"The truth will set you free. But first it will piss you off."

Gloria Steinem

Friday, November 21, 2014

Is Conshohocken Coming Back, Or Just Being Taken Over?

Part IV: How To Be More Of An Exit AND More Of A Community

I have been sounding the alarm these past few weeks about the downside to what is happening near the Conshohocken exit of the Interstates in Southeastern Pennsylvania.  I have suggested that the Borough faces—right now—decisions that will determine its future, and have phrased that future as a choice: either a community, or just an exit off the Interstates.  Nothing is quite so simple, of course, and to give an example, I am going to clarify my stance on the all-important issue of transportation by making the apparently counterintuitive argument that Conshohocken can be more of a of a community if it becomes more of an exit.  This does not apply to the automobile; the choice it presents is both stark and clear, and is as I have expressed it.  The more that Conshohocken structures itself to accommodate the automobile the more it mortgages its future as a community.  It most definitely applies to what we today call “alternative transportation.”  Conshohocken is doubly blessed in this regard, and should work to take greater advantage of that fortuitous fact.  The Borough as a community can only benefit.

I have previously made the point that “A livable town is a walkable town.”  Today, walking counts as alternative transportation, along with bicycling and public transit.  This is but one of the many 180 degree turns that history has made along the Schuylkill River.  What had been the primary means of transportation during the glory days of the Schuylkill River towns has all but disappeared, but its remnants constitute the core of what we today call “alternative.”  In the old days, the railroad delivered everything, from raw materials into the towns and factories to finished products from them to the world.  Its lighter cousins, in turn, knit Conshohocken into a regional network.  They delivered the better off to their jobs during the week and all classes of workers to the countryside for recreation on the weekends.  The bicycle fad preceded the automobile fad, and even a few adventurous women joined in.  Still, when all is said and done, walking was the primary means of transportation for the vast majority of Conshohocken residents.  They walked to work, they walked to shop and they walked to visit friends in the neighborhood.  The result?  The proud, tightly-knit, community-centered population of Conshohocken, Pa.

But that was then.  This is now, and things have changed.  The rail era is over.  Light rail is gone, and isn’t coming back anytime soon.  But a survivor, the Norristown Regional Rail Line (I still want to call it the R6), still delivers people to and from the Borough.  This is a means of transportation to which Conshohocken should want to be even more of an exit than it is today.  Every new rider is one less driver congesting the roads.  I would like to think that a portion of The New coming to the Conshohockens to either live or to work will arrive and leave on it.  It’s a limited connection, but only Norristown has anything better, and it’s just upriver on the same Regional Rail Line that passes through Conshohocken.   

The railroad has also delivered to Conshohocken two other form of alternative transportation, albeit rather indirectly.  I speak of the old mainstay and one not nearly so old but experiencing quite a comeback, i.e., walking and bicycling.  Back in the old days, two railroads ran through Conshohocken.  The trackbed of the Reading is now the Norristown line, but that of the long-gone Pennsylvania Railroad now hosts The Schuylkill River Trail.  Conshohocken was an early beneficiary, and as the trail has been extended, improved and connected, the number of people employing “alternative transportation” through town has steadily increased.  Businesses that cater to trail users are beginning to find Conshohocken a potentially profitable location.  The current campaign to bring a bicycle shop to the Borough is an early sign of what will happen.

The New that will reside along the riverbank will find the Schuylkill Valley Trail to be convenient, perhaps even enticing, as they are expected to be a younger demographic.  Few will likely use it to commute to and from work, but weekends will be another story.  Those who reside elsewhere and utilize the Trail (not all of whom ride bicycles) will likely find Conshohocken attractive, if just for a brief refreshment stop.  The Borough’s scenic location will draw a great many people who will not arrive in motor vehicles.  That’s all good; for them, and for the town.

In marked contrast to my previous comments about an becoming an exit for automobiles, Conshohocken’s future as an exit on alternative transportation should actually be encouraged, for the general good of all.  Whether you are riding on the train or moving yourself along the Trail, you are not contributing to traffic congestion, oil prices and environmental degradation, to name but three of many bad things.  The latter two may be somewhat ephemeral for Conshohocken residents, but the first is emphatically real, and getting worse.  Thus, the more who employ “alternative transportation” (this phrase sounds so strange to a historian) to or from their residences on weekdays or weekends, the better.

