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

Gloria Steinem

Friday, November 28, 2014

Is Conshohocken Coming Back, Or Just Being Taken Over?

Part V:  Residence and Recreation…For The Favored Few?

I introduced my series of blog posts about Conshohocken on October 24th by pointing out one of the 180 degree changes time has wrought on the lower Schuylkill Valley.  I was talking about how what had historically been the lowest priorities for the riverbanks of every town—residence and recreation—were now the highest.  All should be happy to hear that the new development is producing open space and recreation opportunities along Conshohocken’s riverbank, where they have never been before.  I am all about alternative transportation, open space and community recreation, and so I applaud these aspects of what seems to be emerging in Conshohocken.  Unfortunately, I also have my suspicions that all three may prove to be less significant builders of community than is everywhere else the case.

I have already written about alternative transportation, which connects Conshohocken along the river and would help to connect it as a community.  The questions involving open space and recreation are much broader, and require stepping back to review a basic issue first.  This issue tends to get lost among the news about this building, that property and a whole lot of money arriving.  Fortunately, it isn’t necessary for an outsider such as I to introduce it.   A post from the Facebook page “Conshohocken Real” has already laid it out:

        "Are we okay with taking the river away from the people?"  

The specific subject was O’Neill’s proposed almost-600 unit apartment complex, but the question is appropriate for the entire waterfront.  The old, dirty vestiges of an industrial past are almost gone.  Conshohocken’s riverfront is seeing—and will soon see more—new buildings, either residences or workplaces. As virtually the entire riverfront is being redeveloped, isn’t it at least theoretically possible for Borough Council to foster that development with the whole community in mind?  This would have been unthinkable in “the good old days,” but isn’t this a rare—almost unique—opportunity to visualize the new Conshohocken as an integrated, vibrant community and to take actions to ensure development proceeds along that route?

Time for a reality check.  First, “Conshohocken Real” phrased the issue in a rather populist manner, and as a historian I am compelled to point out that you cannot take something away from those who never possessed it in the first place, and “the people” of Conshohocken never possessed the riverfront.  Yes, a few did, due to our private property/free enterprise system, but they did not purchase it for either their own residence or the recreation of others.  By the time they had installed their railroads, furnaces, foundries and power looms, no one with any money wanted to either live or recreate along the river anyway, so the issue never really came up.

Second, Conshohocken has already had the opportunity to design and build a planned, integrated development of just a portion of the land being affected now, and it didn’t happen, largely (but not entirely) because of timing.  The Borough is now doing it the old fashioned way, parcel by parcel, with purpose and implementation under the control of each individual applicant who owns each parcel.  What is built where will have nothing to do with community needs, but will be strictly a function of the most profitable use of a particular piece of property.  Writ large, it’s “The American Way,” in an interpretation recently demonstrating political strength.  It has produced in Conshohocken where community planning failed, and it will continue to dictate both the product and the pace.

Thus the riverfront is again being carved up as private property because, in truth, it never ceased to be that.  Still, developers know that inclusion of terms like “open space,” “recreation,” and the like help to smooth the application process, so expressions of these terms are sprinkled among the buildings that appear in the conceptual drawings.  That’s why O’Neill’s current proposal for not quite 600 new apartments comes with a “boardwalk” and a dock.  I suspect that the details of both these concepts are still somewhat hazy.  A boardwalk could mean anything, and as a long-time resident along the river, I can assure you that a public dock without a nearby public boat ramp is pretty much just a site to fish from.

The larger question is not about the nature of the benefits themselves, but in who will have access to them.  A beautiful riverside view must be purchased (or rented), and individual companies will determine who gets the best view from their new office buildings.  As for recreation, the story is more complex.  Access will vary according to the activity, at least to some extent.  Consider that time-honored Pennsylvania sport, rowing.  A Borough-owned strip of riverfront land will house the “Conshohocken Rowing Center.”  The building itself is financed by the two schools whose rowing programs it will house, Malvern Prep and the Haverford School.  Those are pretty upscale, not to mention private, programs (okay, rowing is a pretty upscale sport), but a community rowing program is supposed to be included.  Sounds good for a limited number of people.  But how about more common, less specialized utilization of open space and recreational areas?  What other more broadly based recreational opportunities could be made available along the river, and what will it take to bring them about?

Then there is the question of broad community access to these benefits.  They will all be located in the lower valley.  How easy will it be for the residents up the hill to utilize them, meaning actually get to them?  How many wide, busy streets will they have to cross?  Will the new recreational benefits help to unite The New and The Old, or will they give The New a privilege by location, further dividing them?  The Conshohocken Rowing Center is a good idea, but it is also evidence that even outsiders can obtain access to the river by paying money.  Is money to be the operative factor?

Questions are easy to ask, particularly semi-rhetorical ones like those above.  When we begin to get into the issue of responsibility for actually achieving what we want--or failing to--we must simultaneously examine the restraints those in positions of responsibility must operate within.  That means the second point of my reality check above deserves greater scrutiny.  It will be all too easy to place blame incorrectly for what is probably going to happen.  So, I will conclude my blog series on Conshohocken next week by throwing the wet blanket of reality over the chances of obtaining the utopia I have spent the previous weeks promoting.  It's my way of balancing the books.