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

Gloria Steinem

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.