But there is much more to the story, and additional reasons for promoting these old-but-back-to-being-popular means of getting around.  “Alternative transportation” is also closely associated with improving urban livability.  If anything should be obvious from a study of American history, this should be.  Communities actually existed back when today’s alternative means of getting around was the primary one.  It follows that while becoming more of an exit for alternative transportation will be a good thing, promoting alternative transportation within the Borough will be even better.  It will be great to have riverfront businesses and residents benefitting from those who come and go, but it will be even better if Borough residents find it easy to get around town, and the riverfront benefits are shared. 

Let’s be realistic, of course.  Old railroad trackbeds are perfect sites for bike and walking paths because trains could only surmount low grades.  Much the same is true of the new users.  Much of Conshohocken, in considerable contrast, sits on a steep hillside.  Still, a great deal can be done for the area in which a considerable portion of the population are coming to reside, and decisions concerning roads in that area should take into account the transit needs of the residents of the whole town.  This is where transportation becomes subsumed into a larger issue, that of community access to the riverfront.  That issue most definitely needs to be addressed and I will do so in my next post.

But for now, let’s accept two concepts: First, it will be a good thing if the new Conshohocken becomes as much an exit off the Schuylkill River Trail as it is off two Interstate highways.  Second, it will be an even better thing if the new Conshohocken is structured to allow some old-fashioned ideas to demonstrate their current relevance.  The first is going to happen regardless.  The second will require action by the Borough Council, supported by the population, because it will be opposed by the developers.  That makes it much less likely to happen.

Conshohocken can only benefit by becoming friendlier to its readily available means of alternative transportation.  It would be not just ironic but tragic if the community-building aspects of alternative transportation are shortchanged.  If it only become much easier to leave or enter Conshohocken on foot or by bicycle than to get to other parts of town, then the full benefits of alternative transportation will not be realized.  The age of the automobile and the Internet works against the human instinct for community.  An emphasis on "alternative transportation" is a proven antidote to these decentralizing forces because it promotes both inter-personal and intra-community connections.  Building both is essential if the new Conshohocken wants to call itself what the old Conshohocken certainly could: A COMMUNITY.

Friday, November 14, 2014

Is Conshohocken Coming Back, Or Just Being Taken Over?

Part III: The Old, The New And The New Old

Last week I closed with a promise to review a significant issue that is pitting The New versus The Old in Conshohocken.  But let’s first establish a common goal for Conshohocken’s future.  How about this: "A Community, Not An Exit."  With that goal in mind, I will proceed to examine what I believe to a fundamental issue, one that will largely determine which of these two futures will prevail.  Not only is this important, but it’s also being currently being decided.  There is no time to waste.

Last week’s hint was a lot more than that; this is all about the automobile. 

I want my underlying viewpoint to be clear from the outset.  I contend that there is a fundamental contradiction between the urban grid and the automobile.  The automobile is by far the least efficient means of getting people into and out of such a grid, and then there is the question of what to do with all those automobiles while their drivers are within the grid doing the various things that they do.  It’s the central theme of my book about Norristown, What Killed Downtown? and I believe it applies to Conshohocken, because it applies everywhere.  My contention has a corollary that says when the number of tall buildings in an urban grid increases arithmetically, the contradiction increases exponentially.  This corollary is clearly going to apply to Conshohocken also.

Conshohocken, like every town on the lower Schuylkill, today faces its specific version of what I term “The Transportation Conundrum.”  It’s a multi-faceted subject, and my upcoming book will discuss it more comprehensively, but for now I will sum it up in two words: Traffic and Parking.  They are not just interrelated; they are two halves of the same walnut.  They also stem from the same source: America’s current fascination with—and dependency on—the automobile.  The automobile played a significant part in the decline of the old Conshohocken, because the town could not adapt to a changing culture where the automobile represented the future.  Decisions taken now may once again place Conshohocken one step behind a changing culture.  The irony lies in the fact that this time the automobile represents the past.  Let me explain.

