Friday, August 30, 2013

The Realities of "Walkability"

When I was a kid, we had a corner store about a block away from our house. I remember my mom sending me there for a head of lettuce once and I brought home a head of cabbage. I was never trusted with a sacred mission again.

Hardly anyone shopped at that store, when they did, it was just for an occasional emergency item for dinner. All the kids in the neighborhood knew this because we were in there almost every day. We had a perfect closed economic system. Each day we'd scavenge the neighborhood for empty soda bottles--the vacant lot on on corner seemed to have an endless supply. We'd bring the bottles to the store, get 2 cents each for them, and buy penny candy. Everyone benefited: the store earned money, we got candy, and the neighborhood was cleaner.

The store closed before I was out of junior high. They couldn't make a profit when their regular customers were only spending a dime a day. When soda cans replaced bottles, it sealed the store's fate. No one else shopped there because the prices were high compared to the Penn Fruit and A&P markets, both within 6 blocks. Prices at small neighborhood stores will ALWAYS be higher.

At the Zoning Meeting last night, the word "walkability" and "sustainability" were bandied about quite a bit. I actually love the idealistic vision of a neighborhood where no one has to drive to bring home those things necessary for living. Ask my friends--I'm a huge cheerleader for the environment--my electricity comes from PA wind and solar power, and if I could afford the conversions, my house, car, and church would be completely free of fossil-fuels.

But I've come to believe the whole "walkability" = "sustainability" theory is a myth. If people were content to live, work, and shop in their own neighborhoods--to walk everywhere--New York City wouldn't have traffic jams. My NYC friends regularly drive to Jersey to shop at IKEA and Trader Joe's. It's human nature to not want to feel confined.

I have friends all over Norristown, not just in my own area. If I go meet one of them for a meal, I need a place to park. Creating "walkable" shops with inadequate parking means businesses can't lure customers from across town. We ought to be doing everything to help those business not only bring in other Norristonians, but out-of-town visitors.

I have a cousin who lives at Rittenhouse. She doesn't drive, so I'm glad she's got a deli on the corner, plus Plymouth Produce, Rite-Aid and Family Dollar within walking distance for many of her necessities. She hops the bus to go to Plymouth Meeting Mall.  But she still grabs a ride with her sister every other week to go to ShopRite. I drive her to church and on the occasional fast food run when she's craving KFC (as bad for her as driving is for the environment? I've got news for you, folks. When elders reach a certain age, they're less concerned with living forever than with enjoying the time they have left. I'm not going to refuse her).

Reality: people have cars and they're going to use them, especially on shopping trips where they have to lug home more than one bag. It doesn't matter how "walkable" their own neighborhoods are; they're going to drive. And, honestly, most of Norristown's 35,000 residents have nothing to walk to anyway. Myself included.

If we want to help the environment, let's think in terms of keeping money here in town. Encourage needed businesses--supermarkets, banks, home improvement stores, etc.--to open in places like Logan Square where there's enough parking. Encourage short auto trips in town over longer ones to East Norriton, King of Prussia and Chemical Road. That's better for the environment, and Norristown's economy, in the long run.

I could list a half dozen other, better things Norristown could be doing for the environment instead. That's another blog.

Thursday, August 29, 2013

Parking

The law of supply and demand states that if people want something bad enough, they'll pay for it. If it's scarce, they'll pay more. Where there's healthy competition, they'll shop around and go with the lowest price.

Norristown doesn't take up a lot of space. Anyone here can be in King of Prussia, Conshohocken or West or East Norriton inside of 10 minutes. And those communities currently have a larger selection of restaurants, retail stores, and service businesses. All with FREE parking.

Unless you work downtown, why would anyone choose to come to Main Street on a weekday to  have lunch? What shopping is there? Why would anyone put $2 to $4 into a parking kiosk to spend an hour or two here?

West Marshall Street used to have a lot of weekday shoppers. When I would go to my dentist there, it was often difficult to find a parking spot. Since the parking meters were installed, the only really busy day now is Saturday. I personally know of two stores that went out of business because of the drop-off in trade. And my dentist moved to another end of town.

The one place in Norristown that draws the most out-of-town visitors is Elmwood Park Zoo. And it has free parking.

Ask the Powers That Be in Norristown why we have so many parking meters and garages in the borough, and their stock answer is "We're really more of a city." The truth is, they thought profits from the meters would fill our town coffers. Do we make money from parking? Only from fines for violations (mostly from "street cleaning day" parking). Money from meters is minimal, mainly because people won't use metered spaces unless forced to. They choose to go elsewhere. The money we do get from the meters doesn't come near the dollars lost in taxes when businesses move out.

This afternoon, I need to drop off something at an office on Airy. My brother's driving me down, so he can do a loop around the block while I run inside. I've seen people do this for the post office, too. Most people don't use the Norristown Post Office at all. We have other choices—Bluebell, King of Prussia, Eagleville—all with free parking.

That's what it boils down to: Norristown is no longer considered a choice by consumers. The more paid parking we have in the borough, the more it encourages folks to take their food, entertainment and shopping dollars elsewhere.

If we're going to try to revitalize the borough's economy, we need to give West Marshall and Main Street businesses a way to compete with neighboring communities. As long as we have parking meters, supply and demand will rule, Norristown will fail.

Wednesday, August 28, 2013

How Many People Should Live On One Acre?

Tomorrow night, Thursday, August 29th, is the 2nd Zoning Workshop. It takes place at Municipal Hall from 6 to 8 pm. Since Councilman Millner was apparently unaware of that fact (as usual regarding matters he'll have to vote on), he scheduled a welcome reception for the new municipal administrator at the same time. That probably means none of council will show up at the zoning workshop.

At the last workshop, we were given the impression that this Thursday, the discussion would involve the districts of Norristown that aren't R1 or R2. Since the proposed development at 1202 Dekalb is in an area zoned OCR (Office/Commercial/Retail), my main question will be "Is anything NOT zoned residential going to be fair game for out-of-control residential development that can be more accurately described as people closets?"

It sure seems that way. Arbor Heights at Dekalb and Elm crammed twelve housing units into the space of four homes. This is in the same OCR district as the 1202 project. I'm not really sure why that area has the "Commercial Retail" label at all. Both sides of Dekalb are mostly doctor's offices and residences, as is the north side of Willow and south side of Green. Unless it's labeled that way mainly so Planning and Council have a free zone to put in any kind of development they want.

Norristown's average population density is 9,754 people per square mile. Sounds high, but it's really an average of only 15 people per acre. You can check your own neighborhood's density if you know the size of the lots. For instance, my house is on an 1/8 acre. If I count the number of people living in 8 houses like mine on my block, I get 14. Pretty close to average for Norristown.

The 1202 units will be built on 2/3 of an acre. The average for N-town on that size lot is 10 residents. If you used the average rowhouse density for 2/3 acre, you'd get maybe 16 residents. But the development proposes 24 units. Even if each unit only housed 1 person apiece--24 per 2/3 acre, the average population density comes to 23,000 people per square mile.

There are only 8 incorporated communities in the U.S. where people live closer together: 1 is a neighborhood in Los Angeles, 8 are in the NYC Metro area, including New York City itself. Philadelphia's average is much lower, at about 12,000, about 13 people per 2/3 acre.

If 1202 Dekalb has 2 residents per unit, it's population density will be greater than every place in the US but Manhattan. Three or more residents? Higher than everywhere in the nation.

