Friday, February 28, 2014

Theatre, Music, Books, and Herbs

Circle Mirror Transformation 
I took pages of notes at the Commissioners Town Hall last night. I'll try to pare them down to size and post a summary next week. But I have to say, the turnout was decent (though some attendees were our neighbors from elsewhere in the county), and another 50 or so people participated through Google Hangout. We may want to think about live-streaming our regular Municipal meetings.

But let's get down to the serious business of what's going on in N-town in the next 7 days.

Tonight, "Circle Mirror Transformation" at Theatre Horizon (Dekalb and Penn) continues with an 8 pm performance. Also, Saturday night at 8 pm, Sunday at 22 pm, and next Thursday at 7:30 pm. Tickets: $25-31. Call the Box Office at 610-283-2230 or visit www.theatrehorizon.org for more information

Saturday morning from 9 until noon, Certified Enrollment Navigators from the Norristown Regional Health Center will provide free assistance with health insurance enrollment at the Norristown Library, 1001 Powell St. They will also be there next Thursday, Mar 6th, from 5 to 7 pm.

Also on Saturday, from 11 am to 3 pm, Elmwood Park Zoo presents Read Across America. This event will feature a book fair, concessions, readings, and special appearances by the Berenstain Bears and Daniel Tiger. Free with regular zoo admission. For more info call 610-277-3825 ext 222.

Sunday from 10 am to 1 pm, Coffee Talk Artists' Co-op, 507 W. Marshall St, will host an Open Mic. Musicians, writers, poets, and art lovers welcome. $5 at door.

Starting this Sunday, Elmwood Park Zoo will celebrate its 90th anniversary by offering FREE admission to Norristown Borough residents on the first Sunday of each month through December 2014. Residents of Norristown Borough who present a valid photo ID may enter the zoo free of charge after 2 pm any 1st Sunday. Children must be accompanied by a Borough resident. Non-residents will be charged normal admission rates Go to http://www.elmwoodparkzoo.org/event/100 for details.

Nothing scheduled on Monday, which is just as well, considering the weather forecast.

Tuesday, March 4 at 7:30 pm is the usual Council Meeting at Municipal Hall (235 E. Airy). No agenda yet, but last night Bill Caldwell said they'd be announcing when Municipal Meet-and-Greets would be.

Every Wednesday and Thursday in March from 10 am-noon, you can get help creating and updating your resume from Daniel Quinn by appointment at the Norristown Library (1001 Powell St). Call 610-278-5100 ext 141 for an
appointment. Bring your current resume or a written history of your previous employment.

Attention gardeners! Wednesday at 6:30 pm at the Library, Jane Irvin from Penn State will present "Herbs: Where to Plant and What to Grow". Learn what herbs are suitable for your garden space and needs--whether you have a kitchen garden or want to otherwise incorporate herbs into your landscape for fragrance, foliage and more.

Remember to check out the Montco OIC calendar in the right column for more events.

Thursday, February 27, 2014

Converse With A Commish, or 3

Tonight is the Montgomery County Commissioners' Town Hall at Municipal Hall at 7 pm. Yes, it's going to be cold out and you'll feel like you'd rather stay home, nice and cozy, watching TV. But this is important.

Still, if you CAN'T come in person, you can still participate. The meeting will be live-streamed using a Google Hangout at  http://www.montcopa.org/index.aspx?nid=1759 . You'll even be able to submit questions, but registration is required for that, and a Gmail account is necessary. They're easy to set up, but do it now and don't wait until 6:59 pm or your questions will go unanswered.

You can also submit questions by email to Commissioners@MontcoPA.org . They'll be answered in the order they're received, so again, you can't wait until 6:59 pm.

I'm going to the meeting because I have redevelopment questions. When I attended the Montco Planning meeting a few weeks ago, they talked in a perky, isn't-this-going-to-be-awesome manner about, essentially, filling in every empty space in Norristown with apartment buildings. I asked who was going to pay for the extra infrastructure needed for the increase in population. I never got an answer. Norristown needs homeowners and businesses to increase tax revenue, not more rental properties. Especially when the construction of apartment buildings inevitably means the use of public funds--developers getting rich using our tax money while Norristown keeps getting poorer.

And if the plans submitted by Elon for the Montgomery Hospital property are any indication, the apartment buildings we'll end up with will be 4-story wooden firetraps, poorly designed and cheaply constructed to maximize their profit.

But there will be other topics tonight. Commissioner Josh Shapiro said, "These conversations with the commissioners are another in a series of ways we are trying to keep residents informed about what we are doing," I think we can all agree that most of us have no idea what the commissioners do, or how what they're doing effects Norristown. We think of ourselves as being governed by Norristown Council and have no idea where the county fits into the scheme of things. We only know that, often, Norristown is treated like a poor and not very bright relation, and that we're sick of it.

So please, leave your cozy home tonight and come out to the meeting. If you can't, watch it and participate through the link above.

Wednesday, February 26, 2014

Fighting Fire

Maybe you're tired of hearing me talk about Montgomery Hospital, but I have new info that needs to be disseminated, which I'll get to in a minute. First, I want to say that, to my mind, this is one of the most important fires raging in Norristown at the moment. It must be a fire, because so many of you are running from it, leaving it to someone else to extinguish.

Yesterday someone asked me where they could go to read up on the Montgomery Hospital issue, so I've added "Montgomery Hospital" to my Topics List for this blog. Scroll down the right column to find it. When you click on "Montgomery Hospital," every Diary entry that's dealt with it will come up. Other places for information include The Times Herald archives and the Norristown Preservation Society Facebook page.

On to the new info. New to me anyway. I spent some time reading documents concerned with the historical designation of the hospital property. Two years ago, almost to the day, the National Park Service sent a letter to the developer then working with Einstein to convert the hospital buildings into senior apartments. The letter stated that the hospital property "appears to meet the National Register Criteria for Evaluation and will likely be listed in the National Register of Historical Places." It goes on to list ALL buildings on the property, including McShea Hall and the 1975 Horsey Pavilion.

This is one reason the developer backed out 2 years ago. They couldn't raise the funding to rehab all the buildings. The Horsey Pavilion, because of its wide dimensions, is particularly difficult to convert to apartments. They didn't want to take the time to come up with a more viable plan.

Then I read a recent communication from an official at the Pennsylvania Historical and Museum Commission, who confirmed that the original application for Historical Register identified the Horsey Pavilion as a "non-contributing component." This official believes that a development plan that included the removal of the Horsey Pavilion "would not jeopardize HR eligibility." So I got my hands on the draft of the application to see for myself. The "H" of the hospital was built in 3 phases, opening in 1939, 1947 and 1958. The laundry building is original, from 1939. McShea Hall was built in 1953 in the Modern Movement style, and since that's fairly rare in Norristown, the structure is also considered significant, but Horsey Pavilion is listed as incidental and can probably go. Had the developer asked that question 2 years ago, we might already have senior apartments in the historic buildings on the site. Without the Horsey Pavilion, a restoration project is VERY viable, and might even be to the advantage of the developer.