The automobile—or, rather, or embrace of it—played a greater part in the decline of Conshohocken that is generally understood.  Both the Conshohockens came into being and grew during the 19th century without regard to the automobile, because it didn’t exist.  Their residents either walked or took what we today call “alternative transportation” to get to work or shopping.  The result was a compact urban layout, with the industrial, commercial and lower-income residences placed as close to each other as possible.  As the 20th century progressed, the increasing number of automobiles made this more and more of a problem and downtown began to suffer.  Streets that had been perfectly adequate during the age of walking and public transportation could not handle even the fewer numbers who were going downtown in automobiles.  Those new drivers didn’t like the traffic congestion, and found parking difficult.  Downtown could not deliver sufficient improvements for either problem, so the shoppers began to drive their cars to the malls instead.  The roads to them were bigger, and each had not only parking, but “free” parking. 

The tightly packed homes in Conshohocken, also built for people that did not own cars, began to have their own automobile-related problems.  Parking was chief among them, and it remains so, but at least twice a day, traffic is a problem, one that is getting worse.  Downtown’s parking problem disappeared with downtown, but that of residential Conshohocken did not.  In response, what had been originally designed and built as public spaces—local streets—came to be conceived as the private property of two groups of people.  Local homeowners claimed the outermost lanes in front of their homes for the parking of their automobile(s) when not being used. The middle lanes are reserved for those people operating their automobiles, many of whom are only using them to either get into or out of town as quickly as possible.  Snow tends to exacerbate the problems for both. 

Today, Conshohocken is experiencing the highly unusual opportunity to build anew almost its entire lower floodplain, the core of that compact, urban layout.  Proposals for residences, office buildings and even a hotel are pending, and there seems to be no end to the trend.  This is important because decisions made right now will go a long way toward determining whether The Old and The New that I wrote about in previous weeks even have a chance of uniting in the new Conshohocken.  These decisions involve the physical requirements for two separate priorities, and those requirements are antithetical.  The issue is whether to prioritize the internal connections necessary for any sense of true community to arise, or the physical requirements for getting automobiles through town to one of the Interstates.  In other words, what gets priority, the community or the automobile? 

Once these priorities are set in concrete, steel and asphalt, they will be next to impossible to change.  The old Conshohocken, built before the automobile, could not adapt to it for many reasons, but large among them was the simple fact that it could not substantially change its layout, particularly the width of its streets, nor could it supply parking without removing the very businesses for which the parking was needed. 

New construction allows the parking half of the issue to be substantially dealt with, by simply including parking within the lot, if not the building itself.  This is not true for the issue’s other half, traffic congestion.  Here is where the difference between remembering history and understanding it comes in.  Today we know that no matter what changes are made, no matter how much space is allotted to roads or ramps, it will never be enough.  The United States has spent untold billions of dollars attempting to reconcile the urban grid and the automobile, and they have all failed.  Priority allotted to roads separates and isolates communities, but always fails to deal adequately with the number of automobiles that will use them.  It’s a lose-lose proposition.  Conshohocken will experience increasing traffic congestion regardless of how much deference is given to streets, ramps and signals, while that deference will detract from its livability.  

In 2012, a Facebook page titled the “Conshohocken Business Development Commission” posted an interesting claim about what it perceived to be happening:

"A once thought nearly impossible mission is quickly becoming a reality; the fusion of upper and lower Fayette Street is helping to achieve the goal of a walkable small-town Main Street."

I want to ask my Conshohocken readers if the past two years have demonstrated this opinion to be true.  I have my suspicions, not least because that two-year old post is also the last one ever to appear on the group’s Facebook page.  The article itself was borrowed from another Facebook page, that of the “Conshohocken Revitalization Alliance.”   It is still active, and may have perhaps changed its mind.  A recent post in “Conshohocken Real” says traffic is bad, and getting worse.  I have also heard from one reader that the Conshohocken Elementary School’s Halloween parade was relocated from Fayette Street to Harry Street due to parent concerns over safety.  There’s a message emerging here.