I've gone up to Manhattan and stayed in friends' apartments when doing book tours. One was even a luxury apartment in Midtown. No matter where you live in Manhattan, rich or poor, you share your space with cockroaches. You also have a high percentage chance of bed bug infestation. The higher the population density, the more likely infestations such as these are to occur.

An article on Scientific American's website explains the link between a rise in urban population densities and higher rates of infectious diseases.

I'll let you ponder the hygiene of the increased strain on the sewage system, and all the extra trash cans. The latter are supposed to be kept in garages, but people are people--if the garbage smells, they'll be put outside.

People simply shouldn't live that close together, anywhere. It's not healthy. Norristown's only precedence for that kind of overcrowding are old houses with too many apartments (which are now supposed to be illegal). If you live near any of them, you already know the ongoing trash problems, and how hard it is to get Code Enforcement to do anything about it.

Moreover, we shouldn't have a block in the middle of town that looks like it belongs in Manhattan.

Taxpayers have asked me why Norristown is trying so hard to increase our population? The obvious explanation is, the more homeowners, the more real estate taxes. That, and our Council and Planners seem afraid to say NO to developers' greed--they think word will get out that N-town isn't friendly to development. And frankly, new development seems to be Council's one focus, rather than giving people incentives for fixing up abandoned houses, which would also increase homeownership. But old homes saved one at a time doesn't give you the big-man-on-campus feel of a new development ribbon cutting. What's involved are egos and money, plain and simple.

What we need is a zoning rule that no new housing, regardless of district, should have more units than a comparable area on any block it touches. I think that's fair, plus it maintains the character of the neighborhood, and the health of the whole community. Time to nip this trend toward people closets in the bud.

So I'll be at tomorrow's zoning workshop, even if Council is off partying somewhere.

Tuesday, August 27, 2013

Building Smart on the Riverfront

Plans are underway to develop Norristown's riverfront. I'm not saying they shouldn't. Good development along the river could be a big boon for our economy. But rivers are tricky things.

I took a geography course in college (strictly for a necessary general elective--never thought I'd use what I learned.) One of the topics covered was the dynamics of rivers and what causes floods in certain places. Simply put, as water flows, it takes the path of least resistance, eroding the softer parts of a riverbank. Eventually this is what causes bends in an old river like the Schuylkill. The outer part of each bend is called the cut bank, where the land's being slowly washed away. The inner part is the slip off bank, where the river deposits the sediment from the cut banks upstream.

If there's a big storm, or a weeks' worth of heavy rain, the process speeds up--more land erodes from the cut banks. It can undermine bridges and buildings, or if he cut bank is low, the whole area floods. You could build a flood wall, of course, but the water has to go somewhere, so the slip off bank on the other side of the river will take the brunt and wash away. Sort of like pool balls--bounce them off one side of the table, they'll hit the other side.

On the photo of the Norristown/Bridgeport riverfront above, I've marked the cut and slip off banks. On the upper bank, you can see 2 vacant lots, one to the southeast of the "A" and one right above the lower slip off bank. Both are under consideration for immediate development.

Building on the lower lot might not cause serious problems. That's where the river deposits sediment anyway. The upriver lot is on a cut bank though, so if the development is too close to the river, or uses too many hard surfaces, or a flood wall, the water will cut into the slip off bank on the Bridgeport side. Now, that's where there was a big fire several years back, so at present, there's nothing much on that bank to be damaged by a flood. But, if we have a REALLY big flood, the cut and slip off banks can actually reverse themselves, which would flood that next new development downstream.

The more surfaces that can't erode along the river, the faster the water flows. In a flood, the force created can be as destructive as a power-washer. The next large bend downstream in the river contains a water treatment plant, the supports for the Turnpike bridge, and high-tension electrical wires. If a violent flood hits there, a lot of vital infrastructure is history.

Here's a photo of the riverfront development in Conshohocken. Note how much narrower the river is there now that the banks are developed. I worked in one of the Tower Bridge buildings, on the NW side of Fayette, when Hurricane Floyd came through. Gulf Creek (upper left) is already a fast flowing stream, naturally channeled and fed by runoff from the high hills there. All the extra water that day couldn't get out into the river fast enough because of all the development--there were few surfaces that would "give" and slow down the water. The bridge over Route 23, much of Ballogomingo Road and parts of Route 320 were demolished. It took 3 months and millions of unbudgeted taxpayers dollars to repair.  Lately, with the newest development, the businesses and railroad along the river below Fayette Street flood with every large storm.

So sure, develop along the river in Norristown, but keep the structures and paving back far enough that they won't cause future catastrophies. Leave some open space, with natural grasslands, or a wide forested area--something to act as a buffer when the river rises. A non-paved nature trail off of the existing bike trail would be a great use of this buffer zone, allowing residents to enjoy the riverfront, and wouldn't cost a fortune to reconstruct after each flood.

Monday, August 26, 2013

Norristown's Gardens

People who know me will tell you I like to garden. It's good exercise, I can take a lot of frustrations out on weeds, and I get nice flowers to look at, plus fresh vegetables and herbs, better than any produce I could buy in a store.

In the last couple months, I've met other Norristown gardeners and, as I've driven around town , I've become more conscious of the many, many gardens we have in town. Some are small, maybe no more than a 3x5 grouping of flowers in a front yard, or even just some window boxes and potted plants. Some gardens fill side and/or back yards. Most are nothing fancy--not professionally landscaped, but it's clear that Norristonians love flowers. And quite a few houses also boast  veggie patches in their yards.

I was thinking the other day that Norristown's gardens this year remind me of those in Charleston, SC. If you walk around that city, you see flowers everywhere. Even in the poorest sections, you see window boxes and tiny side gardens that are just beautiful. It's a pleasure to walk around that city.

Many of us descend from immigrants who brought from their native lands a love of gardening and, in many cases, a hands-on knowledge of growing food. My grandfather was a farmer. If you go to Fornance and Tremont Sts, the land between there and Regina Nursing Home was the Salvatore Santangelo farm in the first decades of the 20th century. Even after they moved to East Main, they had a large plot for vegetables and trees with figs and other fruit. I can't take credit for most of my perennial flowers and bushes. My dad planted them, many before I was born. One pink azalea in front of my house is at least 60 years old. (Come to think of it, today's my dad's birthday--he would have been 94--so this is an appropriate blog.)

For a long time, as neighbors moved in on my block, they tore out the old gardens and trees in favor of green grass and nothing else. Now, I'm glad to say, new neighbors are replanting flowers and putting in veggie patches. And have you seen all the sunflowers around town this year? Must be the rain, because they all seem over 12 foot high.

My point is that, if Norristown continues to develop its gardens then, like Charleston, this could be a drawing point for us. We could become the garden spot of Montgomery County. Maybe people would visit just to see our flowers. And maybe we could solve a lot of our poverty-related nutritional issues if we teach our people how to grow their own food.

But it's not going to happen if we keep encouraging developers to build places like Arbor Heights and the proposed development at 1202 Dekalb, where there's no un-paved land--no yards--for each homeowner. "Oh, there ARE gardens," they say. "Rain gardens to help with run-off, and landscaping on the Dekalb side. And a homeowner's association to take care of it."

