Thursday, September 26, 2013

Monument to Prosperity

Last reminder: The final zoning workshop is tonight at 6 pm, Human Services Building at Fornance and Dekalb.

This morning on Facebook I saw this ad for the old bank building at 1 West Main (at Swede St.). They've newly renovated the place, though the interior was always one of Norristown's most beautiful architectural spaces. I remember going inside with my dad when I was a kid. It always brought to mind the bank in "Mary Poppins"--like a Hushed, grand cathedral of capitalism. The building itself was perhaps the best manifestation of Norristown's prosperity in the first 60 years of the 20th century. You looked at it and felt the town would always be economically stable.

When I was growing up, there were scads of banks on Main Street--Commonwealth, Continental, Peoples, American, etc. Now we don't have even that many in the whole town. Lots of ATMs, sure, but we're not seen as a place where residents want to sit and talk to a banker about investments, business loans, college funds or safe deposit boxes. And all the banks are probably afraid they'll be robbed here.

I doubt the first floor of 1 West Main will ever be a bank again--banks don't want the "Mary Poppins" look anymore--but it would make a dandy restaurant, or a multi-use space--sit-down restaurant on one side, kiosks on the other, all open to take advantage of the light from the immense windows.

1 West Main is currently our tallest structure downtown. The Citizens Bank building on Lafayette is second, I think, and has had trouble keeping tenants since it was opened. The Montgomery County Intermediate Unit finally decided to make the Lafayette Street building its new home last fall. I've heard rumors that the County may also use the Post Office building. Yes, I know we're the county seat, and the county has to have offices, but filling all our empty buildings with county employees won't help our economy as much as bringing in new businesses.

Still, I have to wonder about all this talk at the zoning workshops about putting new 10-story buildings on Main Street. If we can't keep tenants in the existing tall buildings that we have now, how will more empty high-rises help? Better to fill our existing vacant stores on Main with goods and services that all those extra County employees will consume on their lunch hours. Once the Lafayette corridor's done and the Riverfront development's underway, we can reassess the demand for office space in new Main Street high-rises.

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