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

Gloria Steinem

Friday, May 1, 2015

Every Party Needs A Pooper, That’s Why They Invited Me

I had a great time on Tuesday, April 14, at the “Conshy At The Crossroads” panel discussion, held at the Washington Fire Company building in Conshohocken.  Part of the reason was that I got to throw the wet blanket of reality on the “don’t worry, be happy” approach of my fellow panel members.

Don’t get me wrong; my fellow panelists, Jerry Nugent, Montgomery County’s Director of Development and Ray Weinmann, who has direct experience in Conshohocken development, are knowledgeable and experienced men.  They are “development experts;” I am a historian.  I actually found myself in agreement with them on several subjects.  One example would be the proposed development known as “One Conshohocken.”  I join them in their opposition; it is simply too much in too small a space too centrally located. 

It was just that, as you would expect men in their position to do, both offered reassuringly upbeat predictions about the future of both traffic and community in Conshohocken.  It’s a matter of professional perspective.  They largely share one, while I come at the subject from a very different profession.  Optimism about Conshohocken’s future predominated at the table, even concerning the two subjects I have been writing most about:  the potential division between the old and the new residents and…wait for it…TRAFFIC PROBLEMS.  On the question of whether current development might result in “two Conshohockens,” Ray Weinmann opined that time will heal any split between renters and owners in the new Conshohocken.  On what proved to be the most popular subject—TRAFFIC—Jerry Nugent contended that traffic problems in the borough can be “solved,” largely by preventing left turns. 

That left it up to me to, yet again, to be the Wet Blanket.  I would agree with Ray Weinmann that time will likely solve any division within groups of residents, but I would also argue that the amount of time required is way too much to just sit back and wait for that kumbaya moment.  Both borough government and residents need to take action now, before division becomes apparent.  Time heals all wounds, but wouldn’t it be better to avoid inflicting them instead?  He is also right that new offices will spin off other jobs, because the office workers will need services.  While these businesses may make for daytime scenes of bustling prosperity, and perhaps even provide a few jobs for locals, they will be part time and mostly minimum wage, and the businesses will shut down when their office worker customers leave for the day.  Such services only accentuate the differences between what Conshohocken offers its inhabitants.

Jerry Nugent brought his unparalleled local expertise to the panel, and gave everyone an excellent summary of what was happening.  He remembered a prediction that some 40,000 square feet of office space were going to be built in Conshohocken, then reminded us that over two million square feet have been built already, with another million square feet in the pipeline.  His optimism about Conshohocken’s future derives from a professional’s point of view.  He sees success largely in numbers, and the numbers are certainly there for Conshohocken.

It’s not so much that I disagree with either man, only that I ask different questions, with different priorities.  I am rather less “optimistic” about Conshohocken than were my fellow panelists.  As a social historian, I am concerned about Conshohocken’s future as a community.  It’s not going to be what it once was, but what is it going to be?  I have researched the realities that led to the Borough’s founding, growth and prosperity, and find that virtually none of them are applicable today.  The old realities bred a proud, internally-focused community.  What forces exist today that would bring people together and instill a sense of pride in Conshohocken?

At a rather more amateur level, I regret that more consideration is not being given to sustainable construction in a community that will possess these new structures for a long time.  “Impermeable surfaces” does seem to be the rule, and I haven’t heard anything about green roofs, to name just one component of a more energy-efficient community that could be rising.  As a supporter of alternative transportation, I simultaneously applaud the fact that 20% of the people who commute to work in the Borough do so by train (one of the highest numbers in Southeast Pennsylvania), and lament that it is not higher.  How can this be improved? 

As for traffic congestion, I’m not going to repeat what I have already said in previous posts.  I remain unconvinced that it will be “solved,” because I believe that is not possible.  That’s not a knock on Conshohocken, because I believe that about any urban grid of any size, in today’s United States.  Has a traffic congestion problem been “solved” anywhere?  And what do you mean by “solved,” anyway?

I am in the final editing process of my new book, and I will have much to say about Conshohocken, past, present and future.  Here’s a sneak peak at a relevant paragraph:

  The new structures and their built-in garages will likely meet most of
the immediate parking need, but the insertion of these vehicles onto the
Borough’s streets is already causing headaches, and much greater ones
are on the horizon.  Borough streets have also been straightened, widened,
given turning lanes and more, all governed by a carefully-timed system of
traffic lights, but there is only so much even financially well-lubricated
Conshohocken can do with its old urban grid.  The new arrivals, whether on
their way to or departing from their new parking garages, will overwhelm
the downtown streets during rush hour at the very least.  The legend of 
             Conshohocken traffic jams is only beginning.”

Call me a wet blanket, but I heard nothing at the first “Conshy At The Crossroads” to change my mind.  That paragraph will be in my book.

The event, sponsored by the Conshohocken Revitalization Alliance and Morethanthecurve.com, drew a good audience, considering that it was held on not only a weekday night, but also the night before our national "tax day."  Our moderator was Naomi Starobin, editor of WHYY's Keystone Crossroads.  She did yeoman work trying to keep things on course and on schedule, which can be difficult when residents are asked to offer questions (particularly when they ask their question in the form of an extended statement).  This was but the first of several planned for this year, and I strongly recommend that Conshohocken residents attend those to come.  This one was intended to provide a general background to the developing situation, but residents wasted no time getting to the nitty-gritty subjects, primarily traffic.  I'll bet that is also a primary subject for all of the upcoming events, despite what their titles might indicate.  Anybody disagree?