Sorry, no. Having a homeowner's association do your gardening for you is like having someone else raise your kids. Even if it's well-kept up, it'll look like the boring plantings around a business. No one will come to Norristown to see that. And honestly, I see no guarantee that the landscaping WILL be kept up, or that the rain gardens won't become choked with weeds and fail to stop runoff.

So let's start a movement to promote gardens in Norristown. Maybe we could start with a gardeners' forum, to trade ideas, not to mention cuttings and seeds. How about some workshops around town, beginning in January or February, so residents can start seeds indoors? House calls by experienced gardeners to help homeowners get a garden started? List your ideas below, or tell them to me and I'll add them.

And start saying NO to development without yards, not only for gardens, but where our kids can play.

Friday, August 23, 2013

A Norristown Food Challenge

Share this with your favorite Norristown eateries. Let's get something started.

If you ask anyone in town what food is associated specifically with Norristown, you pretty much get one answer: the zep. It's the one food offering we can truly call our own.

The zep was probably invented back in the 1920s or 30s. Submarine sandwiches became popular after World War I, so someone in Norristown got the bright idea to construct a local long sandwich, with distinctive ingredients, and name it after another mode of transportation: the Zeppelin airship. No one knows who made the first zep, but Lou's at 414 E. Main, and Eve's Lunch at 310 E. Johnson Hwy can both take credit for doing their part to make the zep popular over the last 60 years.

The original zep sandwich, as you probably know, consists of cooked salami, provolone cheese, tomato, raw onions, oregano, and oil on a long Italian roll. You can get it on a round Kaiser, too, and with hot peppers or pepper relish, though it NEVER has lettuce on it.

So, sure, Norristown can brag about having our own version of the hoagie. But isn't it about time we devised a few other local favorites? We've got the variety of cuisine. How about a unique Norristown version of the taquito? Or a barbecue sandwich we can call our own? Or a new dessert? An appetizer? (Hot sauce, chicken wings and ranch dressing made Buffalo famous.) Time to put Norristown on the foodie map.

Here's my challenge -- go to your favorite Norristown restaurants or other food place for that matter, like a bakery (and I've said it before, we NEED an ice cream shop). Anyway, challenge them to create a local specialty with a one-of-a-kind name. Takeout is best for this sort of thing, especially sandwiches or finger food, but creativity and yumminess are paramount.

If they do it, post the creation in the comments below, or leave me a message on facebook, or email me here, with the name of the specialty and the restaurant. I'll go check it out with friends, then I'll list it here on the Diary and give the restaurant free publicity (and documentation, so no one can question who invented the specialty).  Then we can all spread the word.

Have a great weekend. Check out the Irish Festival, Sat. and Sun., at St. Pat's, or the Family Unity Day, all day Sunday, at Simmons Park.

Thursday, August 22, 2013

Immigrants

Yesterday, Norristown Patch reported on an Immigration Reform rally in Norristown. Within minutes on Facebook, comments filled with hate started showing up. I'm happy to say, though, that comments from sensible folks got more "Likes."

The prevailing theories among the haters was that the Mexican immigrants in town were all illegal, and that they were all taking jobs away from "our citizens, and retired vets." (If the vets are retired, doesn't that mean they aren't looking for work?) Some of these posters, on both sides of the issue, quoted statistics.

The truth is, there really aren't many statistics available online, barely at a state level, and none at all for Norristown specifically. You aren't going to find number of jobs held by illegal aliens simply because companies who don't check for the proper documentation don't keep records. (My last job was in a Human Resources department. In the 5 years I worked there, the majority of our handful of improper documentation incidents were for Russian exchange students, not Latinos.)

Statistics you can find: Norristown has a fairly low unemployment rate (7.5 as of June), below the national and state averages. Most of our employment is in the service or office worker fields, not really high-paying jobs. Many new businesses have opened in Norristown in the last 10 years, a good percentage of them built by Hispanics. Are they only hiring Hispanics? Possibly, but that's probably due mainly to the language barrier (which Norristown HAS to work at overcoming), and the fact that few non-Hispanics apply for jobs at those businesses. But when people scream about "Mexicans taking our jobs" are they picturing jobs created by Latinos? Probably not.

One of the main statistics is that, according to the last census, 28.3% of Norristown's population identifies itself as Hispanic. 20.3% say they're foreign-born, yet those aren't all Latino. I don't know a lot of people in town, yet I can name at least a half-dozen I know personally who were born in places like Poland, Italy, Greece, and Jamaica. I taught Norristown students born in Vietnam and other Asian countries. We have a decent-sized population of immigrants from the Caribbean.

I found one statistic supposedly from the Census Community Survey that I haven't been able to confirm, but it says that approximately 5600 Norristown residents weren't citizens as of 2010, and about 5000 were Hispanic. If that's true, it means that half our Latino population ARE citizens-- that's 14% of our total population. Our wage-earning Latinos, citizens or not, pay taxes, and those who own property pay real estate taxes.

Yet our Hispanic population has no demographic representation on Council. That's taxation without representation, something we in America aren't suppose to tolerate.

The last point I'll make is that Norristown has ALWAYS welcomed immigrants. On the last census, only about 14 residents in town claim any sort of Native American heritage. The rest of us are immigrants or descended from immigrants. (And think about it--the ancestors of our Mexican immigrants have lived on this continent centuries longer than the rest of our ancestors did.)

Sure, Norristown residents gave the Irish a hard time when they first got here in the 1850s, then gave the Italians a hard time from 1880 to 1920, etc. But do we HAVE to continue hazing the new guys?

With each new influx of immigrants in the past, Norristown has seen a boost to its economy, and valuable contributions to its culture. Instead of all the hate talk, let's find ways to bridge the language gap, allow our immigrants to become citizens, and come together as one town.

Wednesday, August 21, 2013

Council In Its Natural Habitat

I went to the Council Meeting last night. First one I've been to in a while. It occurred me that the issues weren't as important as how Council handled them, and that this was a great opportunity for observing incumbent council candidates before the election in November. So I'm going to try to get to meetings the next 2 months and report back here.

To be fair, I'll report on how every councilperson conducted themselves.

First off, while it can be pleasant to have the Council President welcome everyone with a "Good Evening," the fact that he kept repeating the phrase until receiving a response he deemed acceptable was not pleasant at all. Harking back to my comment Monday, about how we taxpayers don't want our representatives treating us like children, this was a prime example. I've seen Mr. Simpson do this at public gatherings, and I think it's just a bad habit of his. Yet, it makes his audience uncomfortable, like we're all naughty kindergarteners. It's certainly NOT appropriate for a formal council meeting.

Only one other note about Mr. Simpson: At one point, he jumped the gun, asking our new Municipal Administrator and our Codes Enforcer to look into a matter without consulting the rest of Council or anyone else, which came across as high-handed. As it turned out, Codes and the Chief of Police were already aware of the problem, and a discussion from the rest of Council came up with some good options for next steps in the matter, so I'm glad everyone else jumped into the conversation.

Ms. Christian asked the most questions, seeking clarification on almost every motion. Her questions seemed intelligent to me (I can't claim to be an expert on the issues they were discussing). She also kept her head up and stayed engaged in the discussion, offering suggestions for solutions or knowledge about ordinances.

Ms. DeSouza was next as far as number of questions asked and knowledge offered. She too seemed to stay engaged in the discussion throughout.

Mr. Caldwell also followed the discussion, and competently ran the part of the meeting dealing with Public Safety. He explained quite well a new proposal for truck parking. However, Mr. Caldwell did not ask many questions on the motions or join in the discussion. Perhaps he already thought he had a good handle on the motions, but I for one, like to to see my reps question details.