At the meeting last Sunday of citizens who are concerned, for various reasons, about the demolition of the hospital, architect Doug Seiler showed several examples of hospitals in New Orleans, Jersey City and Cleveland that have all been converted to apartments. The width of their building wings, along with the widths of Kennedy-Kendrick and Rittenhouse, are all within a range of about 43 to 55 feet. The width of the wings of McShea Hall and the "H" section of Montgomery Hospital is within that range, at about 45 feet--a PERFECT size for apartment conversion. A jobs comparison showed that restoring the hospital will bring more union construction jobs to town, and Doug's cost comparison showed that, with federal tax credits gained from NOT demolishing historic buildings, the costs of each plan aren't that far apart--they might even be about the same--and restoring the buildings would be much safer for the neighborhood.

One more important item. A part of Norristown's code (section 125-2) states:

"If the building is identified as a key or landmark building or is located in an historic district, the Building Inspector shall, within three days, notify the applicant, in writing, of this finding. No demolition permit, exterior or interior, may be issued. There shall be a review period for key or landmark structures of 120 days. The review period for buildings located in historic districts shall be 45 days."

So, if Norristown follows its own laws, no demolition can take place on the property without a 120 day review. Yet Einstein, at the Town Hall meeting, claimed they would begin interior demolition on March 1st. Was a demolition permit requested and issued? If so, why wasn't the law followed?

Rich Montalbano of Einstein also stated at the same meeting that the buildings weren't historic, yet one would think, since he's been in charge of the redevelopment side of the property, that he'd have been aware of the National Park Service letter that his developer received 2 years ago.

That's the latest. I'll update as I get new information. In the meantime, if you're not busy running from this fire, please remind  your council members about ordinance 125-2 and ask them to follow it until the mess gets sorted out.

Tuesday, February 25, 2014

Banding Together to Promote Norristown

The Diary is a bit late this morning, but I wasn't slacking off. I was at a meeting of the Norristown Business Association.

This is a great group of business owners and volunteer organization coordinators who are, as the title above says, banding together to promote Norristown. If you're a business owner in Norristown, you NEED to join this association. If you're involved with a volunteer group, make sure they have a representative in the N-town BA. We can either network together this way, or it's every man for himself. That's what we've been doing, Norristown, and how's that been working out?

Visit the association's website at http://norristownba.org/index.html, or LIKE their Facebook page or, thanks to Stan Huskey of the Times Herald this morning, NBA now has a Twitter handle, so you can follow them at https://twitter.com/NorristownBA.  For more info on how to join, email Eddie Turner at info@norristownba.org .

Oh, and I need to mention that we met at Casa Bonita International Cuisine restaurant (801 Dekalb). The food was AMAZING. Go try them.  (And if you join the Business Assn, you get a discount).

In other news, the February Zoning Board hearing has been continued until next month, March 25th. So you can stay home tonight. But I will add a reminder here about the Town Hall with the County Commissioners on Thursday night at 7 pm at Municipal Hall. This is VERY important--a chance for Norristown to let the county know what we need, and how we expect to be treated.

Monday, February 24, 2014

Living In A Museum


Maybe the only museums you're familiar with are the American Museum of Natural History and the Smithsonian, and only because you saw the two movies in the "Night At The Museum" series. Or maybe you've been to others, on school field trips, with your family, on your own. I think we can all agree that a museum is a collection of related items that have value, and are considered worth saving so they can to be shared with the world and studied by future generations.

So picture the museum of your choice, and picture yourself living in it. In fact, you own the building. Maybe it's the Louvre and you pass the Mona Lisa each day on your commute. Maybe it's the Baseball Hall of Fame in Cooperstown, and you bed down next to the Phillie Phanatic. Imagine yourself living among a collection of things that, by their very uniqueness, seem to belong together. People come to visit your museum to see your collection, then buy things in your gift shop and cafeteria.

But what if all the things in your museum were privately owned by many individuals? You hold the deed to the building, but not the collection. And what if, one by one, over the years, certain owners came in and destroyed their objects, leaving ugly holes behind? Or perhaps, after destroying their property, they leave something else that has little value--a Beanie baby for the Phillie Phanatic, a selfie for the Mona Lisa--claiming it's a good trade for you.

What can you do? It's their property. Still, you would have liked the chance to make your case for keeping the collection intact. I mean, you pay for the electricity, security guards, building repair, etc. You should have a say, right? But your managers just let the destruction of the museum continue. No matter who you hire to manage, they don't seem to understand that you own the museum and pay their salaries. They seem to think they work solely for the owners of the pieces in the collection. The managers think they're doing a good job if they can just fill in the holes with SOMETHING, no matter how cheap-looking.

Word gets around about the ugly holes and the worthless objects, and visitors stop coming, even though you still have much of the original collection.

Do I have to point out that the museum I'm talking about is Norristown? We have one of the finest collections of architecture in the entire region--dozens of houses, businesses and public buildings that we could be promoting as a collection worth seeing. Put plaques on historical buildings with a little basic info and a code that links to a website. Imagine visitors coming into town, pointing their smart phones at the plaques so they can learn about each structure--then having lunch or dinner at our restaurants, maybe doing a little shopping, making a day of it by going to the zoo, or later, to the theater. Even if people don't come specifically to see our architecture, I'm willing to bet a lot of folks would still point their phones at those plaques out of sheer curiosity, just to see what comes up.

 We've been saying, since the Norris Theater came down, that we need to preserve our buildings, and that preservation can help revitalize the town. Yet we keep letting valuable parts of our collection be demolished. We end up with vacant lots or cheap-looking construction instead. At Montgomery Hospital, the current plan is to level a strong, beautiful piece of masonry, with an important history, to put up lackluster wooden structures completely inappropriate to the neighborhood. Even our 2009 Norristown Comprehensive Plan recognizes the hospital and other historic buildings around town as being too valuable to lose.

But what to do? The historical properties are privately owned. Sure, in our designated historic areas, we have a few safeguards in place to discourage demolition, but even there, owners seem to be insisting on the right to destroy their property. And outside those areas--downtown for instance--it feels like open season on our buildings.

My thought is that we need a coalition of building owners, concerned citizens, groups like the Preservation Society, and government officials--people who recognize the economic worth to the community of keeping the collection intact. Maybe they can come up with ways to educate anyone buying a historic building in Norristown that their purchase is part of a larger whole, that it's better for business to preserve than demolish.

