Ah, democracy. Last month, I took in the Conshohocken Planning Commission hearing that was considering Wawa's application for a 4,000-square-foot gas and convenience store in the borough, at the unoccupied site of a former car dealership on Fayette Street.
For two years, passions in the town have flared over the issue. Petitions have circulated for and against, voices have been raised and tears shed at normally sparsely attended public meetings, and there has even been a hilarious "We Want Wawa" Rage Against the Machinelike rock video posted on YouTube:
You see free market retail rules all
More than the roar of the crowd at a town hall.
At last month's hearing, rhetoric from the Wawa opposition was in full force.
"I pray you won't let Wawa take over Conshy," one resident urged the commission, to widespread cheers.
"Conshohocken is an Indian name - it means Pleasant Valley," said another. "I'd like to keep it that way."
"It's the end of Conshohocken," a third person wailed.
The argument against the Wawa incursion comes from essentially two groups: neighbors of the proposed site and other gas stations. The neighbors see Conshohocken as a walkable, New Hope-like town, and a giant Wawa doesn't fit their self-image, even though there's not a lot of foot traffic at 11th and Fayette. They worry about traffic, noise, and safety.
Other gas station owners worry about having to compete. Bob Wilson Sr., who owns the town's Gulf station, played the populist: "It's hard to take on oil companies today," he said. "Wawa is not an oil company . . . but do you really want a conglomerate like Wawa in town?"
Wawa a "conglomerate"? Really? As opposed to, say, Gulf?
I'm all for walkable towns, and if this were some big-box invasion, I'd be right there with the protesters. But we're talking Wawa here - an iconic local brand that is one of the few things that keeps our region from looking like Anytown, USA.
I love when out-of-town guests visit and are tickled by this strangely named store with the touchscreen ordering that titillated none other than Mitt Romney. In a New York Times story just this past week, Wawa was lauded for stirring "tribal loyalties" in its customer base.
Long before Howard Schultz introduced the "third place" retail concept of Starbucks, Wawa actually was in the business of being a type of de facto community meeting place. I've seen the same cast of characters in my local Wawa for years - they drink coffee and order shorties and commiserate over how bad the Eagles are.
So why all the fuss? I heard the arguments at the commission meeting but found myself wondering what all this tumult was really about.
First, it should be noted that, as development has taken off throughout Philly these last few years, a new trend has emerged: Call it the tyranny of the neighborhood association. A Kabuki dance takes place, in which sophisticated neighborhood groups seem to actually extort developers: "Nice little convenience store you have there; how about a donation to our association and a little something for a park - you know, for the kids?" It's a subtle type of taxation, or, as one developer told me, a new form of pay-to-play.
That's what I was expecting, but I didn't see evidence of it when I went to Conshohocken. Instead, I found neighbors who really care about the character of their town. And gas station owners - whose prices residents complain about - who are afraid of competition.
"I don't know why people are getting so crazy about this," says homeowner Robert Rigsby, a mutual-funds salesman who has lived in Conshohocken for eight years.
After two crusaders came to his door with their "Stop Wawa" petition, he became a reluctant activist and wrote and produced the YouTube rock video in response.
"Hypocrisy raises my blood pressure, and the convenience stores and gas stations opposed to Wawa all really want to be Wawa," he said. "I'm sure that, years ago, Wawa had a tough time competing. Competition is healthy. And when a local company competes, I'm with them. That's why I'm with Comcast and not Verizon."
Rigsby is keeping the controversy in perspective, even responding to a hyperventilating critic on YouTube by saying, "Take it easy, pal, just having a bit of fun." But his levelheadedness is in short supply in the borough.
At last month's charged public meeting, you just wished some deep breaths could be taken. A big Wawa won't spell the end of Conshohocken. It will actually be preferable to what's at the site now - nothing - and the outdoor "plaza" seating in Wawa's plans should comfort those who, like me, value a town's walkability.
At the meeting, the three planning board commissioners in attendance grew pale and seemed under siege when faced with some 70 full-throated Wawa opponents, even though the opposition's own polling shows 51 percent of the town supports the development. The planning board voted, 2-1, against recommending to the borough council that it consider Wawa's application for a zoning text amendment. But the council is still free to take up the matter, and it will meet on Wednesday to set up a hearing on the application.
The night was not only messy and emotional, but also arbitrary: After all the shouting, the room cleared out - and only six people stayed to hear the case of a proposed 300-unit apartment complex. That said, it was democracy in action, and I found myself admiring the passion of those who turned out on a cold winter night to have a say about their town. Problem is, what's happening now in Conshohocken proves that NIMBYism and democracy can be a toxic mix, particularly when they're in close proximity to fear of change.
He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.