Ms. Lawrence ran the part of the meeting regarding Finance and did it well. Otherwise, though, she kept her head down (using a tablet computer, I think--perhaps she was taking notes), and only joined in the discussion twice.

Mr. Burke said absolutely nothing except "aye" when his name was called for a vote. Impossible to know if he even realized what he was voting for.

Mr. Millner was caught not paying attention three times. He was completely uninformed about an amendment they voted on (though perhaps all the others were, too, but he was the only one who spoke up). He kept his head down almost the whole meeting (by the way he was moving his fingers, he was on his phone). Other than asking for things to be repeated, he only engaged in discussion once. At one point, he left the meeting, phone to his ear, and missed 3 votes before he came back.

Mr. Millner seems unaware that his behavior was unacceptable in a council meeting. Even more so for a council candidate. Hard to take him seriously when he doesn't take Norristown's business seriously.

Generally, Council, PLEASE talk into your microphones. You tried at the beginning of the meeting, I admit, but you kept forgetting. We'll have to come up with a hand signal we in the audience can use when we can't hear you.

And for those of you who are lame ducks, all we ask is another half year of good representation. Give us our money's worth.

Tuesday, August 20, 2013

Our Strength Is In Our Differences

A week ago, someone asked what I love about Norristown. A dozen things popped into my head--our history, our architecture . . . . We have a zoo AND a bandshell. How many towns can say that?

Then it hit me--what I love most about Norristown is our diversity.

I once worked for a corporation where almost all my coworkers came from homogenous communities, from schools that were overwhelmingly white and Protestant. One coworker told me she was never sure how to talk to the one black woman in our office, for fear of offending her. Another coworker told me she'd been taught that Catholics weren't Christians.

All I could think hearing comments like that was, thank God I grew up in Norristown.

I'm not saying we were, or are now, a model peaceable kingdom. We had racial clashes at times in school, but for the most part, our cliques were more along the lines of music and theater geeks versus jocks. I love it now when a Facebook friend posts a photo with a caption like "Met up with my old teammates at my Norristown high reunion," and the faces in that photo come from all different backgrounds.
NAHS, class of '73

Growing up here, I not only had black friends, but friends from diverse religions. I was raised Italian Catholic, yet had the chance to go on youth retreats with a Reformed Church friend, and to Friday night teen gatherings at Central Pres. My Girl Scout troops met at Asbury Methodist and Norristown Schwenkfelder. My neighborhood was near the Jewish Community Center, so I had Jewish neighbors and friends. I've been to Hanukkah celebrations and Passover seders. And of course, many weddings and funerals, black and white, Catholic, Protestant, even Wiccan. I have Muslim cousins. And in the last few years, new Latino neighbors and fellow church-goers.

I think Norristown children, having been exposed to people of many different backgrounds, graduate school with a broader view of society, and perhaps better tools for dealing with future coworkers. It's healthy.

I know we still have some people in this town who'd rather divide us using race or religion. In fact, I've met more of them since I started this blog. I think it's time the rest of us shout them down.

Diversity can be our greatest strength in overcoming Norristown's problems. We all have something in our backgrounds to contribute. We just have to find a way to get together.

Monday, August 19, 2013

Fighting Discouragement

The biggest wall between what Norristown is and what it can become is discouragement.

I've been hearing residents and business people talking about how they're discouraged by crime and trash. Lately, community groups like The Norristown Project, The Greater Norristown Ministerium, the Men of Excellence, and the Norristown Area CTC have come forward to work on these problems. They have to, because Council and other officials down at 235 East Airy don't seem to be doing a thing about them.

I say "don't seem" because when anyone tries to find out what's going on, we're faced with a black hole of communication.

The thing that discourages many of us most is Council's attitude. Let me say right up front that Linda Christian, the councilwoman in my district, does answer emails. She sends out newsletters and holds 3rd district meetings. I believe she does her best to keep us informed. She encourages her constituents to express their concerns, not only to her, but to the rest of council. This is how representation SHOULD be done.

So when issues have come up, I've emailed other councilpeople, too, yet have never received a reply. Never. I've heard the same from other residents. The only other councilman who ever seems to reply is Gary Simpson, almost as if the others have all agreed to let Gary be their spokesman. The problem with that is that the tone of Gary's communications aren't "I understand your concern as a taxpayer. Let me explain it the best I can..." but "You shouldn't concern yourself with this because we know best, and by the way, everything you believe is wrong." Gary's tone discourages further questions and inquiries.

On top of that, Council's been holding a lot of "Executive Sessions" in the last year. Translation: non-public meetings. They've rushed through, or tried to rush through, decisions that, in the opinion of many of us, should have been open to public comment and review.

Council, this isn't the way to win voters, and NO WAY to treat the taxpayers who are your EMPLOYERS.

I've been taking a poll of residents and business people in the last few weeks. Not one person I've spoken to trusts Council to act in Norristown's best interest. That isn't saying Council ISN'T acting in the town's best interest, just that the perception is that they can't be trusted to do so. Open, CIVIL, communication would go a long way toward changing that perception.

We have enough discouragement in this town. We don't need more from our elected and appointed officials.

Friday, August 16, 2013

Thank You, Councilman Simpson

Two days ago, I posted an opinion piece about whether or not Norristown was a city . Over 150 people read it and it kicked off a lot of interesting and intelligent discussion.

Yesterday, I posted facts from a forensic audit of East Point, Georgia (http://norristowndiary.blogspot.com/2013/08/why-care-about-east-point-ga.html), the prior employer of Crandall Jones, who Norristown Council intends to appoint as our new municipal administrator. As of this morning, only 26 people had read it, a handful of people shared it, and no one commented on it anywhere. No discussion, no interest, nada. Norristonians seemed more concerned with comparing opinions than acting on facts.

That is, until about an hour ago, when our Council President Gary Simpson posted 4 links and a comment to Facebook   The comments are "public" so if you're on Facebook, you can read them. Click on the links and read them, too. The more informed you are, the better.

As I pointed out to Mr. Simpson, my post was about Mr. Jones as overseer of East Point's finances, and not about any political controversies. The mayor of East Point and the Jackson County commissioners can't be blamed for errors and inconsistencies in the city's everyday accounting.

But, as a result of Mr. Simpson's posts, the number of people who've read yesterday's Diary doubled in the last hour. So thanks, Gary, for helping to stir up the taxpayers' interest.

Have a good weekend all. Maybe I'll see you at the MSS Feast on Sunday afternoon, at the old Holy Saviour cafeteria on Airy near Walnut.

Thursday, August 15, 2013

Why Care About East Point, GA?

A week ago Sunday, the Times Herald ran the headline "Crandall Jones To Become Next Norristown Municipal Administrator." Take a moment to go read the article (it's not long), AND the comments below it, then come back.

To correct one point in the Times Herald article: East Point, Georgia does NOT have an arts district.

Since that article was printed, the meeting for tonight (August 15th) has been cancelled. Council intends to appoint Mr. Jones at next Tuesday's (Aug. 20th) Council Meeting at 7 pm at Municipal Hall. Residents should consider coming to that meeting, or dropping an email to ALL our councilpersons, or calling Municipal Hall to leave a message, or all three.