I think education is the key. The more people who understand what we have, and how it's good for Norristown, the better. The Norristown Preservation Society has begun an inventory of our architectural collection on their "Norristown's Historical Architecture" album on their Facebook page. You can view it and read the descriptions without signing into Facebook (though you need to sign in to add a comment). Just click on the first photo, then on the arrow at the right of each image to page through. They add about 2-3 new entries a week. This is a good start.

Norristown IS a museum. We call ourselves an arts community, yet the one art we have in abundance--architecture--we take for granted. It could be our main selling point. We ought to be bragging about it on our town website and in promotional videos. The more we promote historic buildings, the less likely that their owners will destroy them.

Friday, February 21, 2014

From Theater to County Commissioners

The good news is Norristown.org is back up. The bad news, you have to go looking for it--it no longer comes up on Google. Still, if you click on http://norristown.org/town-calendar, the calendar now comes up. You'll find a more complete listing of what's going on, though, at http://www.montcooic.org/calendar.html

Not as much as usual seems to be scheduled in Norristown this weekend. Maybe the weather made everyone give up until spring. But there are a few activities throughout the next week to look forward to, and this will be a gorgeous and WARM weekend, so get out and enjoy. Here are a few suggestions for the coming week:

Starting tonight, 4:30 until 6:30 pm, Jus' Java will host a "Friday After Work" Happy Hour. Live music, discounted food and drink special. Celebrate the melting of all this snow.

Tonight's also opening night for CIRCLE MIRROR TRANSFORMATION at Theatre Horizon. This weekend, tickets range from a low $20 to $22 (prices go up next Thursday). Curtain times are Friday and Saturday, 8 pm, and Sunday matinee at 2 pm. Go to http://www.theatrehorizon.org/shows/circlemirror.html for tickets or call the box office at 610-283-2230.

At 1 pm Saturday, also at Jus' Java, author Mark Man will be on hand to sign copies of his novel "Unbelievable."

Also Saturday from 1:30 to 3 pm, if you have a 4th or 5th grade daughter, bring her to ACPPA Community Art Center on Haws Avenue (in the back of Grace Lutheran Church) for their free Keeping It Klassy program. To find out more, go to  http://www.eventbrite.com/e/keeping-it-klassy-tickets-10069781989.

Monday is the last day for Little League Softball and Baseball registration for 4 to 18 year-olds. 6-8 pm at Eisenhower Middle School. More info at www.norristownlittleleague.com

Tuesday at 7 pm, a Zoning Board hearing is scheduled at Municipal Hall. No agenda yet, but possibly the cell tower proposals near Montgomery Hospital will be discussed. MEETING CONTINUED UNTIL MARCH 25th.

Wednesday, February 26th is Norristown Night at Theatre Horizon. Tickets are only $10 for Norristown residents. Show starts at 7:30 pm. To reserve your ticket at the special price, you must call the box office at 610-283-2230.

Last night I was handed a flyer saying there would be a Black History Month Celebration at the Human Resources Center on Thursday from 9:30 am until 2 pm. I haven't been able to confirm it--the only thing that came up when I googled it was a school district website that denies access. The person who told me about it said it was hosted by the county. The theme is "Civil Rights in America" and the day will feature speakers and performers.
The flyer I have says "Poetry, Praise Dance, Community Awards, County and State Representatives, Culture and Information." (Really? They think people will take off work just to hear  politicians talk?)  On the bright side, the jazz band from Eisenhower will perform and I hear they're good. But someone tell me why this isn't happening on a weekend, the way Upper Merion does theirs, so residents can go?

If you want to ask that question in person, come to Municipal Hall Thursday night for "Conversations with Your Commissioners." Our 3 county commissioners will be on hand from 7 to 9 pm (they FINALLY scheduled a meeting after work hours!) to "delve into residents' concerns...including storm-water management, land use, and human services. Speak with the commissioners about what you would like to see happen with Norristown."  This is an important meeting for Norristown to voice concerns (like how we're tired of them dumping all their "infill" development on us when we don't have the infrastructure to handle it).  But if you can't get there, the meeting will also be available via Google Hangout.

Thursday, February 20, 2014

We Been Robbed


1 of 3 warehouse-like rows of 8 condos to be crammed onto 2/3 acre in June.   
Here's a parable: A Girl Scout comes to your door selling cookies for $4 a box. You LOVE Thin Mints, so much that you never read the ingredients because you don't want to hear they're bad for you. Even so, you can't help noticing that the boxes she has say, "Now with Toxic Waste!" You express your reservations about the toxic waste, but this Girl Scout promises you, if you want to place a special order, she can remove enough of the toxic waste that it won't kill you, for a mere $2 more a box. You love Thin Mints enough that you agree and order 4 boxes. She comes back later with the same Thin Mints, saying she couldn't remove the toxic waste after all. But she reminds you that you placed an order and agreed to pay $6 a box. Without a word, you fork over $24 for cookies that will kill you, when you could have gotten them originally for $16. Or wiser yet, just recognized a bad deal from the get-go and said "NO."

The point of the parable is that this is apparently what developer Sarah Peck did to Norristown. I'll pause here and admit that I didn't get to the Council meeting Tuesday, so I'm basing this on yesterday's article in the Times Herald and from talking to a friend who DID attend the meeting. I'd be thrilled to be told that any part of this story isn't true--that members of Norristown Council weren't totally scammed by developer Sarah Peck. I'll update this blog in an extra large font if it's not true.

Sarah knocked on our town's door in 2012 with an offer to build condos in town. Ooh, said Council and Planning, we LOVE condos. The catch? The condos would be packed in like sardines in a tin--24 on a 2/3 acre lot. The development would cause parking, trash, snow removal, and water runoff headaches, let alone the basic friction and bad hygiene you get when people live way too close together. It would totally stress the existing neighborhood. But Council was determined to have their condos. Sarah Peck said no problem--give her $150,000 and she could reduce the number of condos on the lot to 18. Instead of reminding her that revising her plans to meet zoning requirements is a normal part of doing business in any town, Council jumped at her offer. Well, she came back this month, with her 24-unit plan intact. Yet on Tuesday night, somehow, Council STILL GAVE HER EXTRA MONEY.

If this is true, we were scammed, pure and simple. All except Linda Christian, who was wise enough to vote no. Please, someone, tell me we didn't pay extra for bad development that we needn't have spent money on at all.

I attended the Council meetings last fall on this issue. The Planning Department said they'd only recommend the plan if the number of units could be reduced, but nearly all of last year's Council members (besides Linda) were falling over themselves to do Sarah Peck's bidding. If we still had that Council, I wouldn't have been surprised at them acting like fools and getting scammed. But we've got 3 new Council members. Derrick, Olivia, Sonya--what were you thinking?

