Thursday, December 26, 2013

Returns and Exchanges

This is the traditional day for returning gifts and exchanging them for other things you think you want more. The problem is, you often find out that the item you're exchanging was bought on sale, so you get less for it than you thought you would. And the objects we think we want cost more than they should, considering they're probably made in a sweatshop overseas and possibly of poor materials or construction. You might end up swapping something of high quality for something that will break or rip or look dated in a month.

It's appropriate, then, that I talk about what exchanges Norristown has made over the decades since about 1980, or technically, what exchanges our government has made for us. We traded the Norris Theater for a McDonalds, the YMCA for a big box of a CVS, and several downtown buildings, including Woolworths and Grants, for another ugly box--AutoZone--with an equally ugly parking lot. With the McDonalds, we got burned twice, because they decided they didn't like the Norris Theater site, so they demolished the Wonder Bread building, too.

In each case, Norristown swapped our architectural treasure for buildings and businesses that have made no significant contributions to the community. When I've asked outsiders who've been here what buildings in the borough they remember seeing, they mention the courthouse, the county prison building on Airy, the churches, and many of our other outstanding architectural structures. They NEVER remember noticing a CVS or AutoZone. If they didn't stop to eat at McDonalds (and sometimes even if they did), they don't remember that we have one. Every town in America has a McDonalds. There are 4 AutoZones and more than 25 CVS's within 10 miles of Norristown. Having them here will never put us on the map.

Our council has even exchanged downtown buildings for vacant lots. Sure, some those buildings were destroyed by fire, but some weren't, like the Valley Forge Hotel. And in all cases, the lots left behind sat derelict for DECADES and most still do. Our council reps complain that the property owners refuse to develop or sell. Well then, give them a deadline, and if they don't sell, put the property up for auction to someone who WILL develop it--on condition that we get some retail stores or other downtown-appropriate businesses. No more drug rehabs, check-cashing places or bailbondsmen. No more tax-exempt owners. Either that or expand the public square and turn the empty lot on the corner of Main and Dekalb into a well-kept park or garden that we can all enjoy, and that outsiders will come into town to visit.

What brought this to my mind is that I've heard that our Historical Architecture Review Board (HARB) was told by certain council members that council would no longer support them, which I take to mean that these representatives don't feel obliged to listen to HARB's recommendations. HARB is the advisory body that reviews proposed development in our historic districts and makes sure exterior changes aren't in conflict with the architecture of the building or surrounding neighborhood. They are the only frontline we have protecting our gorgeous old buildings from damage or demoition. You can read more about HARB here.

I know not all our current council members have this antagonistic view toward historic preservation. Some of them actually have the brains to realize that the architecture that makes Norristown unique is a sale-able COMMODITY. Marketing is all about image. Why project an image of "Norristown--We're Trying Hard To Look Like Everywhere Else?" That sounds like a teenager afraid of peer pressure, if you ask me. We could be saying "Come To Norristown To See Our Beautiful, One-Of-A-Kind Architecture (and stay for our arts, food, etc.)"

So I think we ought to be prepared in 2014 for more attempted exchanges by Council. Norristown can't afford to lose more assets. I hope our 2 newest members of council, slated to be installed in January (Derrick Perry and Sonya Fisher Sanders), will give some thought to how Norristown can use its architectural capital to bring in business, instead of allowing others to demolish the one thing that could save us.

(Note: I'll be taking another day off from the Diary tomorrow (this time for a Revolutionary War battle reenactment). Be back next week.)

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