If you do an internet search for "Crandall Jones," you'll find a lot of newspaper articles and TV news reports about his tenures in his last 2 jobs, as Manager for Jackson County, GA (2 years) and as City Manager for East Point, GA (2007-2011). I won't comment about the articles here, though I've listed the links down below. Read them for yourself and make up your own mind.

On the Diary today, I'll cover only one issue in regards to Mr. Jones.

An independent audit was just concluded for East Point (http://www.eastpointfop.org/documents/AuditEastPoint.pdf) by Felton Forensics, LLC. The audit cover the years 2000-2012.  $200 million were unaccounted for. The audit stated  "...there were violations of the City's procurement codes. In addition, pertinent accounts payable files for the years 2008 through 2010 were incomplete or missing." Further down the same page: "Key physical documents such as city-issued credit card statements documenting expenditures, bills of lading documenting receipt of goods purchased, and invoices documenting payments, were either missing or destroyed in direct violation of the State of Georgia's Retention Schedules for Local Government Records."

The audit cites 85 different invoices from one vendor, between 2008 and 2011, that weren't entered through the normal check distribution process, resulting in $6.9 million not being reported as paid to that vendor. In addition, many vendors were paid under a fake EIN number--172 vendors in 2011 alone--meaning no 1099s were reported to the IRS for those companies.

East Point's City Procurement Code requires the use of bidding for purchases over $5000. For the entire 12 years of the audit, purchases over $5000 were routinely split into smaller invoices to avoid the bidding process. Mr. Jones administration continued this practice. For instance, a purchase of $8,961.69 on 2/3/11, listed 2 entries of $4,480.00 and 4,481.69, both with the same purchase order and invoice number.

For all I know, we do this in Norristown, too. A lot of big contracts never seem to go through a bidding process. But we ought to be trying to correct that, not continue it.

I'm not saying Mr. Jones was personally to blame for the financial mess of East Point, but as city manager, he was responsible for what happened on his watch.

Many of the Norristown residents I've spoken to would like our Council to slow down their process of hiring Crandall Jones. We aren't saying NOT to hire him, but handle the matter prudently, the way they should handle all matters. Instead of "appointing" Mr. Jones at the Council meeting on August 20th, without giving information to the taxpayers or allowing them to comment, use the meeting to:

1. Make the details of the candidate search available to the taxpayers, including the names of the top five candidates.
2. Explain to the public why Mr. Jones is the best candidate for the job.
3. Explain why the East Point audit showing, at best, questionable accounting practices should have no bearing on the hiring of Mr. Jones.
4. INVITE PUBLIC COMMENT for a period of 30 days. Schedule the vote for next month's meeting.

So please contact your councilpersons and express your views. Here are their addresses:
mdesouza@norristown.org
lchristian@norristown.org
mmillner@norristown.org
wcaldwell@norristown.org
gsimpson@norristown.org
clawrence@norristown.org
cburke@norristown.org

Because Norristown taxpayers would like what happened in East Point to stay in East Point.

Links:
http://www.mainstreetnews.com/2007/February/J0221A.html
www.lawyersandsettlements.com/settlements/07926/county-manager.html
http://www.11alive.com/news/article/297548/511/Audit-reveals-no-accounting-for-200-million-in-East-
http://www.municipalinsider.com/east-point-ga-managers-contract-terminated/
http://eastpoint.11alive.com/news/politics/95253-east-point-city-council-terminates-city-manager-crandall-jones
http://www.cbsatlanta.com/story/15598983/skyrocketing-utility-bills-sparks-tough-questions-for-east-point-officials

Wednesday, August 14, 2013

Stop Calling Us a City

1st block of West Main
You'll notice I tend to call Norristown a town, a community, or by our old name, "borough." I never call Norristown a city. I even have a hard time calling it a municipality, because in today's world, the word implies "city." The word "municipality" means only that a town is incorporated and self-governed. But so does "borough."

Yet, at every town meeting I've been to lately, one of our town or county officials says something akin to "Norristown is really more of a city." In fact, I've heard that exact quote more than once, like it was part of a script that they rehearse before each meeting. What is this new passion for calling Norristown a city? And why are they trying to brainwash us with it?

One resident suggested that certain councilmen call us a city as an excuse for our crime rate, but I've been to many, many genuine cities with much safer streets. None of our other problems could be considered distinctly urban, either.

I estimate that I've been in 80 to 100 American cities, and maybe 60 of those are on the small side, like Harrisburg, Lancaster, Bethlehem, and Scranton. I define them as cities for a few reasons:  they have populations of 50,000 or more, plus more than one exit off of, at least, one interstate (and traffic nightmares to go with them). They have hotels, museums, historic sites, lots of restaurants and nightlife. They have their own suburbs. They all have MAYORS. They FEEL like cities.

Most importantly though, they cover larger geographic areas than Norristown. Harrisburg covers more than twice the area of Norristown. Scranton covers 6 times the area. What difference does this make?

Norristown is only 3.52 square miles. No matter where you are in town, no matter how much zigzagging you might have to do on one-way streets, you're less than a mile and a half from the town limits. No more than a 5 minute drive.

If you work in the middle of a city, you'll go out to lunch close by, because you don't have time to fight traffic and look for a parking spot. If you visit a city as a tourist, it's because the place offers amenities and special experiences that offset the fact that you have to pay for parking or public transportation. Whether worker or tourist, you'll pay local sales tax because you're a captive audience. You can't easily go outside the city for every meal or snack.

In Norristown, too many people leave town to eat or shop, or even to go to the Post Office. That's one of our main economic problems. It won't be solved by trying to fool ourselves into thinking we're a city.

Our West End business district doesn't look like a city street, but a quaint downtown. Our downtown on Main, when it had stores, not vacant lots and parking garages, was the same way, and our planners should be trying to take it back to that look and feel. That's what will attract visitors.

Last week, one planner said we ought to be putting 4-story buildings on Main St. I objected, not because I have anything against 4-story buildings downtown. Actually, we already have them, but they're here and there, with 2 and 3-story buildings in between, in an interesting mix of architectural styles and varying rooflines that make those buildings appear much more engaging than other parts of downtown. Look at the photo above. The tan building at the right needs something on the 3rd floor--windows or a sign or architectural ornament--but otherwise the look is good for our town.

Here are newer buildings and building fronts between Markley and Cherry, where you have too many buildings the same height and style and building materials in a row. If you allowed 4-story or higher buildings like that, you'd end up with a Main Street that looks like a brick canyon. And the only reasoning offered is, "Norristown's really more of a city."

Zoning variances granted lately (or talked about as if they will be granted) seem to make it clear that our government is trying to increase our population in a hurry (yet we can't take care of the residents we have). They seem determined to force us into being urban.

From what I've heard from residents, we don't WANT to be a city. The taxpayers need to define what we are, not our planners or county or council. We don't fit neatly into a category. That COULD be our greatest strength--a reason for people to come here to spend their money, instead of going to the malls or down to Philadelphia.

So stop calling us city. Let us be our own kind of town.

Tuesday, August 13, 2013

Why Norristown Floods

(AND HOW OUR PLANNING COMMISSION COULD MAKE IT WORSE).
During this morning's storm, 10 inches of water swept along and over the curbs of my street. I assume Elmwood Park flooded--Stony Creek always does in this kind of weather.

Norristown was built on hills, with two creeks--Stony and Saw Mill Run--at the bottom. Much of the hill between the 2 streams is paved and developed. Rainwater is only absorbed by lawns and gardens. So when we get a torrential downpour, much of the rain that falls on that hill drains down the side streets from Dekalb to each creek.