Construction begins in June.

Wednesday, February 19, 2014

A Lesson from Scheidt Beer

When we talk about historic preservation in Norristown, we usually focus on what we've lost: 4 of our 5 movie theaters, City Hall, both Ys, the Valley Forge Hotel, First Baptist Church, the Wonder Bread building, etc. The Norris Theater in particular has become a rallying cry, as well it should be, since the loss of it to a McDonalds--and the consequent purchase of the Norris's front facade by the foremost museum of Art Deco in the US--embodies the short-sightedness of our leaders in decades past.

Today, though, I want to remind everyone about our historic preservation victories, and the pride they still bring to Norristown. No one can deny that the Centre Theater is now a beautiful building. Back in the 1980s, it wasn't. The brickwork was dark and sooty, the masonry and stucco were dingy gray. The decorative wood trim was rotting. The mansard roof AND the dormer windows were all tar-papered over. And at street level, well, it wasn't a building you'd ever want to enter. The place was a poster child for blight. But thanks to the Doyles and all the other groups who got involved, it was brought back from the dead.

The Masonic Building on West Main (now Gaudenzia headquarters) was also dingy and broken down. Now it's stunning with its white stucco and red trim. The Cigar Factory, despite its management problems over the years, was an amazing transformation from what was there. The brickwork was so dark, it almost looked black. Its restoration, in a spot so obvious to people coming into town on Markley, was a huge improvement to Norristown's look, and at the time, to our attitude about our look. Other successes include the old grist mill on Marshall and the rolling mills building on East Main. I had the pleasure of seeing the inside of that building last month and it's simply amazing. You can see all the mill's inner workings, wonderfully restored, yet the space is now a classy-looking office building.

But the most ambitious and amazing restoration in town is one few of us remember, simply because, unless you have state taxes problems, you probably have had no reason see the result of the restoration, let alone go inside. I'm talking about the old Adam Scheidt Brewery, now known as the Stony Creek Office Center

The project restored six buildings in all. Since they're not on a street, but along Stony Creek between Marshall and Elm, you can't see all the buildings. As you're driving up Marshall, you can see the first structure, with its rounded corner entrance and cone-like cupola (photo above). This was one of the original buildings, dating from 1866. Other original buildings in the complex are a 3-story octoganal tower which served as the brewery's lab, and triangle-shaped admin offices. The PA Revenue offices are now in the 8-story Art Deco style office building, built in the 1920s, with its spectacular 3-story cylinder of glass bricks. That's the one you can see when you're stuck in traffic on Markley.

The complex had been abandoned in 1974, and restoration wasn't begun until 1984, so it had been vacant for a decade. Salvagers and vandals had knocked large holes in some of the walls to remove the copper vats. Many of the glass bricks were broken, and as the president of the rehab company said, "Every pigeon in Norristown was living in those buildings." Repurposing wasn't easy--removing the grain bins left huge holes in the floors. And in the middle of the project, President Reagan eliminated tax credits for the historic preservation.

But Windon Capital and the contractor, Driscoll, refused to give up. They not only finished the restoration, but the project was highly regarded by everyone in the industry and was written up in trade journals. Historic Preservation Magazine did a big feature article on it in 1987.

I've been to the tax offices--the inside of the structure is as well done as the outside, especially the staircase behind those glass bricks. If you get a chance, take a drive though the complex for a look at the buildings (enter off of Marshall, right across from the old mill).

Now, remember, the Scheidt Brewery had been vacant for 10 years and had huge holes in its walls. Montgomery Hospital has only been empty a little over a year, the 1930s structure is intact, and is 2 stories shorter than the tallest building of the Stony Creek complex. Changing a brewery to office space is much more difficult than making apartments out of hospital office, testing and therapy space (the patient rooms were in a newer wing).

Montgomery Hospital CAN be restored, and fairly easily compared to our past rehab projects. We shouldn't let Einstein and Elon lie to us that the building can't be saved. From our past experience in this town, we know better.

Tuesday, February 18, 2014

Norristown.org is AWOL

Norristown.org went down this weekend, with not even a message saying "We're undergoing maintenance." Yesterday I got the kind of screen you get when someone forgets to pay the website or domain bill (I don't KNOW that that's what happened, but that's the kind of screen I got). Today there are dire warnings that say "Access Denied." Maybe we've been hacked (but I can't think who would want to). So either we haven't paid the bill, or some programmer tried to fix the calendar and screwed up the whole site instead (possibly we got him cheap after he was fired for having programmed Healthcare.gov last fall).

Last week, when I tried to find out the planning agenda because it wasn't on the website, I was told that even if the agenda isn't on the website that "these meetings are advertised in the local paper, posted throughout municipal hall."  The message I got from that is: That's what our government is required to do by law, so we taxpayers shouldn't ask for more.

Yet, even in good weather, I can't see all our citizens stopping by Municipal Hall to read meeting notices, especially since most of our citizens are at their own jobs the hours that Municipal Hall is open. I can't even get my car up my alley with all the ice (despite the fact that my alley is marked as a "Fire Lane"), let alone drive down to 235 E Airy ever day to check out the notices. This may explain why most of the people you see at meetings are those who work in Muni.Hall.

The Times Herald never puts meeting notices on their website, and rarely says anything about meeting agendas. I remember a time when practically every house in town got the paper delivered to them every day. That was when the law made sense. Now, if I see a paper on the sidewalk in front of a house on my block, it's usually the Inquirer. I stopped delivery of all newspapers after my parents died because the papers never made it onto my front porch, no matter how often I called. When we had winters like this, I'd fish the copies out from under bushes after the spring thaw. I do still buy the Sunday Times Herald, though Norristown news seems more and more infrequent . This isn't to say no one reads the Times Herald--I personally know dozens of people who do, but like me, they read it mainly online.

No one at Municipal Hall seems to think that making the agendas public ahead of time is important. For me, the agenda determines whether I'm going to cancel everything else and go out on a cold night to get to a meeting. Our Planning staff seems to think only the people within 300 feet of a development proposal should care about the issue. For me, everything that goes on in Norristown is important--the development at 1202 Dekalb, say, can set a precedent for future overcrowded housing, and one of those projects may come to my block someday. The Montgomery Hospital site is so close to me that if that neighborhood goes downhill, mine could very well be next. And we'll all end up paying more in taxes to fix disasters like Logan Square. Even if residents can't get to meetings, the agendas gives them summaries of what's going on in town.

On that topic, it would be wonderful, assuming the website ever comes back up, if the minutes of meetings could once again be posted there.

If Norristown's going to prosper again, communication between residents, government, and existing and potential businesses is vital. We need a good, working website, with abundant, accessible information. Otherwise, it's like having a front door that won't open. Residents will give up knocking and leave town. Businesses will head for the next community down the road.