Here’s the irony of it all: today, many urban areas are reorienting themselves away from the automobile, and are, by this action, transforming themselves into more vibrant communities.  The basic theme behind this movement is “A livable city is a walkable city,” and it applies to towns as well.  For communities looking to the future, an automobile-oriented town is the New Old.  Been there, tried to do that, failed.  Yet Conshohocken, blessed with an almost unique opportunity to make its new version virtually anew, seems to be building it around what is now the old, discredited approach, giving priority to the automobile.  The Conshohocken that results from such decisions will be an exit off the Interstate, not a community.

Friday, November 7, 2014

Is Conshohocken Coming Back, Or Just Being Taken Over?

Part II:  The New

Last week’s post was history-focused, but introduced the idea that in today’s Conshohockens, “old” doesn’t mean that old.  For both towns, the 1980s marked the transition from the old to the new.  If you are old enough to remember that, or even heard it from your parents, then you are part of those people I termed The Old.  This is not about chronological age, but length of residence.  And place of residence, as I pointed out at the beginning of this series, because very few of The Old live along the riverfront.  Most live up the hill, in the time-honored tradition.  Most of my Conshohocken readers are also The Old, and they didn’t need me to belabor something they already knew.

The New are different.  Recent arrival and location close to the riverfront identify them. They divide into two quite distinct groups, but the significant characteristic that they have in common poses the greatest threat to Conshohocken’s future as a community.  While The Old retain their local focus on the community of Conshohocken itself, for The New it’s the exact opposite.  They are arriving because it is physically convenient to work or live near an intersection of Interstate highways.  They are quite aware that they live in “The Conshohockens,” and prioritize its connections to the rest of the world over the condition of their local community itself.  They are likely to feel little connection to the municipality in which they reside or work.  Whether they live in the new condo and apartment complexes or work in the new office buildings, their interest in the community may be limited to how quickly they can drive from their home to The Intersection.

This will hold true despite the fact that there is a second reason for people to settle in Conshohocken, one we must not lose sight of.  The waterfront is a beautiful location along a scenic river.  We should never allow my focus on what changes money can bring to obscure this important fact.  There are, after all, other locations available to live and work in, perhaps just as convenient to these highways, or even more so.  For some, this second (and still secondary) consideration will be the one to actually tip the scales.  It’s a beautiful location because its previous inhabitants—coal-powered industries and railroads—are no more.  Opinions of the new buildings vary, agreeing only in that they are preferable to what was there before.  Whatever else Conshohocken was—and it was many things, to many people—it was not beautiful.  People came, and stayed, for the jobs.  Some have again come for the jobs, and some have come to live in this now beautiful bend of a scenic river, but they are not the same people.

Regardless of who comes to occupy the new buildings, we can expect them to adhere to a well-known rule about today’s residential communities and workplaces.  Those who will work in the new office buildings will not live in the Conshohockens.  Those who will reside in the new condos and apartments will not work in the Conshohockens.  The very few exceptions to this rule (there will be some; there always are) will, by their uniqueness, demonstrate the validity of the rule itself.  This rule has important consequences for both towns, but sheer numbers means greater consequences for the larger town.

The municipal leaders of every town, Conshohocken most definitely included, are quite receptive to development proposals for new office buildings (or laboratories, or whatever).  Such projects generate taxes for the municipality, and sit vacant during the night hours, often with their own security.  Simply put, their financial contribution to the community is greater than their cost.  Residences are different.  They are a 24-hour responsibility; less so when new, but as they age, that changes, along with the income level of their occupants.  In the long run, every residential development begins to cost more in services than it brings in through taxes.  It’s a basic rule, and well understood.  

The new office buildings are already having a considerable impact, which can only increase.  Still, the new residences will have the greatest impact of all.  One of my early observations in this series was that residences in this case meant large condominium or apartment complexes, not single-family homes.  Economic calculation, i.e. profit potential, has everything to do with this.  Each residential development project will accommodate the need of its residents to get to The Intersection quickly and conveniently, to the maximum extent purchasable by law.  The inclusion of community-focused connections is rather less certain.  The effect of these new projects on the soon-to-be host community receives little attention beyond that which the zoning code calls for. 