I got to thinking about that proposed development at 1202 Dekalb, where 24 housing units with no yards would replace 2/3 of an acre of grass and trees. I wondered how much rainwater that parcel now absorbed.

I found a formula online: Every 1000 square feet of grass absorbs about 600 gallons per one-inch rainfall. The parcel at 1202 Dekalb is over 29,000 sq. ft. That's about 18,000 gallons of runoff per one-inch of rain.

The storm this morning lasted over 2 hours. I don't know the official measure yet, but I'd guess we had about 2 inches of rain. That means, if the houses at 1202 Dekalb had already been built, 36,000 extra gallons of water would have drained down the hill into one of our creeks. Or into the basements of residences along the way.

Remember the house on Penn St. that collapsed earlier this year? Saw Mill Run goes underground in that area. Before the dam on Fornance was built, East Penn, Main and Lafayette Sts. flooded in every big storm. The houses down there always have basement flooding problems. A wet season was enough to undermine the foundation of one house this time. Keep paving uphill from there, and you'll have more collapses.

Ironically, Norristown's website has a page about Storm Water Management. Here's a quote: "Direct all downspouts away from pervious surfaces and onto lawns." (The word "pervious" is actually not correct here, but we'll assume they mean "nonabsorbent.")  Here's another quote: "Rain Gardens or Grassy Swales: These specially designed gardens can be planted with native vegetation to provide an area for rainwater to collect and soak into the ground. Stormwater from rooftop drains and pavement areas can be directed to these vegetated areas."  Except that, lately, zoning variances are doing away with lawns and vegetation.

And so, another plea for people to show up to the Planning Commission meeting tonight. (Municipal Hall, 7 pm).  If you let the rain keep you away, the next flood could be on your property. Even if you live at the top of the hill, they'll use your tax money to fix the damage.


Monday, August 12, 2013

Zoning Workshops and Other Public Meetings

This week's social calendar:

Tuesday, August 13, 7 pm, Municipal Hall - Planning Commission will discuss the development at 1202 Dekalb. That's the "24 homes on 2/3 acre" project. Norristown's version of "How many clowns can you fit in a compact car?" Please come and let our planners know that this new trend is NOT acceptable.

MEETING ON THURSDAY THE 15th WAS CANCELLED - instead:

Tuesday, August 20, 7:30 pm, Municipal Hall - The assumption is that this Council meeting will include a vote on the hiring of the new municipal administrator, Crandall Jones (no agenda on website yet). More on this on the Diary in a couple days, but lots of residents want this vote slowed down to invite more investigation and comment. Please show up, so we can remind council who they work for.

I went to the Zoning Workshop last Thursday night. I counted only about 5 or 6 residents there who weren't employees of the county or Norristown or the firehouse. At least 3 of us were from the 3rd district, because we have the only council rep who actually passes on information (Linda Christian). Unfortunately, Linda had the impression that all 3 workshops would cover the same material, so if you missed one, you could go to one of the others. This, it turns out, isn't true, but I don't fault her. I fault Norristown's traditional method of disseminating info, which is "Whisper Down The Lane."

Anyway, this first workshop covered the residential zones, that is R1 and R2, that I mentioned last week. You can read particulars of the new zoning for R1 at http://norristown.org/userfiles/file/R1.pdf  and R2 at http://norristown.org/userfiles/file/R2.pdf. In short, R1 = single houses on large lots, and R2 = everyone else. However, since the new zoning is supposed to be done block-by-block, in theory, these differences shouldn't matter.

Block-by-block means that whatever buildings normally exist on your block determines what can be built in the future. A "block" is defined as both sides on your street (not the houses across your alley). "Normal" is defined as 3 existing structures of one type. That is 3 single houses, 3 twin sets (6 houses), 3 sets of duplexes, or 3 sets of row houses. For instance, on my block, we have 4 single houses and 9 sets of twins (18 houses). Rowhomes and duplexes aren't normal for my block, therefore, they shouldn't EVER be built here.

Unless, of course, someone asks for and is granted a variance. Variances will always be the bane of our neighborhoods. Mainly because there seems to be so little common sense applied to variance decisions. If you ever receive a notice that someone has asked for a variance on a property near you, PAY ATTENION. Go to the meetings on it. It might be nothing, but it might also block the sunlight from your house, or flood your backyard with runoff, or eliminate parking you need.

But back to the zoning codes. Before I pass judgement on the residential zones, I'd like to see the proposed paragraphs describing block-by-block zoning. The R1 and R2 codes sound okay as far as they go. The only inconsistencies I could see on the map was for certain single houses that also have large lots that are included in R2. Since I don't live in one of those, I'm not going to argue the point. If you live in a single house and you're worried about, show up at the next workshop--Thursday, August 29th, 6 pm, at Municipal Hall.

The next 2 workshops are supposed to cover areas with commercial and other codes, but I'd assume they'd answer residential questions, too. Or, there's a Q&A meeting for one-on-one questions on September 12th, but it's at 11 am-2 pm, while most of the world is at work (great way to avoid questions).

Still, if only a half-dozen residents show up for any of these meetings, the Planning Commission, Development Department, and Council will do whatever they please. Yes, I realize everyone can't come -- how about one representative from each block or two? PASS THE WORD.

I don't mind being an advocate for Norristown's residents, but one voice in the wilderness isn't going to change anything.

Saturday, August 10, 2013

A Quick Note Regarding Comments

In the right column, I say that all reasonable, constructive comments will be published, and I mean that.

However, someone keeps sending me comments so long that I can't read it all before releasing it (Blogger only lets me see the 1st twelve lines), and I won't release it if I can't read it. Because this person posts as Anonymous, I have no way of contacting the sender to let them know other than to post like this. Everyone, please try to keep your comments under 12 lines.

Also, by reasonable and constructive, I mean I want to hear honest opinions and experiences. Facts, if you can quote your sources. I won't publish what amounts to lectures with questionable sources, unless you identify yourself to show why you might be an expert in the area. If you have that much to say, start your own blog.

Sorry. Back to the Diary next week.

Friday, August 9, 2013

Festivals! (and How They Can Be Good For N-Town)

f
Italian fried pizza
Another thing that makes Norristown special? Our cultural festivals. And we've got 4 coming up within the next month.

This weekend is, I must admit, my favorite--the Festa Italiana at Holy Saviour Club, across East Main St. from Holy Saviour Church (near the intersection of Walnut). It begins tonight at 5 pm, and continues through the weekend (Sat starting at 4 pm, Sun at 11 am). Lots of kids' games, face painting and a moon bounce. Learn to play bocce. Live entertainment at night. I always go for the food. Yummy roast pork sandwiches (they usually have roast beef and grilled sausage and peppers, too), fried pizza (pizza dough, deep fried and coated with sugar--Italian donuts..mmm), tomato pie, veal scallopini and, if you're brave enough, tripe. Draft beer, wine, soft drinks and the BEST draft birch beer. So grab a meal there this weekend. Park in Holy Saviour's lot, walk across the street and down the driveway to the parking lot behind the club.

Next Sunday afternoon and evening, starting about 1 pm, August 18th, Holy Saviour's MSS Club will hold what I think of as their Sicilian festival in the old Holy Saviour school cafeteria (on Airy, around the corner from Walnut). Similar foods -- compare the pork sandwiches and fried pizza. The street processions for both these festivals are something to see. They start around 12:30 this Sunday and next in front of Holy Saviour.