Council, officials, please, don't do the MINIMUM the law requires you to do in this regard. Do what's best for Norristown.

If I can get hold of an agenda for tonight's meeting, I'll post it later..

Monday, February 17, 2014

Council: Ask For Inspection of Montgomery Hospital

Aerial view of the hospital with historic part circled. 
Last week, I was contacted after my Diary post on Wednesday ("Too Much Arrogance...") by an independent contractor who volunteered his services to give Montgomery Hospital a FREE inspection, to determine its structural integrity and see if it really is as dangerous as Einstein keeps claiming. I passed the contractor's information on to the Preservation Society, and would be delighted to pass it on to Council as well.

I think, before the municipality issues a demolition permit, Council NEEDS to have the building inspected, for several reasons. ONE, as I've said before, the building is eligible for the National Register of Historical Places. This is something the Preservation Society has, in writing, from the Pennsylvania Historical Museum Commission. Eligibility affords the same protection that being fully registered does. When anyone knocks down a historic building, certified by PHMC, they can't get federal funding for development on that property. BUT, let me remind you, if the 1930s part of the hospital is renovated, the developer can get 20% federal funding for the project. Real money.

Which brings me to TWO, the developer, Elon/Altman, hasn't been granted funding for their project yet, and knocking down a historic building can put their federal and state funding in jeopardy. If Einstein has their way, they'll demolish the hospital regardless. If Elon can't get funding, they'll back out (remember Logan Square?). We'd be left with a vacant lot, AND the loss of another historic building. The thing is, if Elon reuses the historic part of the property (circled part of the photo above) and demolishes the other buildings, they still have plenty of room to build on Wood Street, or sell that empty lot to another developer. They'd get much more return on their investment (the ONE DOLLAR they paid to Einstein for the lot).

THREE, Norristown's Comprehensive plan specifically calls for the REUSE of certain key buildings in the borough, and this goal is given HIGH priority. Montgomery Hospital heads the list. In fact, the reuse of Montgomery Hospital is already zoned for senior housing, whereas new development on that property is not. Why WOULDN'T Norristown want to keep a certified historic building? Look at the pride we get from successful preservation projects such Rittenhouse, the Scheidt Brewery, the Masonic Hall on West Main, etc. We DON'T get civic pride from hurriedly-planned new development, much of which, in the last few years, has been poorly built (Sandy Hill) or not built at all (Logan Square).

FOUR, the demolition of a 6-story masonry building is MUCH more dangerous to the surrounding community than restoration. Asbestos removal has to be done either way.

FIVE, renovating Montgomery Hospital would create more construction jobs than the proposed demo plus throwing up 3 buildings in a hurry (assuming that project happens at all). Restoration ALWAYS creates more jobs. 

Given all these reasons, I think Council needs to answer to the taxpayers if they DON'T request an inspection of the historic structure before Einstein begins demolition next month. They need to explain why they want to get rid of a historic building, why they want to put the neighborhood in jeopardy from demolition, why they're going against the Comprehensive Plan, why they don't want extra jobs in town, and why they're willing to bet all this against Elon's proposed project before any funding has been approved.

Friday, February 14, 2014

Valentine's Dances, Music, and Birds

I think it goes without saying, but I'll say it anyway, that if you intend to go to any of these events this weekend, call ahead to make sure they haven't been cancelled because of the weather.

If you ARE stuck at home, you can join me in participating in scientific research. Each year Cornell University holds its Great Backyard Bird Count across America. If you are willing to set aside at least 15 minutes to look out your window this weekend, and you can can tell a sparrow from a starling (though if you click on the bird names, you can see photos to help you identify them), you can help record data for Norristown this weekend. Great activity for kids. Go to www.birdsource.org to get started.

Tonight from 6 to 9 pm, ACPPA (506 Haws Avenue in the rear of Grace Lutheran Church) is hosting a Valentine's Day Dance. Kids ages 5-10 are invited for an evening of dancing, karaoke, games, crafts, and treats. Only $6 per child ($5 for ACPPA members). Pre-registration a must, space is limited. Call 610-277-2270.

Older kids? No problem. From 7-10 pm, Generation Next Track Club is hosting a Valentine's Day Dance for 7th, 8th, and 9th graders at the Masonic Hall (427 E Basin St). Music by DJ Pooda. Tickets are $3.

Saturday evening, Christine Winchester and David C. Perry will present evening of original folk music in the peaceful setting of a private home in Norristown. Doors open at 7pm and show starts at 8pm. Free off-street parking. Refreshments. Weather dependent. RSVP by calling 610-239-8177 or email WinchPerry@aol.com. See links on their website for songs, videos and further description of their music http://winchesterperry.com/folkpop.html

Also Saturday from 8-10 pm, a Valentine's Dance will be held at the George Washington Carver Center, East Jacoby Street. $10 per person, BYOB. For information call 610-272-7480 or gwcarvercenter19401@gmail.com.

This next isn't in Norristown, but it's someplace I'll be on Monday--the President's Day celebration at Valley Forge Park, 10 am to 2 pm. This is FREE and a great place to bring your kids who are off from school and bored with the snow. Lots of activities and crafts, the chance to talk to and have your photo taken with General Washington (and wish him a Happy Birthday), and a free cupcake. I'll be in the Visitor Center from 11 am 'til 2 pm, singing 18th century songs with the Colonial Revelers.

Tuesday night, Council Meeting starting at 7:30 pm. I'll try to let you know the agenda next week, but the Town Calendar on the Norristown.org website seems to be malfunctioning. The home page entries are stuck on the 1st week of February.

In the meantime, stay safe on the roads and icy sidewalks. Happy Valentine's Day.

Thursday, February 13, 2014

Vacant Lots

The other day, my Diary entry dealt with making the town look greener, and I posted a photo showing a vacant lot, then the same lot after greening. One comment I got was that that particular lot was for sale to developers and therefore couldn't be touched by volunteer groups.

I admit, the reason I used that photo was because I had it handy and it was easy to Photoshop. There are other lots around, either abandoned or owned by the borough that we could start with. But the big problem is that the most obvious vacant lots--the ones right on Main Street that make our town look derelict--are privately owned and "for sale to developers." And the problem with that is that they've been "for sale to developers" for year after year after year. They've become permanent.

I've talked about these vacant lots on the Diary before. Many people think that the owners should be given time limits--one more year--and if they don't sell or develop these properties, the town should take them through eminent domain and sell them to a developer who'll actually build something there.

Today I'll propose something less drastic that should be an incentive to the owners. Our zoning states that if buidlings are leveled, the owner has to grass over the lot. This was even mentioned at the Town Hall about Montgomery Hospital last night--Einstein said they'll level the buildings and plant grass on the lot until Elon is ready to build (assuming they get their funding, which they might not get because they're trying to level a historic building. If they don't build, we could end up with another ugly vacant lot).

