Last night Equus presented their revised plans to the Lansdale Parking Authority regarding the apartments in the Madison Parking lot. The original idea for the Madison Parking Lot was that in exchange for a parking garage, Lansdale Borough would give a developer seven acres of land downtown for the construction of apartments. This would help make Lansdale a “semi-urban” destination which would in turn stimulate more foot traffic along Main Street and thus create a demand for restaurants and other shops. Equus presented their plans to the Borough with much fanfare in December 2011. Here are links to the slideshow and article from the Reporter at that time in 2011:
Since then, Equus’ plans have changed. SEPTA has committed to adding approximately 300 parking spaces (bringing their number of Parking Spaces up to about 900) in their lot which– according to Equus and certain Borough officials at the time– obviated their need to build a garage themselves. In addition, the scale of the project has been reduced from its original plan in 2011. First, Equus did away with their plans for the condos and then they decided to phase the project with the first phase being 175 apartments with reduced retail space and the second phase being the additional 50 apartments and maybe a garage. In November 2013, Equus was asked in Council whether or not the second phase was guaranteed; summarized, their guarded response was, “We’ll wait and see what the market dictates.” And now, as of last night, their plan includes 160 apartments, public piazza, Liberty Bell Trail and 100 public parking spaces. Here is a link to an article from the Reporter documenting last night’s presentation to the Parking Authority.
Now, let’s put all this in perspective: the original project outlined in 2011 included a parking garage, 30 condos, extensive retail space, a piazza and 250 “high-end” apartments. Now the project is 160 apartments with no condos, no garage and 15-20K retail space. Equus even recently went to the North Penn School District asking for tax abatement for ten years which was unanimously rejected. And prior to even that, Governor Corbett awarded the project $2.5 million for public improvements. So in a nutshell:
- The Borough has (almost but not quite) turned over seven acres of Borough property in the heart of downtown for $1.
- SEPTA is building the parking garage.
- They will potentially receive $2.5 million for public improvements from the State.
- The current project is a far cry from what was originally proposed.
My thought for the Madison Lot is that we rethink the idea of apartments downtown altogether. The argument that an additional 160-200 people downtown will turn Lansdale into a destination doesn’t hold water. Many people don’t realize that the SEPTA parking lot holds 488 cars. Where are all those people? Why aren’t they stopping in town? 200 additional people is a small percentage of the total amount of people downtown. Lansdale needs more restaurants period.
And the next problem, which is going to be a big one, is parking. According to Equus’ latest proposal, there will be 100 public parking spaces. Currently, there are about 200 in the Madison Lot. They were supposed to be adding parking, not taking it away. As an example, when Molly Maguire’s was open, they had thirty-five employees on a Saturday night not to mention their patrons coming to the restaurant. The plan for the property next door– the former Impact Store location– is to have multiple food booths bringing in more people and therefore a need for more parking. Then there is 311 West Main Street, which we hope will be a destination, and that will need parking. Whoever inhabits the former Tabora Cafe will also need parking. And as we heard last night from the owners of Wilson’s Hardware, they need parking. If even half of Main Street develops, where are all their patrons and employees going to park?
I know there has been a lot of time and effort that was put into this Madison Lot Project, but instead of apartments and retail, let’s repave the lot including the grassy areas to the left of Wood Street (facing north) which should add an additional 150 spaces. See the map here:
Incorporated into this will be trees lining the train tracks and trees in some of the medians separating some of the rows of parking. Let’s take advantage of the railroad instead of building a ten foot wall to block them as the apartment complex calls for. Lansdale is a train town, and we should take advantage of that. And instead of a skate park (which isn’t going to happen anyway), let’s install a train-themed pocket park with children’s rides encouraging families to the area. One person suggested a pop-up screen for a drive-in movie theater. In summary, let’s make it the most beautiful, well-lit parking lot in the region. And thinking longer term, imagine Lansdale as the hub for something like the Colbrookedale Railroad:
I have asked myself and others this question: If Main Street was full of businesses, would we be entertaining the need for 160 apartments and 20,000 square feet of retail downtown? When I look to Ambler, Phoenixville and Doylestown, their successful rebirths did not include massive projects such as an apartment building in the center of their town. (In addition, Ambler, Phoenixville and Doylestown would love to have the parking that we have right behind their Main Streets.) Their rebirths began one business at a time not with a massive project (again, top down instead of bottom-up) such as ours.
I think of Main Street as our “mall”. And what do malls have in common? Easy accessible parking. With an attractive, well-lit parking lot perhaps, shoppers would be more likely to visit Lansdale. Recently, as I questioned local businesses about the number of customers they had in a week, I was given an earful about the problem of parking. I fear that with an apartment building in the Madison Parking Lot and a parking garage on the other side of the tracks, potential visitors to Lansdale will simply bypass our town and the trouble associated with finding a space and opt for the Montgomery Mall or the next town such as Skippack, Ambler or Doylestown.
(And at least if my proposal is scrapped, please put this project out to bid again. Equus’ latest proposal is very different from their original plan. Here is an example of another developer that will be doing something very attractive in Chalfont. Please see below:)
Businesses downtown need customers. This is obvious. The larger question is how do we get them into town to stay and to return. Is an apartment complex the best way to do this? Or is an easily accessible and attractive parking lot the best way to attract customers? The trouble here is no one knows. Importantly, what we do know is that the Madison Parking Lot has gained importance as of late with the Farmers’ Market volunteers and vendors extremely satisfied with their new location in the Madison Lot, a sixth and very successful Beer Festival on the north end of the Madison Lot, nineteen Lansdale Bike Nights and numerous other car show stagings in the Madison Lot. All these events that bring people into Lansdale will have to find other locations for their events. We shouldn’t dismiss that for “development”. But I will remind Lansdale’s residents that once an apartment complex is built in the center of town, it is here to stay.