Ardmore overhaul threatens bar

Jill Brower

Downtown Ardmore is steeped in controversy as Lower Merion Township officials work on a plan which they hope will revitalize the neighborhood for visitors, business owners and residents. Several proposals are currently being considered, all revolving around the renovation of the SEPTA/Amtrak train station between Lancaster and Montgomery Avenues.

The Ardmore Transit Center Plan aims to reduce traffic congestion, parking shortages, vacant lots and, ultimately, to enhance the feeling of a town center.

While these plans have been in the works since late 2002, debate over its possible implications have recently heated up. At a meeting held on July 29, 2004, the Lower Merion Township Planning Commission assigned a “blight designation” to the area of Downtown Ardmore.

This designation itself has been questioned, as the term “blight” has typically been reserved for more urban areas. “To categorize Ardmore as blight is a stretch,” Mary Tracy, director of the Society Created to Reduce Urban Blight (SCRUB) in Philadelphia, said. “Ardmore wouldn’t meet the regulations here in Philadelphia for blight by any stretch of the imagination. But it needs improvement and they don’t want to tax people, and this is a way to do that.”

SCRUB, a non-profit organization founded in 1990, primarily focuses on reducing unsightly signage, such as billboards, around Philadelphia. Tracy cites abandoned houses, boarded-up storefronts and unsightly billboards as typical examples of blight.

While the primary purpose of this classification is to allocate federal and state funds, it also raises more serious issues in Ardmore, with many locals wondering how a Main Line community could be grouped in with such areas as Norristown and North Philadelphia.

One condition of a blight designation is that private property could be seized, although “our goal is not to put our people out of business,” Matthew Comisky, vice president of the Board of Commissioners, said. “The worst case alternative is to get permits to condemn property.”

According to Comisky, even in the event that a business location is seized, the township hopes to move businesses within the local community “so that they don’t lose their customer base.”

Throughout the summer, local residents and business owners have engaged in protests and signed petitions to voice their concerns. Signs in windows along Lancaster Avenue still read: “No destruction. Ardmore deserves better.”

Much of the controversy surrounding the project derives from the fact that officials have several different plans for consideration. Comisky said that most people are focusing on only one of these, known as the Gateway Lot Mixed-Use Development Plan, which proposes a large clock tower building to be used for parking, businesses and residences. In order to create this, however, many of the existing buildings would need to be removed.

Among the Main Line businesses which could be affected is Brownies Nightclub, popular among University students. Rumors have been circulating that the popular happy hour destination might be no more, but according to owner Anthony Rufo, “We’re not going anywhere.”

Rufo said that the club has struck a deal with a member of the commission because “the township has recognized the need for people to go see live entertainment.”

Yet Comisky asserts that no such deals have been made with any of the businesses. No decisions will be made as to which businesses will stay or go until the site is evaluated further.

This evaluation will be conducted by the Urban Land Institute, a nonprofit research organization based in Washington, D.C, which will visit Ardmore during the week of Sept. 19. Comisky estimates the expert analysis will cost $100,000.

Yet some businesses are in favor of the revitalization. An entire website devoted to such businesses,, cites various businesses that have left the area for better locations and praises this “once in a lifetime opportunity [for Ardmore] to redefine itself and build a better place for everyone in the community.”

An improved image would undoubtedly benefit local businesses in the long run. “We all believe that we need to do something,” Comisky said. “There is a whole group of business owners that want Ardmore to be revitalized because they want to improve business.”

University students recognize both the need for a change, as well as the potential for problems resulting from this project. Lea Taylor, a senior who lives on West County Line Road in Ardmore, contrasts the business district of Ardmore with that of the thriving one just down the Main Line in Wayne. “I can’t name one real successful business [in Ardmore] besides Brownies,” she said.

“Ardmore does have the potential to be a better district, but I feel the trouble is not with the buildings or streets, but the little local businesses themselves. They need an overhaul to draw in more local patrons.”

Traffic is also a great concern for those making the daily commute from Ardmore to campus for classes. “Lancaster Avenue is already congested on its own, let alone with construction,” Jacquelyn Reardon, a senior who lives with Taylor, said. “That would just make it harder for us to get to class on time.”