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Lower Merion suddenly has a walkable riverfront, thanks to Pencoyd Landing development | Inga Saffron

The site of the former Pencoyd Iron Works is a trail-oriented development that puts pedestrians and cyclists first.

The ghostly outline of the 19th century Pencoyd Iron Works shades the new Schuylkill riverfront development in the Bala Cynwyd section of Lower Merion. The project, called Pencoyd Landing, offers spectacular views of the river, the Pencoyd Bridge, and Manayunk.
The ghostly outline of the 19th century Pencoyd Iron Works shades the new Schuylkill riverfront development in the Bala Cynwyd section of Lower Merion. The project, called Pencoyd Landing, offers spectacular views of the river, the Pencoyd Bridge, and Manayunk.Read moreTIM TAI / Staff Photographer

A century ago, the industrial sheds that housed the Pencoyd Iron Works’ blast furnaces formed a long wall across Lower Merion’s Schuylkill waterfront. There was no expressway back then, and some of its 1,500 workers accessed the plant by walking across a narrow railroad bridge from Manayunk. In old photos, the site is nearly treeless and cloaked in a mantle of coal dust.

As I pedaled across that same bridge on a recent spring morning, I could just barely make out the remains of the ironworks because the greenery was so thick. The walls of the factory had been stripped away, leaving only a bare steel frame. Instead of housing furnaces, that lacy industrial relic now presides over a modern waterfront complex that includes an elegant river walk, a tiny Victorian castle, a terrace restaurant and, improbably, a new Marriott hotel. Pencoyd Iron Works has been reinvented as Pencoyd Landing.

Whether intentional or not, the use of landing in the name brings to mind another waterfront: Penn’s Landing on the Delaware. Both places are roughly the same size and similarly hemmed in by highways and high bluffs. Both have struggled to find their purpose after industry vanished. But the developer of Pencoyd Landing, the Penn Group, has managed to use its difficult site to create a lush and cozy refuge from the world. Although not replicable everywhere, the results should inspire the region’s other waterfront projects to up their game.

We don’t generally think of Lower Merion as a riverfront town, but it actually has seven miles of frontage along the Schuylkill, most of it eye-to-eye with Philadelphia’s Manayunk neighborhood. Until a few years ago, much of that land was difficult to reach from the township side because of the three-layer barrier created by I-76, an elevated freight railroad, and the Schuylkill waterfront’s steep geography. Flat Rock Park in the Gladwyne section was the only public space at the river’s edge, and you pretty much needed a car to get there.

Expectations for the waterfront’s future were so low that when developer Brian J. O’Neill built the 600-unit Royal Athena apartment complex just above Pencoyd Landing in 2012, his building barely acknowledged the Schuylkill’s existence. The entire ground floor is given over to parking. Lower Merion planning officials told me they had to push O’Neill to fulfill his contractual obligation to refurbish the Pencoyd foot bridge, which finally reopened in 2017.

From the beginning, Donna Galvin, one of the Penn Group’s founders, had a very different vision for Pencoyd Landing. Her company acquired the 10-acre site in 2000, when it was still home to a rebar factory, and fought a long legal battle with O’Neill over access issues. She says she always saw the site as a meeting ground between suburbs and city, and believed it would be enhanced by making it a walking and cycling destination.

Although you can easily walk, bike or drive to Pencoyd Landing from Righter’s Ferry Road in Lower Merion’s Bala Cynwyd neighborhood, the truly spectacular arrival is from the Philadelphia side. The only way in on the Pencoyd Bridge is by foot or bike (unless you happen to be a card-carrying resident of the Royal Athena apartments). As you cross the celadon-colored span, a Victorian clock tower serves as traffic control, guiding you into a welcoming plaza shaded by the skeleton of the old ironworks. You can meander along the river walk, stop for coffee or a meal at the Landing Kitchen (the latest offering from Philadelphia chef Nick Elmi), or admire the surviving ironworks structures. Although the Marriott Residence Inn opened only in March, Galvin says, its outdoor terraces and indoor “hearth room” have already become in-demand wedding venues. When a second Elmi restaurant, Lark, opens this summer on the Marriott roof, diners will have views up and down the Schuylkill, from the Green Lane Bridge to the Falls Bridge.

