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A decades-long road project aims to bring Norristown out of isolation. Will revitalization follow?

“If you wanted to paint a picture, a textbook definition, for what transit-oriented development should look like, here we are,” says Norristown’s municipal administrator.

Lafayette Street in Norristown has been widened to attract more traffic and, Montgomery County officials hope, to create the groundwork “for economic revitalization to happen from the ground up."
Lafayette Street in Norristown has been widened to attract more traffic and, Montgomery County officials hope, to create the groundwork “for economic revitalization to happen from the ground up."Read moreTIM TAI / Staff Photographer

It’s tough to get to Norristown from nearby highways.

Drivers embarking on Route 422, the Schuylkill Expressway, or Pennsylvania Turnpike eastbound end up snaking around Route 202 and King of Prussia before finding themselves in the Montgomery County seat, home to about 34,000 people.

Motorists exiting the Pennsylvania Turnpike westbound are dropped off in Plymouth Meeting, still miles from the borough — the governmental epicenter of the wealthy Philadelphia collar county, where the median household income is about $91,500. In Norristown, where most of the residents are Black or Hispanic, it’s $48,400.

It’s a glaring disparity decades in the making, with loss of industry, population decline, and malls considered contributing factors. Montgomery County has taken what’s seen as an important step toward economic revitalization: making it easier to get into town. It recently completed a one-mile, $90 million infrastructure project that’s been more than 20 years in the making.

The Lafayette Street Extension project, aimed at boosting access into downtown Norristown and Plymouth Township, may be “the largest locally led, locally funded transportation infrastructure project in the commonwealth,” said Matthew Edmond, assistant director of transportation and long-range planning at the Montgomery County Planning Commission.

The county quietly finished its portion of the project in the fall, a milestone undoubtedly guaranteed a ceremonial ribbon cutting if not for the COVID-19 pandemic. But there’s still a missing link — “the key” to the project, in fact. It’s now up to the Pennsylvania Turnpike to build a promised interchange that’s already had builders phoning Norristown officials.

“It’s not easy to go into Norristown. Opening it up and making it possible, it’s enough to attract a developer,” Edmond said. “For a developer to say, ‘There’s potential here.’ That’s when they start to invest. That’s when banks start to invest. If you wall a place off, you’ll never have economic growth.”

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The ‘critical’ connection

The turnpike, which in 2016 agreed to provide $66 million in funding for a Lafayette Street interchange, is “moving ahead in small steps,” said spokesperson Carl DeFebo. Its portion is in the preliminary design phase, according to the turnpike’s website. Edmond predicts that the interchange could open in the mid-2020s.

The county finished its part, reconstructing and widening Lafayette Street and relocating the Schuylkill River Trail, in October. The project was financed primarily with federal funds. A half interchange with U.S. 202 South at the Dannehower Bridge is in the works.

As is the case with major transportation undertakings, the return on the Lafayette Street project’s investment will be slow — maybe 10 to 20 years, Edmond said. The goal is to create the groundwork “for economic revitalization to happen from the ground up,” not by redeveloping “from the top down by buying land and constructing buildings,” he said.

As part of her job as Norristown’s director of planning and municipal development, Jayne Musonye has pitched the project as a priority to political officials for two decades. The access a turnpike interchange would create is “critical,” she said.

“The easiest way to come in and easiest way to leave can make a split decision on whether someone wants to come to downtown Norristown, or go to the mall,” Musonye said.

The project as it sits now behind Main Street — without easy connection to major road access — has been no boon to business, said Giacomo Braccischi, owner of Giacomo’s Ristorante on the stretch near Walnut Street.

“When they hook it onto the turnpike, it would be very good for the town,” he said. “And the town really needs some shaking up. I’ve been here a long time, and I’ve never seen it like this.”

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Conshohocken as inspiration

Transportation, not the King of Prussia Mall, which opened in 1963, played the primary role in Norristown’s economic decline, said Michael Tolle, author of the 2012 book What Killed Downtown?: Norristown, Pennsylvania, from Main Street to the Malls.

Following the era of trains chugging along the Pennsylvania Railroad and industrial jobs came private cars, highways, and Norristown’s isolation, he said. Meanwhile, nearby Conshohocken became a prime waterfront location that gave residents easy access to “all four directions of the compass” via the Schuylkill Expressway and Blue Route.

With the Lafayette project, Norristown may be able to emulate what’s been happening in Conshohocken,he said. There, the average home is valued at $306,900. In Norristown, $152,900, according to the U.S. Census Bureau.

Tolle hopes the project helps people “discover Norristown.”

“They can say, ‘Wait a minute, I can live here in this town for a lot less than I can live somewhere else and still get to my job fairly easily,” he said.

There was “severe white flight out of Norristown when the economic bubble broke,” said Crandall Jones, Norristown’s municipal administrator. In 1980, Norristown’s population of 34,684 was 76% white. By 2000, white people made up 49% of its population, which fell to 31,282.

“You compound that with the fact [of what] ... the malling of America did to Norristown, what it did to a lot of communities that were vibrant,” he said. “When malls became prevalent, businesses moved out. ... Once that happened and the less wealthy who could not migrate out stayed, then stigma starts to come in.”

It’s not that Norristown is trying to be the next Conshohocken, Edmond said, but rather the borough is attempting to “use the same tools that were used to help resuscitate” the neighboring borough.

“As highways were built around it, the access to Norristown got less and less, or harder and harder to get to the center of,” said Scott France, executive director of the Montgomery County Planning Commission. “So, this project is aiming to bring that back.”

Conshohocken benefits from being at the confluence of two major thoroughfares, said Peter Simone of Simone Collins Landscape Architecture, who moved to Norristown a decade ago. The Lafayette Street Extension project and the interchange begins to do that for Norristown, he said.

“When we moved to Norristown, people said, ‘Why are you moving to Norristown?’” Simone said. “Because it has a really exciting future, we would tell them.”

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‘Piece of the puzzle’

Eyes are on a few projects happening in the area, not just Lafayette Street.

A future $150 million waterfront development in nearby Bridgeport is thought to be “transformative” on its own, as is a $430 million justice center in Norristown. King of Prussia Rail, SEPTA’s proposed extension of the Norristown High Speed Line, would stand to benefit Norristown.

All those factors have led Simone to call the Lafayette Street project “an important piece of the puzzle,” but “not the only piece.”

If the King of Prussia rail project can happen, Simone said, “it’ll explode the housing market in Norristown, in terms of people who work in King of Prussia having a relatively inexpensive place to live and an easy way to get back and forth.”

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The King of Prussia Rail would add to a vital part of Norristown that many other boroughs and towns can’t boast — the Norristown Transportation Center, where with but a 20-minute walk, visitors and residents “have access to the world” via connections to SEPTA’s Regional Rail, the Norristown High Speed Line, and a variety of bus routes, said Jones, Norristown’s municipal administrator.

“If you wanted to paint a picture, a textbook definition for what transit-oriented development should look like,” he said, “what a walkable community should look like, here we are.”

The walkability, of top of the transit, recreational and eventual major road access, adds to its historic architecture and Norristown’s wide diversity — “one of the biggest attractions,” Jones said.

“The world is the world,” he said. “And Norristown is just doing its thing in terms of what it takes to revitalize it.”