On the weekend of August 24-25, St. Patrick Church (Dekalb and Chestnut) holds its Irish Festival. I went last year, loved it and will definitely be there again. Saturday night from 6 to 11:30 is Irish Pub Night. Music, beer and good food (beef, ham, corned beef and cabbage, and sandwiches, and all kinds of desserts). Sunday from 1-6 pm. Festival takes place in the church hall (enter on Dekalb or Chestnut -- follow the signs).

Also at St. Pat's on Sunday, September 8th, 1-6 pm, will be the Fiesta for Mexican Independence Day in the church parking lot. Great Mexican food, music, folk dancing, folklore.


In May of each year, the Greater Norristown Hispanic Business Association sponsors the International Festival - a huge block party on West Marshall. Lots of hispanic food, music and vendors. I'll mention this again and give you particulars next spring.

On a smaller scale, you can find Pennsylvania German goodies at some of our local church bazaars this fall. For instance, go to Christ United Church of Christ at W. Marshall and Noble Sts in November, if you like chicken corn soup, shoo-fly pie and homemade chocolates (will also mention details in the fall).  Not sure if we have a big enough PA Dutch population anymore to make it feasible, but I'd love to see an Oktoberfest in Norristown sometime to celebrate that part of Norristown's heritage.

Another festival I think we could kick butt at would be one for African-American culture. Upper Merion has a half day Black History celebration in Feb each year, with history talks, drumming and dancing demos, and soul food, and it's really good, but I think we could do better. I KNOW we've got amazing soul food in Norristown--I've been to church suppers, not to mention our pros, like Zachary's, Willis Barbecue and Diva's Kitchen. Might be something to think about, maybe in conjunction with Arts Hill for their Juneteenth celebration.

Festivals can bring visitors and good vibes for Norristown, a chance for folks to experience our town and our people, and a chance for Norristown to come together to party (which we need more of). If you know of any other cultural fests in town, leave a comment here, or on my Facebook page, and I'll add it below. Let's get the word out.

Thursday, August 8, 2013

What Good Is Zoning When...

First of all: Don't forget the Zoning Workshop tonight at Hancock Fire Co. (Airy between Haws and Stanbridge), 6-8 pm.

They've changed the proposed zoning map. R1 (light yellow) stays the same, that is, single-family homes on large lots. R2 (bright yellow) now encompasses the old R2 and R3--pretty much every other kind of housing except apartment houses: single-homes, twins, duplexes, rowhomes, regardless of whether the occupants own or rent.

If they really do block-by-block zoning, and don't allow anything to be built that doesn't exist on a block already, even, as they assured us, on each particular lot (that is, you wouldn't be able to build rowhouses where there were twins), these changes would be all we'd need. Though, if I lived in one of those single homes across from Rittenhouse, or over on Stanbridge or Buttonwood or Markley below Roberts, I'd have to wonder why the homes on Coolidge Blvd. get R1 protection and my block doesn't. Especially since one of those R1 blocks includes, at Markley and Freedley, 3 rowhomes, plus another apartment and a luncheonette attached to the corner house.

But today, before heading into the workshop, let's look at new construction around town. Remember those quotes from the Comprehensive Plan on my blog yesterday?  How new construction should blend in with neighboring buildings?

There's a fairly new house at Airy and Hamilton. No way could you say it blends in with the neighborhood.
The style is pure suburbia. The light yellow siding makes it stick out like a jaundiced thumb. Still, the worst feature of this house is how close it's set to its neighbor. The side yard is half the width of side yards on the rest of the block. The new house completely blocks off the southwest wall (sunniest and breeziest exposure) of the next house on Hamiton (I wouldn't think this would make the neighbor feel very neighborly). The placement of this house, and the look of it, went against the zoning, so why was it allowed?

The photo at the right are new houses on Dekalb and Elm Sts.  They blend in very well to the existing houses and I applaud that--all new houses in Norristown could take a lesson from the architectural style used here. They're also "green" construction, which is excellent. And by being low-cost, they encourage homeownership, which we need more of in town. 

The problem with these homes is, there's 12 of them, crammed into 2 lots that originally held 4 houses. They're called "stacked" townhomes, which to me sounds like a fancy name for duplex or condo. There's nowhere near enough parking for that many residents. Our zoning people say they're against packing more houses into existing spaces, yet that's just what they allowed here.

The developer, Sarah Peck of Progressive Housing Ventures, just received a variance for a similar project further up Dekalb at Basin St. The plan there is for 24 housing units on just 2/3 acre. If you live in a typical Norristown twin, try imagining 4 or 5 houses, with at least one car apiece, on your lot, and you get the ratio..

As you can see from the photo, on the block where this new development is planned, there's one set of historic twin houses. So much for block-by-block zoning.

Yes, this development means more affordable homeownership, and I assume we'll see green construction and matching achitecture like the others (we had better), but doesn't it become a quality of life issue when you pack residents in like sardines? You can't assume only single people will move in. Where will kids play with no yards? Where will extra cars go, especially when we get snow? (How unlikely is it, in Norristown, that someone will eventually get shot over a parking spot?)

The neighbors protested this development, yet they were willing to negotiate. (See Times Herald article.) They asked if the number of units could be halved, or at least reduced. They signed petitions. They tried to be heard. Council ignored them.

As I mentioned yesterday, the Comprehensive Plan talks about "infill" development. Are these the kinds of developments they mean? The Zoning people assured us at the last meeting that this could never happen, yet the variances they've been granting seems to show that they'll rubber stamp anything. And Council seems willing to embrace every developer that comes along, and continues to ignore the taxpayers.

So, what good is zoning?

Wednesday, August 7, 2013

Short on Plot



Looking for a little light beach reading this summer? Then don't read the Norristown Comprehensive Plan.

On the up-side, it's only 122 pages, with lots of photos, a definite improvement over the plan it replaced, which was a "War and Peace" wannabe taking up five volumes. But as books go, it's not exactly a page-turner.

The thing is, though, all Norristown residents ought to know what's in the plan, because the new zoning map is meant, supposedly, to bring this plan into compliance.  So before the first workshop tomorrow night (6 pm at Hancock Fire Company on Airy), let me equip you with a few quotes out of the plan.

"New construction should respect the existing scale and mass of existing buildings. For residential infill development, structures should mimic the scale and mass of adjacent homes on the block." 

"New construction should pay attention to setbacks, architectural style, materials, color, parking arrangement, and landscaping. Consistency with existing structures will help to better complement the existing character." 

"New construction should pay attention to setbacks, architectural style, materials, color, parking arrangement, and landscaping. Consistency with existing structures will help to better complement the existing character." 

"Both rehabilitation of old buildings and new construction should respect the predominant heights with the town and to adjacent properties. Two and three-story buildings should continue to dominate, with a minimum height of 20 feet." 

"The exterior materials used in a building's design create impressions of both the individual building and the image of Norristown as a community. The use of high-quality materials and neutral colors are encouraged to ensure compatibility with adjoining buildings and the neighborhood." 

Sounds great, doesn't it? It allows for new construction without compromising our town style.  In tomorrow's blog, I'm going to talk about how all these guidelines are already being ignored, and why that makes the scariest word in those quotes "infill."

