Wednesday, October 2, 2013

Development, with Generous Donations from People Like You

IF you drive around Norristown, you often see one twin house among several units of rowhouses, or a single house at the end of a block of twins, all built in the same style as the others. The twin or single house has nicer trim than its counterparts, or more windows, and is often a bit taller.

For instance, the photo above shows a three-story twin house on George Street. The rest of the block has units of two and three-story rowhouses. The twin is taller, has nicer trim at the top, a pent roof over the doors, with pretty grey stone above and below the windows and around the basement level. The houses were all part of the same development. The twin was built first, as the sample house. The builder (Mr. Jamison, who I mentioned in a previous post) used this house to show buyers what options were available, inside and out. He could sell the other half of the twin and take down payments on the yet-to-be-built rowhouses, to finance the rest of the project, which he would build one rowhouse unit at a time, using profits from the sales and down payments.

Sample single, corner of Wood & Pine
Sample houses are still used this way in new suburban developments, but you don't see them much in town anymore. Here developers seem to want to put up all the housing units at once. I don't know--maybe it has to do with space constraints, though that didn't seem to hinder Mr. Jamison in the 1880s. How do developers finance their projects? If the discussion about 1202 Dekalb at the council meeting last night is any indication, they expect the county, the state and Norristown to put up the money.

Progressive Housing Ventures CEO Sarah Peck said last night that she could reduce the density of the project to 18 houses and make a change to the driveway configuration to add onsite parking and more street parking on Basin. This would make the neighborhood happy. Problem was, she said she needed an extra $200,000 to do it.

Now Norristown happens to have an extra $150,000 hanging around, from the sale of the Citizens Bank building. They were going to hand it over to Pennrose, but that development fell through. Ms. Peck asked for a commitment of this money as well as Council's help in procuring the additional $50,000 fro the county. Why can't Ms. Peck apply to the county herself? Because Montco's already sinking $270,000 into the project as it is. In addition, she's applied for two grants from the PA Department of Community & Economic Development, and Norristown's Municipal Waste Authority has pledged $50,000 in sewer fee waivers. She says she can't raise the asking price of the units any further or no one would buy the houses.

Let's do the math. Progressive Housing Ventures's website says "projected pricing in the 140s." 24 houses at $140,000 (though the houses will probably go for more) equals $3.36 million retail. 18 houses equals $2.52 mil. The difference--6 houses--is $840,000. Ms. Peck says she can reduce the number of houses for $200,000. Granted, she needs the same amount of paving, landscaping, rainwater management and the rest, plus the price of the land, no matter how many houses, but I'm seeing a huge profit margin here. If she built one unit of 6 houses to begin, used one as a sample house and sold the other 5, she'd easily have the extra money to build the other two units of 6 without having to ask Norristown or the county for an extra dime. The whole scene last night felt like blackmail. "Give me $200,000 and the neighborhood doesn't get hurt."

I don't know about the rest of you, but I'd rather see my tax money go into our schools, toward fixing up our REALLY depressed neighborhoods (1202 Dekalb isn't even close), toward helping our local small businesses, Arts Hill and our historic buildings. If you want to put bucks into development, let's get Riverfront going, because that's going to help the town's overall economic situation and 1202 Dekalb isn't.

Councilman Millner would disagree. Last night, he kept trying to sabotage the discussion. He seems determined that 24 housing units be built, using the bad parking configuration, and the neighborhood be damned. He kept returning to a single point--that the empty lot at 1202 Dekalb might have a "Coming Soon..." sign on it for years and never be developed. To which members of the audience shouted "That would be fine with us!"  Frankly, I think the "Coming Soon.." sign ought to be on Millner's council seat: "Coming soon...a councilperson here to serve the taxpayers and not his own ego."

But in a way, I have to agree with him that Norristown shouldn't be paying for Sarah Peck's development. Not unless the town is going to get a cut of the profits.


  1. Well, I just hope that all parties can make the best of this bad situation. And that the residents will not get the short end of the stick. We are pretty much at the mercy of the council and the developer. With the ever present threat of 24 units which were approved, all we can hope for is a reduction to 18. So if the Jolly Green giant slid down the bean stalk threatening to gobble us all up if we pay the ransom I would tell him to go for it. Because our quality of life has already been taken away, and at this point we can only try to salvage what we can.

  2. From Doug Seilor on Facebook:
    N-town should not be paying developers...especially for more housing. Is there a housing shortage in Norristown? Public money, if given to developers at all should be used to fund the kind of things that are listed as high-priorities and are called for in (where else) our Comprehensive Plan. A document that, it appears no one on Council, except perhaps Linda Christian, has read.

  3. Well, as Milliner said it would be a waste of money when she could just build the 24. However the residents in the area surrounding 1202 DeKalb would like to think that we and this area are as important as others and other sections of Norristown. And after all, we are long term homeowners who also pay taxes. We fought against this project for several reason one being it's high density issues, and I can only hope others are not faced with the same problem in the future.