If this zoning regulation resulted in lush, green, well-manicured grass like you'd find on a pro-baseball field, this might not look bad, but we all know what we get instead. Either a gravel lot with a few wisps of grass fighting for survival, or wild-looking grass not mowed often enough. Litter blows into the lot or is dumped there, and it's never cleaned up.

What if, instead, our zoning laws for downtown and other commercial areas said that if the lot has no plan for development before Planning within a month of when the owner buys it or levels a building there, that the owner MUST landscape it into green space that can be used by the town. There must be a certain number of shrubs, plants and trees per acre, as well as a certain number of benches and walks (though the paths could be temporary material like mulch). The lots must be maintained as park space and kept clean, until a proposal for development is approved by Council. Or as an alternative, the owner must pay Norristown a monthly fee sufficient to cover the cost of landscaping and maintaining the property as a park until sold to a developer. If they default on the fee, then the land can be auctioned off to a developer.

Landscape the whole lot and add benches and a path.
This way, no eminent domain, yet we get a better looking lots that can actually be used by the community. The owners, not wanting to spend money to give the community free park space, would have the incentive to find a developer. The developers might give the Norristown a second look, because with good looking green space, we wouldn't look blighted. And if Norristown took on the maintenance of those spaces, we'd even get some jobs, all funded by the owners.

We could do the same for vacant houses in residential areas. Have a law saying the owner must improve the look of the house from the outside-- make it look lived in with new paint, roofing, window dressings, whatever --and landscape the yards. That's incentive to sell the property or fix it up and rent it out.

It all comes down, again, to taking the decisions on how the town looks OUT of the hands of outsiders--absentee owners who never intend to improve their properties, real estate agents only looking for an easy commission--people who've decided that Norristown doesn't deserve to be improved. The residents have to follow the town's codes, why not the outsiders?

Time to get tough on the people who are making this town look bad.

Wednesday, February 12, 2014

Too Much Arrogance In One Place

At the Town Hall Meeting last night in the 3rd District, Einstein and Elon/Altman used the same tactics employed by some of our most notorious members of Congress: fear and disempowerment.

The accomplished the latter by speaking as if their whole demolish-the-hospital/build-new-housing plan were already finalized, funded, approved by Zoning, Planning and Council, and loved and applauded by the community. They said they're going to start internal demolition of the historic building March 1st, BEFORE any of the approvals have even been sought, and long before Elon knows if it can get funding. In fact, Elon won't even know if they can get funding before the whole block's been completely leveled. Einstein said they tried and tried to find an economic solution that would allow them to leave the 1934 structure standing, but that it wasn't financially feasible. And yet, they and Elon are spending 4 million on demolition.

They SAID they wanted community input last night, but in reality, they didn't want to hear criticism. They didn't want to compromise. They wouldn't bend at all. They don't want ANYONE in Norristown to feel they have any power to fight against them. They were arrogant and treated residents like children. "Don't worry, little ones. Papa Einstein and Papa Elon knows what's best for you."

And to make sure they got their way, they used fear tactics. They had half the residents in that room last night believing that the hospital building could fall down at any second. They painted themselves as the good guys, removing an imminent danger from the community. But they presented no proof of structural problems.

On the positive side, the only person who got any applause last night was Doug Seiler, a restoration architect who has his business in Norristown. He had in hand documents from the state showing that Montgomery Hospital is considered a historic building and is a candidate for the National Register of Historic Places. He pointed out that because of this, Elon would be eligible for up to 20% in Federal funding if they restored the 1934 building instead of demolishing it. Doug believes the 1934 structure to be sound and able to be repurposed.

When Einstein and Elon said the building was too big to be economically feasible, Doug pointed out that the 1934 structure by itself was about 120,000 square feet and that their plans for new housing was about the same. The rest of the buildings and additions on the property (the ones that really may be a danger, like McShea Hall) could be removed.

Let's look at Elon's plan. They propose 2 L-shaped, 4-story, apartment buildings of 50 units each (almost all one bedroom), with entrances in the bend of each L. A 3rd building on the corner of Fornance and Powell would be a "Community Life Center" which would hold adult day care, shuttles that could take residents to shopping centers, and "other amentities" that were never defined. The Life Center would have a parking lot for 32 cars, plus there'd be another lot for 19 cars where the McShea lot is now. Other parking would be available in the parking garage. Elon said seniors tended not to drive anyway. (My dad drove until he was 80 years old, then still refused to sell his car.)

Elon says these apartments are being built with seniors in mind, but really, they reminded me more of the dorm where I lived in college. Imagine being a single woman in her 70s, having to come home on a rainy night, parking in a lonely garage, taking the elevator down to street level (they're demolishing the bridge), crossing Powell in the middle of the block in the dark, then having to walk another half block just to get in the entrance of her apartment building. (Really Elon? You couldn't put entrances right off the sidewalk on Powell?)  Then after taking an elevator to her floor, perhaps having to walk the equivalent of another half block if her apartment is at the end of the hall. There are back entrances to the buildings, but no place a friend or relative could pick up a resident without blocking the drive or having the senior walk to the car under a roof like they can at Rittenhouse.

One woman in the audience last night asked why the community center wasn't between the two apartment buildings, where the residents could have easy access to it. The answer was, essentially, "We know what we're doing and you don't."

Elon said they designed "independent living" housing for seniors so they can stay in their homes longer (meaning, I suppose, in one of Elon's apartments instead of going into a nursing facility). They said that 62 year-olds are pretty active, so their design was good. They seemed to have no idea that 62 year-olds eventually age into their 70s and beyond and will use canes and walkers. They had no notion that nearly all 62 year-olds these days drive cars, yet many, woman especially, feel vulnerable enough because of their age that they don't want to walk long distances in the dark. They had no notion that many seniors won't leave a beloved home to move to an apartment unless they're having physical problems.

Moreover, Elon says they're building in phases, putting up an apartment building at Powell and Wood first (assuming they can get funding). There won't be a Life Center with a shuttle or "amenities" for those residents. If residents don't drive, the only retail nearby is LeCons Pharmacy. No sandwich shops, no groceries, nothing. This isn't independent living. Depending on funding, they may build the 2nd apartment building next, then the Life Center. Or if the first is a bust, the others may never be built at all. For that matter, they may not get funding for the first. It'll be Logan Square all over again, minus a historic building we could have saved.

But I suspect fear and disempowerment will win out, as they usually do. Residents will be too scared of an empty building, and feel too helpless to do urge their lawmakers to find a better solution. I only ask Council to, please, do what you can to stop Einstein/Elon from demolishing the 1934 structure until Elon's funding is assured.

