Residents’ concerns challenge law school building timeline



Thomas Celona

The construction crews are waiting, and the administration is ready, but it may still be a while before the new home of the Villanova School of Law gets off the ground. The proposed design for the new facility has been greeted with several objections from area residents, sparking a trail of legal motions and court appearances that has continued for nearly two years and threatens to push back the original completion date of fall 2009.

The idea for a new facility for the law school is not a new concept; in fact, the University began discussing the idea at least six years ago, according to John Cacciola, director of engineering and construction.

“Because of the way teaching methods have changed over the years, they require new spaces,” Cacciola said, describing the need for a new facility.

The proposed new building would be along County Line Road next to Garey Hall, which currently houses the School of Law, in what is now the parking lot. The design called for a four-story, 170,000-square foot building. However, building codes for Radnor Township limit new buildings to three stories. The plan also exceeded the 160-foot length restriction for all buildings. In order to continue with the design as planned, the University requested variances from the township.

Residents of the neighborhood near the proposed construction were notified in December 2005 of the plans, according to Andrew McGregor, a resident of Broughton Lane.

In a letter from Bob Morro, executive director of Facilities Management, dated Jan. 6, 2005, neighbors of the University were informed of the public hearing that would be held to discuss the University’s request for building code variances.

Morro wrote, “The plans are being formally submitted to the township for review by township staff, Zoning Hearing Board, Planning Commission and the Board of Commissioners. A public hearing will be held by the Radnor Township Zoning Board on Thursday, Jan. 19, 2006 at 7:30 p.m. … and you are cordially invited to attend.”

A number of area residents immediately found problems with the University’s plan.

“There have been approximately 60 residents involved in the overall [process], and a far greater number who have voiced concern about traffic management and safety for students, residents, faculty and visitors to the area,” McGregor wrote in an e-mail to The Villanovan. McGregor has been the resident most responsible for direct contact with University officials during the on-going process.

Taking into account the concerns of other neighbors, McGregor drafted a summary of the residents’ arguments which he sent in a letter to Morro on Jan. 15, 2006, four days prior to the public hearing. McGregor’s summary consisted of five main areas of concern.

The first involved the physical presence and image of the proposed building.

“We want to affirm the goal of establishing a facility and setting where law school faculty would love to come to work as much as we would love to see, live near and reference with pride,” McGregor wrote. The residents asked that the University use classic materials similar to those used to construct local residences. Additionally, the letter proposed increased landscape architecture to “soften any visual mass and provide a dignified sense of entrance as you approach the site,” McGregor wrote.

The second concerned traffic management and safety.

Residents are concerned that the new building would increase traffic on County Line Road, posing a safety threat for both motorists and pedestrians. The letter asked that, in addition to having Radnor Township lower the speed limit, the University would construct pathways along County Line Road.

While these were the two major concerns McGregor described in his letter, he also mentioned concerns regarding environmental management for wetlands and flood plains, storm water runoff and sewage disposal and managing the construction process for multiple projects with the least disruption.

At the hearing, the Radnor Township Zoning Hearing Board heard the positions of the University and local residents. The board decided to approve Appeal No. 2699, granting the University its desired building code variances. At the hearing, the University’s request for a variance regarding the new parking structure went unchallenged by area residents.

With this approval, the University was free to continue with its plans. However, any resident can appeal variances, Cacciola said.

And that is exactly what McGregor and a group of area residents did.

“After the Zoning Board decision, there have been two appeals filed by the neighborhood, one with the Court of Common Pleas in Media, Pa., and the second with the Commonwealth Court,” McGregor wrote.

In March the Delaware County Court of Common Pleas denied the resident’s first appeal to halt construction.

The second appeal has not been heard yet, but it will be heard at the state level in Harrisburg, Pa., Morro said. However, the appeal may not go that far. University officials are currently asking a local judge to require the residents to post a bond before proceeding to the next level.

Ever since the Zoning Hearing Board’s decision in January of 2006, the University and residents have been working together to find a plan that satisfies both parties. On Jan. 24, 2006, McGregor and his wife Lynn McGrgeor hosted an informal gathering at their home, inviting local residents to express their concerns. Also invited to the get-together were Phil Rosenzweig, Lower Merion Township commissioner, Dave Cannan and Ann-Michelle Higgins, commissioners of Radnor Township, Mark Sargent, dean of the Villanova School of Law, Morro, Cacciola and Leo Kobs, project manager for Facilities Management.

Talks between residents and the University have continued to the present time, with Cacciola, Morro and Ken Valosky, vice president for University administration and finance, working with neighbors.

As a result of these discussions, many changes have been made to the University’s original plan for the proposed facility.

First, the building will now be further back from County Line Road than was originally proposed. The University added an additional 40 feet between the road and the front of the building.

“We can’t go any further back due to the utility lines for West Campus,” Morro said.

The University will utilize the additional roadside space and add a walkway and landscaping in accordance with the wishes of area residents. The landscaping will include rows of mature trees to reduce the view of the law school from area residences.

Additionally, the updated plans for the new facility put the first floor of the building partially underground.

The land slopes downhill from County Line Road to the R5 railroad line, so while the ground floor will be visible from campus, residents will only see three stories.

Furthermore, the building’s design places faculty offices near County Line Road, with an atrium and other student-centered facilities on the campus side of the building. This will reduce the amount of overnight light visible to the neighborhood behind the school.

Despite these changes to the original design, the current plan for the new facility is still disputed, and the state-level appeal is ongoing.

“We have to let this appeal work itself through the process,” Morro said.

However, the length of time the appeal process has gone on poses a problem for the University’s timeline for construction.

When planning the project, University officials incorporated one year into the schedule, anticipating complaints, Morro said. However, the appeal process has now exceeded that year.

Despite these concerns, Cacciola remains confident that the project will remain on schedule.

“The legal process is not completely done yet, but we are still anticipating a fall 2009 opening,” Cacciola said, noting that construction is scheduled to begin “very soon.”