But now, more about the plan. The most offensive part of it, I thought, was chapter 4, which talks about land use and shows examples of new construction that would work here.  I agreed with the first example, which showed Gothic style houses in Lantern Hill, Doylestown (photo at top).

The other examples, though, were high-rises of 4 stories or more in Dallas, Hoboken, and Berkeley. Someone please tell me why we have to go to cities that far away for examples. Those places have nothing in common with Norristown. In particular, they're all far larger in population than we are. Every example given would violate the guidelines above. We don't need highrises in Norristown. Here, someone would find an excuse to approve them for Section 8 housing.

Instead, here are my own examples of the kinds of new construction Norristown ought to consider. The examples were all found in southeastern PA and fit our existing architecture.



Rowhomes in Kennett Square, PA. Not unlike what we already have and the bricks would blend in. The only jarring notes, I think, would be those high steps--a lower stoop would be better.

Providence Town Center in Collegeville. This shopping center is built to look like a downtown (though sits out in the middle of nowhere). Still, the building styles would fit into Norristown's downtown (to fill in vacant lots). You could add a story to accommodate apartments or offices and they'd still fit in nicely.

If you want to glance over the town plan, go to http://norristown.org/userfiles/file/NorristownCompPlan_July2010.pdf
You can skip to page 25 to get the meat of it.


Tuesday, August 6, 2013

Things That Change, and Unfortunately, Don't


Vacant lot at 345-351 East Main St.
People have asked what made me start this blog. I've always been interested in Norristown. After our Sesquicentennial, I wondered why they never taught local history in our schools. As I grew older, I wondered why our historical sites weren't open to the public like other historical sites were. I wondered how the powers that be in town could allow our most unique architecture to be demolished for chain stores. But it never occurred to me to do anything about what was going on.

My first series of novels were semi-historical, set in different time periods. I decided to set the 4th one, FEAR ITSELF, during the Great Depression, and my dad agreed to be my main research source. Since his memories of the 1930s were all based on East Main in Norristown, that became my setting. He told me what they ate, what they wore, how they kept warm, and what kinds of jobs people had (including kids). He described the cars and wagons on Main St., and the trolley that ran the length of it.


349 and 351 E. Main before demolition
Dad drew me a detailed plan of the inside of 349 East Main, where he grew up, so I used the house in the book, even in the present day chapters, despite the fact that the home had long since been torn down. I used the house next door, too, because it had been my mom's grandmother's home. Mom described it for me, with all its original Victorian elegance--big square central stairway spiraling up to the third floor, fancy woodwork, tiles, a huge kitchen with a pressed tin ceiling, a fanlight over the front door.

Norristown allowed 4 houses in this row to be leveled about 30 years ago. Why? Because a warehouse on East Penn St wanted to park their trucks there. The company never even used all the space--only, at most, half of it.  They never paved the lot, just dumped gravel and let the weeds grow. They never did a thing to improve the look of the property along the busy Main St. side.

I think that's when I started my move from observer--when I fully understood how gorgeous those houses had been, inside and out, and how the properties had been turned into something as ugly as a huge, unkempt parking lot. The company moved out, leaving us with vacant lots.

Here's my zoning note for today. For nearly 100 years, that block was "Neighborhood Commericial"--meaning it had residences and mom-and-pop shops, and a couple small manufacturing places, not unlike West Marshall today. On the new map, it's called "Town Center II." I hope that means a return to small shops and restaurants (Giacomo's is still there, and Lou's on the next block). Even a gas station on that empty lot wouldn't be bad, since there's only one entering Norristown at that end. But please, no fast food joints. All Italian moms who used to live there would rise up out of their graves and give us the evil eye for pushing bad food.

Back to my story:  Right after FEAR ITSELF was published, I was driving down Green St. and saw that the line for the Patrician Society Food Bank was incredibly long. Thinking back to my parents' stories of hunger during the Depression, I decided to help out my hometown a little by donating a portion of all royalties from FEAR ITSELF to the Patrician Society. But it doesn't amount to much and I kept feeling I should do something else.

I volunteered for the Bicentennial Committee last year, in an effort to learn more about Norristown. I found that most residents had no clue what was going on in town (most don't even know we HAD a Bicentennial). Half of our Council didn't show up for most of the events, or help promote them in anyway. The disconnect between borough and residents was epic (and is still the biggest obstacle we need to over come).

Then came the increase in shootings in Norristown last October. And I found stolen goods in my yard soon after.

This year, when the whole Pennrose Airy St development debacle came up, I noticed other Norristonians gathering to take action, so I joined them. And after being in the July 4th parade, seeing the faces of kids from every neighboorhood the parade passed through, I knew the time was right to start writing about Norristown. Those kids deserve a decent place to live, and the conversation has to start somewhere.

Monday, August 5, 2013

Artsy Trash Cans, Alley Bike Trails, and Crandall Jones

 I think this may be Zoning Week here on the Diary. With the first workshop approaching on Thursday night, we ought to go in informed and ready with questions.  But first, today, I need to pass on info and ideas from Shae Ashe's Norristown Project meetings this weekend, and a little news from Muni. Hall.

I went to the morning meeting on Saturday. It was so nice to meet other Norristonians so interested and positive about making a difference in our borough that they'd get up early and come out to discuss it.


While talking about how to encourage people to keep the town cleaner, one innovative idea was to have an art contest in the schools, to decorate public trash cans, thereby making them more noticeable and sending a message that we don't want litter in on our streets. The trash cans could be creative and humorous, and actually be a first step getting our homegrown art out where it can be seen. The project would also engage the community, particularly our students.

Another idea that combined kids and the arts was to have some concerts specifically for children at the band shell in the summer, or maybe show family movies there. It was noted that the zoo had started showing free family movies, but that they needed publicity.
 
For those trying to cut down on driving and ride bikes instead, it was suggested that the alleys could be used as bike lanes in much of the town, though many need to be paved or repaired. That brought up the amazing fact that the municipality claimed that they didn't own all the alleys, and (here's the kicker) had no way of knowing which ones they own.

Now, I KNOW they own my alley. I remember when it was dirt and when all the homeowners on our block signed the alley over to the borough back in the late '60s. (All of us kids thought paving the alley ruined it for bike riding because it was so much more exciting to ride over all the ruts.) Since all of the surrounding alleys were paved at the same time, I just assumed they did the whole town. Still, if all those homeowners signed over the alleys, the paperwork must be SOMEWHERE in the borough archives. So I think the burden of proof falls on Norristown in this case. And honestly, isn't it time for the town to take over paving and maintenance of all the alleys, even if they have to do it over several years?



The last bit of news is that Council has hired a new municipal administrator (actually, the final vote will be Aug. 15). His name is Crandall Jones and he's from Georgia. According to Councilman Caldwell, Mr. Jones “had the best experience with urban cities of Norristown’s size. He was quite familiar with generating an arts district in East Point, Ga..”

So I googled East Point, Ga. I couldn't find any mention of an arts district, though they do have a Cultural Enrichment Commission that holds an annual arts festival, similar to our Arts Council and Arts Hill festival (I couldn't find that they were much more active or developed than we are). East Point does have a population remarkably like ours, at about 35,000, though it's spread over 4 times the area and their density is only about 2,000 residents per square mile (compared to our average 9,000).

I hope Mr. Jones will settle here in town, and (unlike many of the people making our decisions) make an effort to really get to know our people, our community, and our history.