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

Gloria Steinem

Friday, February 26, 2016

Will Montgomery County’s Renovations Screw Over Norristown…Again?

It’s a strange sight, that old building standing alone on the North side of the first block of East Main Street in Norristown, Pa..  #43, a relic of the past, stands just east of the county garage, with nothingness beyond it to DeKalb Street.  If you are at all interested in the good old days of Norristown, check it out, because soon it will follow all the other buildings that used to grace this side of the core block of downtown Norristown.  It will disappear.  The buildings to the east succumbed to different causes, but #43 East Main Street will join all the other buildings between it and the Public Square as a victim of a single voracious neighbor, the Government of Montgomery County. 

The Government of Montgomery County is evidence that something can be within a municipality’s boundaries and also beyond its control, thus adding a further wrinkle to the possibilities discussed in my previous post.  The County’s exercise of “eminent domain” to acquire #43 East demonstrated that quite clearly.  The acquisition was an initial step in what will be a major reworking of the county’s physical plant.  History says you should be concerned.

Montgomery County’s creation of its present complex contributed substantially to the decline of downtown Norristown.  Will history sort of repeat itself?  Could this new program hurt Norristown at precisely the time people are beginning to see signs of a turnaround?  Only time will tell, but something this substantial scheduled to take place in the core of the town you are trying to revive should be carefully considered.  And you definitely don’t want history to even sort of repeat itself in downtown Norristown.

When Montgomery County first constructed the buildings and parking garage that will be rehabbed, it delivered repeated body blows to what was then the county’s shopping mecca, downtown Main Street.  The County was by no means Main Street’s only assailant, to be sure, but the decline of downtown Norristown was initiated and then sustained by the County’s actions.  And this began BEFORE even the idea of a large shopping center at King of Prussia.  If you want more than a super brief outline of what happened, I refer you to my book, What Killed Downtown? Norristown, Pennsylvania From Main Street to the Malls, but what follows outlines some fundamental points.

Montgomery County hurt downtown Norristown in two ways.  First, it tore the heart out of what was then a thriving downtown Main Street.  The County removed 20 businesses, plus the offices of two unions and one fraternal organization, from Norristown’s commercial core.  They never returned.  Second, and perhaps even more damaging, it allowed the work to drag out over almost two decades, disrupting downtown commerce at exactly the wrong time in history.

The County struck its first blow back in 1954, the peak year of Main Street’s post-World War II prosperity.  Planning had begun earlier, but the course of events seems to indicate that either the County began the project unsure of what would result, or had to frequently change its goals during an era of ballooning government responsibility.  Or perhaps both. 

In 1954 the County purchased the Montgomery Trust Building at #25 East Main and the Montgomery Trust Arcade Building (originally the Boyer Arcade, named after its builder) at #29.  Despite noble proclamations about making a “commitment to Norristown” while saving the taxpayers’ money, the County’s subsequent actions did exactly the opposite, at least for Norristown.  The County expelled all the tenants from the buildings it had purchased, and had various government agencies occupy the buildings for a while.  But then the County let the buildings deteriorate until they sat boarded and empty for years, a considerable eyesore in a town by then struggling against blight.

In 1961 the County announced that not only would it raze #25 and #29, it would also purchase the two buildings to the east, #35 and #37, and raze them too.  This the County proceeded to do.  What had been from Norristown’s beginning the very core of downtown, the site of numerous businesses, became the entrance to a parking garage.  But that took quite a while; the project’s impact on Main Street stretched out over 17 years, from the County’s purchase of two buildings in 1954 to the completion of the parking garage in 1971.  Much verbiage was expended as to how the new garage would solve the downtown parking problem, but by the time it opened downtown was a ghost town and the parking wasn’t needed.

The recent newspaper article announcing the impending end of #43 East Main contained a statement that should be considered as ominous: “The work [of renovating the entire County complex] is expected to take a decade…”  The financial figures that follow are substantial, but the extended time is what renders the County’s construction program problematic—at best—for a reviving Norristown.  The next decade will be crucial for Norristown, and constant disruption, noise and traffic blockages in the core of what you are trying to revive is not going to help.

But can anything actually be done to mitigate the effects on downtown of the proposed work?  How much influence does Norristown have with the County these days?  Any at all?  But maybe it doesn't matter.  Back when the County complex was built, the Borough still possessed economic clout, although that was waning.  There was a Norristown Chamber of Commerce and a number of influential merchants of long standing in the region.  All this did Norristown absolutely no good, as it turned out. 

Will things be better this time?  My research about the last time never turned up anything that would even suggest evil intent on the County's part, but the results were devastating nonetheless.  So, even assuming the best intentions on the part of the County, those working to revive Norristown should pay close attention to what's coming.  History may--or it may not--sort of repeat itself, but knowing history--understanding what happened in similar circumstances before--can only help to swing your chances toward the latter option.  That's definitely what you want.