You can, unfortunately, be certain that the occupants of the new offices will largely disregard the municipality in which they find themselves.  The indifference of workers to the local community in which their workplace resides is understandable in today’s world, and accepted.  Conshohocken grew during the era when people lived, worked, worshipped and shopped in the same community.  That era is over, and now even those Conshohocken residents I group as The Old largely work (and shop) elsewhere.  Do they give much thought to the municipality in which they work, other than how easy it is to get into and out of?

But what about the new residents?  If they came for easy accessibility to an Interstate or for a beautiful river view, are they really going to care about what happens up the hill?  They are not going to either work or shop in Conshohocken.  Their children will attend different school systems depending on which Conshohocken they live in.  What local issues will they care about, and what will their position be?  It's worth some thought.

The bottom line is that the influx of new investment is increasingly dividing both of its host municipalities into The New and The Old.  These titles belong not just to physical structures of both towns, but also to the people who inhabit them, whether during the day or the night.  Each municipality physically incorporates both, but their respective reasons for being there are fundamentally different, and that makes all the difference.  The Old live in either Conshohocken or West Conshohocken; The New live in “The Conshohockens.”  Call it attitude apartheid.

The inevitable tension between The Old and The New is beginning to be felt, and can only increase as The New steadily increase in numbers and influence.  Next week I’ll address what I consider to be the most important issue facing Conshohocken, to illustrate how the fundamental difference between the old and the new will significantly affect how the new Conshohocken develops, even before most of The New actually arrive.  Here’s a hint:  cars figure into it.

I'll bet you can think of others.

Friday, October 31, 2014

Is Conshohocken Coming Back, Or Just Being Taken Over?

Part I:  The Old

I try to ask the fundamental questions.  I believe that, in the context of what Conshohocken in undergoing, the question I ask is the most fundamental of all.  I don’t live in Conshohocken, and never have, and don’t believe I have a voice in the specific issues that are confronting the Borough, this project or that one.  I am, however, trained to take the long view, to identify the historical patterns evident amidst the details, and for that reason what is happening in “the Conshohockens” fascinates me.  We live in exciting times: a major turning point in the history of both boroughs is well underway.  The past is past and over with; the future will not only be different from the past, that future will be different from that of the other six towns on the lower Schuylkill River, for the very first time in their collective history.

I do not remember the old Conshohocken, the self-centered industrial community with a crowded downtown.  I began to visit Conshohocken only in the middle 1980s, when I twice a week delivered first one son and then another to DeStolfo’s School of Tae Kwon Do, then located in the P.O.S. of A. building on Fayette Street.  My route took me past the old Alan Wood works, to the core of downtown before turning left up the hill, and then reversed itself for our return.  It was a depressing experience.  Years of brief, repetitive views caused me to arrange what I saw as a series of historical vignettes, as is my wont.  As I drove along Conshohocken State Road past the remnants of Alan Wood Steel, the site showed but flickering signs of life.  I tried to imagine what that stretch would have looked, sounded and smelled like in earlier times, with the furnaces in operation and the many workers passing each other between shifts, but it was difficult.  I’m old, but not that old.

Next came a passage down western Elm Street, a stretch of simple, unadorned row housing built for the workers at the then-nearby plants before the days of the automobile.  Their original occupants didn’t have cars, and didn’t need them.  Their successors did, because they had to; they could no longer walk to work.  This bit of historical timing meant that the current residents had to deal with both the lack of parking spaces for the own cars and the speed with which other people’s cars drove past their front doors.  Signs implored drivers to obey a resident-friendly speed limit, which, if memory serves, was routinely ignored.

