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

Gloria Steinem

Friday, December 5, 2014

Is Conshohocken Coming Back, Or Just Being Taken Over?


Part VI:  The Credit, The Blame And The Responsibility

As I promised last week, I’m going to close out this blog series on Conshohocken’s past and future by assigning the credit, the blame and the responsibility for what is happening and what will happen.  The credit and the blame are easy to place; it’s the responsibility that will be tricky.  That’s where the Wet Blanket of Reality comes in.

First, the easy part.  There is no argument about what has brought this all about, just whether you assign to it the credit or the blame, and that pretty much depends on your point of view.  The intersection of two Interstate highways in West Conshohocken is the reason for all that is happening around it.  As I pointed out, the development of the area around an intersection of two major travel routes is a process that is both global and much older than capitalism, so the Conshohocken experience is nothing unusual at all (okay, from a historian’s point of view).

How it’s happening is a function of our capitalist economic system.  Industrial capitalism has moved on, but the modern “services” version is producing the details for the development of the “Conshohocken Exit.”  This new version recognizes no political boundaries.  What is happening in Conshohocken is exactly the same as what is happening in West Conshohocken, minus the actual intersection.  It cannot be stopped, and the influence of local municipalities is largely limited to trimming its physical manifestations around the edges.  That unpleasant truth must be recognized when we attempt to assign the responsibility for what we don’t like.

I’m going to use O’Neill’s new apartment complex proposal as an example of what happens when well-funded developers come to town, and to illustrate why “responsibility” is a difficult thing to properly assess.  I have not looked at the details (or researched the specific facts) of the project, but I am trained to detect patterns, and what is happening hews closely to one of the basic patterns seen in communities, over and over again.  Here’s how it works:

Step 1:    A Municipal Council, alarmed by size/nature of a developer’s proposal, rejects it.
Step 2:   Negotiations ensue, and a SLIGHTLY modified proposal is offered to the Council.
Step 3:   Council approves the “new” proposal, as quietly as possible.
Step 4:   Public reacts with “WTF?”
That’s pretty much the way it went down for O’Neill’s latest proposal for apartments along the riverfront.  Borough Council, justifiably alarmed at the scale of what is happening to Conshohocken, found sufficient objections to the zoning relief being desired to deny the project when it was first presented in September.  Negotiations nonetheless ensued, and less than a month later a “special meeting” was called to reconsider a modified proposal (in other words, they didn’t even wait for the next regularly scheduled meeting).  The changes were minimal, but they were sufficient; two Council members switched their votes and the new version passed.

Then came the public reaction.  It largely held to the pattern, holding members of Council responsible. The meeting was described as “questionable, off-schedule, and even as “a secret meeting,” and the Councilmen who changed their votes were identified.   Subsequent publicity has identified the two as “Leading the way to the demise of Conshohocken.”  There has been an upsurge of resident awareness, (which is all to the good) and even an attempt to establish how “developer friendly” each member of Council is.  One post sums it up by saying, “…we are scratching our heads.  When are local elections already?”

I am late offering to be the Wet Blanket of Reality to all this, because Morethanthecurve.com has already done the job, offering by far the most rational assessment of the affair.  The site reminded its readers that the project was a “by right” development; the zoning code allows apartments to be built there.  It also pointed out that looming over everything was the matter of O’Brien’s lawsuit against Conshohocken, and “concern that an existing legal action over the project could receive a favorable ruling from a judge and then Borough Council would have no influence over what would be built.  Through the settlement they were able to negotiate and get some concessions.”  Unfortunately, its subsequent dialogue (I use the term advisedly) with a reader demonstrated that even reality does not influence the opinions of some, but kudos to Morethanthecurve.com for trying.

My assessment of the O’Neill affair to date is largely the same, from painful experience.  I have seen this pattern happen in my township upriver, and in several other places.  Large developers employ packs of legal eagles, which feast on the ordinances and zoning codes of each locality on which they descend.  They examine each word, sentence and paragraph, looking for a flaw, a weakness, an opening into which a legal wedge can be inserted.  Once they find one and the developer acts, the locality is pretty much screwed. It is then faced with an unpleasant choice: either fight the proposal and probably lose, or “negotiate,” while a very large sword dangles over its head.  If they choose the former course and lose, they have no control over what happens.  If they “negotiate,” they can at least get a fig leaf or two to help conceal the surrender.  The two Council members who switched their votes may have been motivated by some version of this.  If so, and the facts sustain this assessment, then it was a defensible choice, albeit an unpleasant one.  You don’t spend the taxpayers' money on legal fights you are pretty sure you are going to lose, so you hold your nose and cut the best deal you can.  The pattern is unfortunately all too common, and illustrates the tilted playing field between government and private enterprise.  After all, the sanctity of private property is “The American Way.”

Morethanthecurve.com’s most salient observation was this, however:

“So if this approval concerns you, your issue isn’t with the developers, but the zoning code for the Borough…If you are concerned about the health of the riverfront, traffic, etc., your efforts should be focused on changing the zoning code.” 

I am pleased to second that thought.  O’Neill’s proposed development—and, in fact, most of what is being proposed along the riverfront—lies within two “Special Zoning Districts” established in 2001 and amended in 2005.  These two districts were an attempt to provide for “orderly development” of the riverfront by “a mix of uses, including residential.”  There was never any question about O’Neill’s right to build; Council could only trim around the margins.  That zoning code, by the way, was changed as recently as 2013, when the allowable height of buildings on the riverfront was lowered from 250 feet to 75, among other things.  The zoning code can be changed again, but only if Borough residents realize how important it actually is, and push their elected representatives to change it.

So, residents of Conshohocken, where does the responsibility actually lie?  The zoning code was rewritten to promote riverfront development, and that is exactly what is happening.  It is easy to blame “politicians,” (and, on occasion, justified), but you should understand the serious legal restraints under which your elected representatives operate, and the potential catastrophically expensive results of following their own hearts instead of the recommendations of their legal counsel.  We proclaim rather too strongly that “the people rule,” when it’s much more complicated than that.

I will close this series of posts that might appear to be throwing a wet blanket on the rebirth of the Borough of Conshohocken, Pa. by offering one final consoling thought:  too much money pouring into a small community will create problems, but it is better than too little money, or no money at all.  Just ask the towns upriver.  I am reminded of the old saying, "Money can't buy happiness, but crying in a Mercedes beats crying on a bus."
Even if you're stuck in traffic.