I can tell you for sure, I won't be trusting Elon/Altman Group as landlords when and if I ever need a senior apartment. And if I ever pass out in your presence and you feel the need to call me an ambulance, tell them to take me to Mercy instead of Einstein.

Tuesday, February 11, 2014

Two Meetings: Two Bad Development Deals

Two meetings tonight, both dealing with bad development decisions for Norristown. So go stock up on storm supplies early or let that wait until tomorrow. Pick a meeting and go to it. It's important.

At 6 pm, in the Community Room of the Human Resources Building at Dekalb and Fornance, Linda Christian is holding a 3rd District Town Hall Meeting where representatives from Einstein will present their plan to demolish Montgomery Hospital, despite the fact that the building is a candidate for the National Register of Historic Places. Bad enough Einstein left us without a major medical facility in Norristown, and took a lot of doctor's offices with them, limiting many residents physical access to healthcare. Bad enough they took a load of jobs and businesses out of our community. Now they want to demolish the hospital building, too, which is an architectural asset to the town.

The demolition will cause other headaches as well, like the proposals of Cingular and T-Mobile to place cell towers at the corner of Fornance and Powell, and on the roof of the parking garage.  Not to mention the mess in the neighborhood during demolition. The demolition seems to be planned to occur before the new development of senior housing has even been proposed before Planning, so if for some reason Altman Group doesn't get funding or backs out for any other reason (how many times has THAT happened in town?), we'll end up with another huge vacant lot.

So you can come protest the demolition of the hospital. Or if you'd prefer, go to the Planning meeting at 7 pm at Municipal Hall. Remember the development at 1202 Dekalb? A proposed 24 units on a mere two-thirds of an acre? If you don't remember the season finale of this development's appearances before Planning and Council last October, you can refresh your memory by glancing over the Diary entry "Development, with Generous Donations from People Like You," from October 2, 2013.


In it, developer Sarah Peck told Council that she could reduce the density of her development to 18 units and change the driveway to make a better parking/traffic flow on Basin Street if she could only raise another $200,000. Council proposed giving her $150,000 of our tax money to her if she could raise the other $50,000.

Sensible people in town thought, instead of this elaborate extortion racket, that Peck ought to build one 6-unit building at a time, and sell those units first, to finance the rest of the construction. But sensible people are rarely listened to in Norristown where development is concerned.

Anyway, Sarh Peck comes up before Planning tonight with her Final Land Development plan for 1202 Dekalb. The agenda states that she's seeking "approval to construct three structures with eight dwellings in each for a total of 24 dwelling units."

So what happened to her plan to reduce density? Her website still shows the original plans with the original bad parking configuration. More importantly, what happened to our $150,000? Was she unable to raise the rest of it and therefore we get to keep our money? Or did she somehow finagle the funds out of Council, yet still intends to build the full, overcrowded mess?

I'd be interested to learn, but with 2 meetings only an hour apart, I doubt I'll make it to both.

Monday, February 10, 2014

Seeds

Vacant Lot on Main St. 
Still another snowstorm last night, more really cold temperatures today and tomorrow, and more snow and sleet expected later this week. So what am I doing? What all gardeners do this time of year. I'm closing my eyes, imagining warm weather and a yard with herbs, lettuce, beans, tomato and pepper plants, and of course, flowers, where right now there's only snow and ice. Mostly I'm thinking about seeds, because I'll need to start planting them indoors in the next few weeks.

This is a great time to start thinking about how green we want Norristown to be this coming season. We've got ugly vacant lots where we could plant low maintenance greenery, perennial flowers, bulbs. Until those lots are developed, there's no law that they have to look bad. Even a seed packet of wildflowers, strewn in certain spots, would improve the look of our town, and by doing so, the attitudes and outlook of our residents. What's better, the vacant lot above, or this version below?

Same vacant lot with greenery added

Here's a link to a video that explains how the South Bronx is using gardens to create "green graffiti" to change the look of their depressed landscape. If they can do it, so can we.

We have a lot of gardeners in town who'd be willing to help interested residents put little veggie gardens in their yards. Our food desert here has gotten better in recent years, with small groceries and farmer's markets springing up, but growing food in your back yard is a great way to keep your family healthy and teach your kids about food. Once your garden is established, it's also the cheapest way. Seeds don't cost much. And gardens makes our neighborhoods look better.

All you need is a sunny spot--you can start small, say 4x4 feet--some soil amenities like peat moss and compost (because we've got hard clay soil here that has to be loosened up before anything will grow), and someone who can wield a shovel (maybe our volunteer groups and church groups could help). If there are animals in your household or neighborhood, you might need fencing, but it doesn't have to be expensive.

I'd be willing to plant extra seeds indoors and share plants and plant cuttings with anyone who wants to start a garden. I'll come help you plant. I'm guessing some of the other gardeners I know would do the same.

So there are your seeds of thought for today. Forget the snow and ice for a while. Now's the time to start planning a green Norristown for the coming year.


Friday, February 7, 2014

Hopefully this morning finds you all with electricity. I saw a completely dark block on Swede last night between Elm and Gotwals--street lights, stop light, everything out.  Please don't try to stay in cold homes without heat in this weather. I know we can't all afford hotels (assuming you can find an empty room), but neighbors, please help each other out, especially the elderly and kids. I saw a car stuck on the ice the other day, the driver using a shovel to try to free it. 2 of his neighbors--big healthy guys in 4-wheel drives--went by him without even stopping to ask if he needed help. All he needed was one person to push while he steered. Come on, Norristown, we're better than that.

Anyway, if anything, you can go to the many activities around town this weekend to warm up.

Tonight in the Norristown High School Gym at 7 pm, it's "White Out" Night for Unity at NAHS! All residents of the community are asked to attend the basketball game and wear a white shirt, to support our athletics program. They'd like tonight's game to be packed with current students, parents and teachers from schools throughout the district and, of course, alumni, showing that school spirit still exists in Norristown.

Also tonight at 7 pm at the Centre Theater, THE WIZ begins it's second weekend of performances. Tonight and tomorrow at 7 pm, Sunday at 2 pm. Tickets available at thecentretheater.ticketleap.com or call 610-279-1013.

Saturday morning at 8:30 am, "Munch With The Mammals" at Elmwood Park Zoo. Meet Nora, the most famous groundhog in Norristown, along with some of her furry friends. Guests will enjoy a light continental breakfast buffet among the company of animals from the zoo's education collection. After breakfast, guests will have an opportunity to meet the diet prep volunteer as she prepares breakfast for the animals. Other activities follow. Tickets are $18/adult and $9/child; $8/member adult and $4/member child. Reservations must be made in advance. Space is limited. Contact the Education department at 610-277-3825, ext 235 or 236.

