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

Gloria Steinem

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.