization after the construction of the Blue Route made it more accessible, as evidence that their plans for Norristown will work. They expect that the new turnpike exit will be well-traveled. According to estimates by the Delaware River Valley Planning Commission, the new interchange will field 21,500 cars by 2040.

"This interchange will generate a lot of vehicles, which is good for Norristown," said Matthew Emond, the county planning commission's transportation chief.

But Landis said that the interchange would not generate growth without requisite attractions, and that any new restaurants and retail opening in Norristown would face stiff competition from existing shopping centers in King of Prussia and Plymouth Meeting, which flank the municipality.

"Both of those already have turnpike and freeway access, and both of them will fight to maintain their access to the market," Landis said.

Eugenie Birch, the Nussdorf Professor at the University of Pennsylvania's School of Design, said that she hoped that the attention would translate into real improvement. The challenge, she said, was for the municipality to create jobs that would lead people to move into Norristown, rather than simply commute. And doing so will require that the city compete with Conshohocken - the place it is trying to emulate.

"The question is how to create the kind of jobs that people are going to want to walk to," said Birch. "Philadelphia and Conshohocken have already captured some of that."

Still, there are signs that the municipality could make a comeback. After roughly a half-century of population decline, Norristown grew by roughly 10 percent from 2000 to 2010, and a number of new condo, townhouse, and apartment complexes have sprung up throughout the municipality. Five Saints Distilling, a small spirits company, recently opened in a converted old fire station on East Main Street. And several other projects, including new trails and the construction of a $275 million county government campus, are planned.

"All the work we've done for many years is finally coming to fruition," said Musonye. "It's good to see."

But Landis said that while the county could revitalize Norristown, it would be an uphill fight.

"If you can come together around the right development proposal ... there is some room in the market," Landis said. "[But] Norristown is a little late to the party, and the party is over."

dblock@phillynews.com610-313-8119 @dblock94