My memories of downtown are simple: fences, just fences.  In the early 1980s downtown Conshohocken did not exist; it had been removed under the Federal Urban Renewal Program.  Therein lies a tale, for at the time the conventional wisdom was that a huge mistake had been made, and not just because of all the old buildings that had been demolished.  The critics had a point.  Conshohocken’s Urban Renewal effort was the last one the Federal Government ever contracted for.  In fact, by the time Conshohocken jumped on board, the Urban Renewal Program was already being judged a national failure.  Locally, the condition of an Urban Renewal project just up the river in Royersford should have been a sobering reality check.  Be that as it may, the contract was signed and old downtown Conshohocken proceeded to fall under the wrecker’s ball.  As with Royersford, the removal and teardown was easy to accomplish; the revival of new buildings, new businesses and new residents, not so much.

In the mid-1980s, to passersby like myself, it seemed like nothing was happening.  But appearances were deceiving.  Things were happening, but Urban Renewal had nothing to do with it.  The only project in the long record of new developments that can properly be considered as part of the Urban Renewal effort was the first one, the Pleasant Valley Apartments.  This was a “Section 8” project, and I first wrote about it back in May of 2013, because it was being pitched on a website as the first of the successes that would follow.  While the same developer was retained, what followed wasn’t Urban Renewal, but a much older and much more fundamental process.

The process that gathered steam and began to reshape Conshohocken during the 1980s was a very traditional American one: develop a large property by letting private enterprise develop portions of it at a time, for their own reasons and on their own timing.  For these developers, Conshohocken’s removed downtown was welcomed, because it saved them the cost of doing the same thing, which was what they had in mind anyway.

By the time I began to view Conshohocken on a regular schedule, the transformation of both boroughs was already well underway, but largely just in the sketches of developers.  Only the first steps had yet established a physical presence, and they had taken a long time to do that.  The process actually began in the late 1940s, when work on the Schuylkill Expressway got underway.  A small portion in West Conshohocken was one of the first segments to open, but was of little use.  The full Expressway did not open until 1960.  This certainly helped, but for several years Conshohocken was just an off-ramp of a single road, that was actually located in West Conshohocken, which received no mention.
This is where the long and tangled tale of what is now known as Interstate 476 enters the picture.  There may have been more controversial sections of the Interstate System, but few have been opposed by people with such deep pockets.  The construction of the whole road gives new meaning to the term “spasmodic.”  Delaware County was the site of my first visits to Southeastern Pennsylvania, back in the late 1960s.  I would periodically drive down Bryn Mawr Avenue, underneath a section of road upon which I never saw any traffic.  My curiosity aroused, I learned that it was an early portion of what was then known as “The Blue Route.”  It carried no traffic because it connected nothing to nothing.  Years passed and portions were built, and the promise of the future began to be glimpsed from the Conshohockens.  The connection to Norristown was welcome, with its wide new bridge, but the real northward goal was the Pennsylvania Turnpike, including its “Northeast Extension,” and that took a long time to achieve.  The southward connection was opened from Interstate #95, and with the final link to the turnpike completed at long last, the Conshohockens found themselves at the intersection of two heavily-traveled highways, the new Interstate 476 and the much-updated Schuylkill Expressway which had some time earlier become Interstate 76.

With that, the fate of both towns was sealed.  Make no mistake about it:  what has happened, and what will happen, to both Conshohockens has been and will be the direct result of that intersection of Interstate highways.  Private enterprise is succeeding where a government program failed, but its success is due to timing, and, of course, two (government financed) roads.  What has been happening to both the Conshohockens has nothing to do with either of the boroughs themselves; they just happened to be there when the connection was completed.  So were people, who by now should feel just as ignored, if not more so.

Let’s call them “The Old.”  They are those residents who experienced this multi-decade process, or their children (“Old” is a very relative term).  Often descendants of earlier residents, they are the ones who did not leave, when so many did.  They are proud of their community history and remain locally focused, as the residents of both towns historically have been.  Few now alive can remember "the good old days,” but The Old recognize their place in a long tradition, a place that may even include residence in the old family home.  Their local focus makes them the backbone of the community, as it always has.  They are also the most aware that the people who occupy the new buildings—whether during the day or the night—do not share that focus. 

The implications for Conshohocken from the influx of The New are potentially more significant than those that will arise from the buildings they occupy.  The New may be a heterogeneous lot, but they will all share one fundamental difference from The Old.  That difference may well determine what kind of community the new Conshohocken becomes.

More on that next week.