The complex was designed and planned by Land Collective’s David Rubin and Coscia Moos’ Sergio Coscia, with a major assist from Penn Group’s in-house architect Stephen Gibson. But it wouldn’t be half as nice if Galvin hadn’t insisted that all the entrances should be at trail level.

Having doors that open onto the trail might sound obvious, but there is a reason that the Royal Athena apartments, and so many other waterfront projects, are perched on garages. Most river sites are in floodplains, and developers don’t want to bother making provisions to deal with occasional high water. The result of that shortsighted approach can be seen along the Center City stretch of the Schuylkill, where a parade of garages is creating a wall between the river and the adjacent neighborhoods.

The Pencoyd site is technically in a floodplain, but because it’s only a few inches below the cutoff, Galvin was skeptical. She knew the ironworks had operated its heavy machinery for 150 years without a problem. Although the Manayunk shoreline is notorious for flooding, the Lower Merion bank is much higher — 25 feet above the river. Galvin decided it was worth taking her chances and keeping the new buildings as close to trail level as possible.

Because the land was a bit marshy, the Penn Group first had the entire site compacted. Then the company brought in two feet of soil to raise it to the current level. At several key places, landscape architect Rubin wove in several gentle switchback ramps to connect the trail to the Marriott, which sits several inches above the main walkway. My favorite ramp is a steel plank fashioned from the Pencoyd factory’s girders. It spans a water retention basin layered with slate from the building’s roof.

By incorporating bits and pieces from the ironworks into the design, the project becomes more than just another generic development. History is made visible in the steel outline of the former complex. The structure also helps shade the parking lot and frame the Marriott entrance, giving that chain hotel a distinctive personality. Meanwhile, architect Coscia broke up the facade with sections of corrugated metal that came straight off the factory walls. Such reuse makes sense environmentally, aesthetically and economically. One of the other nice features of the design is the way the one-story glass rooms alternate with the more solid hotel walls. Even inside, the riverfront feels as if it’s part of the space.

In another smart bit of reuse, Galvin installed her company’s headquarters in Pencoyd’s redbrick office building, a charming 1873 structure she believes may have been designed by Frank Furness. After Elmi’s rooftop restaurant is finished, she plans to convert another existing structure, Pencoyd’s pump house, into a banquet hall. A small shed next to the Pencoyd Bridge will become a snack bar.

Galvin and the Penn Group are so committed to embedding Pencoyd Landing into the region’s trail network that they purchased the Main Street movie theater property in Manayunk. They’ve already given the city an easement so it can complete a missing trail segment between the Wissahickon Transportation Center and the Pencoyd Bridge, a major bicycle highway that will allow people to travel from Bartram’s Garden to Lower Merion and Pottstown. The Penn Group also has plans to extend its own river walk farther south, where it can connect with a Lower Merion trail that will connect to the Falls Bridge.

Because the site is tucked out of sight, it can be hard to visualize its relationship to other parts of Lower Merion. It’s really an easy walk or bike ride from the Bala Cynwyd section, where nearly 2,000 apartment units are in the works, says township planner Chris Leswing. From there, he notes, residents can continue to SEPTA’s Wissahickon Transportation Center, where 10 bus routes and one regional rail line converge.

There was a time when chain hotels such as Marriott would consider only locations on major roads, but the virtual wayfinding on our phones has made out-of-the-way locations such as Pencoyd Landing attractive. Galvin believes the location allows the Marriott to function as both a business hotel and a weekend retreat.

But you won’t need a car to enjoy it. Pencoyd Landing was designed to be equally accessible to pedestrians, cyclists and transit riders. That’s not just a good model for waterfront development, but for everything we build.