On Sunday from 1 to 3 pm, also at the Zoo, you can celebrate the start of the 2014 Winter Olympics with Animal Olympics at the Zoo. Olympic-themed activities: Exercise seminar with Bubby the Bison, animal obstacle courses, "wild" challenges for kids.  For more information, contact Guest Services at 610-277-3825 ext 222.

Monday at 7 to 9 pm in Eisenhower auditorium will be a meeting to discuss the Norristown Area School District budget.

Also on Monday at 7 to 9 pm at the Centre Theater, Genesis Housing will hold a free "Understanding Credit" seminar. Obtain a free credit report from major credit bureaus with scores. Also, learn how to improve your credit score. Registration required at www.genesishousing.org or call 610-275-4357.

Tuesday, 10 am to 3 pm, AARP Tax-Aide/Preparation workshop, free to taxpayers with low and moderate income, with special attention to those 60 and older. For additional information, visit  www.mc-npl.org or call 610-278-5100, ext. 0.

Tuesday at 6 pm, Linda Christian is holding a 3rd District town hall meeting to discuss the future of Montgomery Hospital. A representative from Einstein-Montgomery will be present to answer questions and present plans. Meeting will take place in the community room of the Human Service Center at DeKalb and Fornance.

The Planning Commission is scheduled to meet Tuesday night at Municipal Hall at 7 pm. Norristown.org seems to be down this morning, so I can't confirm. I'll check for an agenda Monday.

The 2011 Black History Month Celebration 
Wednesday at 6 pm at Municipal Hall, the Norristown Black History Committee will present the 19th Annual Celebration of "Remembering Our Heritage" to celebrate Black History Month. Keynote Speaker, Dr.Irwin Wright, Professor, Bloomsburg University . For more info call Rev Helen M.C. Jones, 610-275-7943.

Thursday from 1:30 to 2:30 pm,  the Jazz Ensemble from Eisenhower School will present various instrumental and vocal musical selections in honor of Black History Month.

Thursday, February 6, 2014

Council Meeting Notes

Here's a summary of Tuesday night's Council Meeting, which lasted less than 30 minutes. That probably won't happen again all year.

They announced that due to this week's weather, the Black History Program scheduled for Municipal Hall was being postponed until next Wednesday, February 12th at 6 pm.

Linda Christian was absent due to illness. I wish she'd been there, because she usually asks for explanations on disbursements and none of the other councilpersons did. I would have liked to hear what the $53,451.73 was under "Community Development."

A HARB Certificate of Appropriateness for 1014 Dekalb St. was approved (this means our Historic Area Review Board looked at plans to develop the house in questions and decided they fit into the historic area guidelines). The house is pictured above, right next to Arbor Heights. The owner plans to convert the 4 existing apartments into 3 condos. Jayne Musonye, Director of Planning, recommended the approval, since the plan is in the spirit of the kind of redevelopment they want to encourage, in that it reduces the number of rental units and creates homeownership units, plus renovates an existing building. I applaud Jayne, Council, and the owner. This is how we ought to the rehabbing our old houses, eliminating deadbeat landlords and creating more homeownership.

Two items were added to the agenda at the last minute (not that it matters since the agenda wasn't posted for this meeting--though Council President Bill Caldwell assured everyone that the agenda would be posted the day before meetings from now on).

The first item was a motion to try to pursue partial recovery of loans given to the owner/developer of Logan Square, who defaulted. Montco and Norristown would pursue recovery together and split whatever can be recovered. This was passed.

The second was consideration of T-Mobile's request to place a 55-foot cell tower on the parking garage across from Montgomery Hospital. Like Cingular last week, T-Mobile was told to remove their antenna on the hospital building. Cingular, you might remember, wants to place an 84-foot cell tower right at the corner of Fornance and Powell. Council voted to oppose T-Mobile's request and I applaud them. Cell towers do not belong in residential neighborhoods. Council will ask that T-Mobile find an alternative site that's more appropriate.

Of course, the whole cell tower problem would go away if the hospital building isn't demolished. Come to the town hall meeting on the issue next Tuesday, February 11 at 6 pm in the Community Room of the Human Services Center at Dekalb and Fornance.

Wednesday, February 5, 2014

Montco's 2040 Plan: Overcrowd Norristown

Before I get to the main rant, Linda Christian is holding a 3rd District Town Hall on Tuesday, Feb 11 from 6 to 7 pm at the Human Resources Center (old Sacred Heart, Dekalb and Fornance). A representative of Einstein will be there to present their plans for the Montgomery Hospital site (ie, that they want to demolish the building). The Montgomery Hospital building has be determined to be eligible for the National Register, so we don't want to lose it. If you signed the petition, please come to the meeting and voice your opinion, and bring your neighbors so they can voice theirs. If you haven't signed, click on the photo of the hospital in the right column and please sign.

Speaking of outsiders trying to plan our future for us as if we were 5 year-olds, I went to the Montco Planning Commission "workshop" last night at Centre Theater. I was the ONLY Norristown resident who attended.

Before I tell you about the meeting, you should know that you can still register your opinion online by taking Montco's survey. They said they have 2400 surveys so far, and you can bet none are from Norristown, so please do it. You can read about the 2040 Plan here (not that it's all that informative) and take the survey here (if this link doesn't work, use the link on the Montco website).

The workshop was actually very short. They started late and it was still done within an hour. I got the impression everyone but me had heard it before and wanted to rush out of there to go home to dinner.

First there was an overview that was essentially an almost word-for-word quote from their website, that is: "Montgomery County is in the process of preparing a comprehensive plan for the entire county. This plan will provide an overall framework for local municipal plans and will provide guidance on issues that transcend local boundaries, such as highways, public transportation, flooding, trails, growth trends, redevelopment trends, shopping needs, impact of large developments, overall housing needs, natural systems, and economic growth."

It was stressed, however, that the county anticipated a growth of 94,000 more residents by the year 2040. They said they needed to plan where to put those people. They also said their solution to improving neighborhoods was sidewalks. In fact, "sidewalks" seems to be Montco's mantra. And though I believe sidewalks are a good thing, I can't see how they'll solve all the issues listed in the last paragraph.

After that, they were apparently supposed to do a "Money Allocation Scenario." I think this would have been good, so I could see where they normally spend funding and what the county priorities were. But then we were told, no, they were skipping this step. I don't know why. I know they did in in the other workshops around the county. Maybe they thought Norristonians unable to do math. And like I said, they were rushing through the presentation. Whatever, they SHOULD have included it and didn't.

After that, they held a "Land Use Discussion," which started with the difference between high and low density development. Low density is what you see in the suburbs--single houses on big lots. High, to the presenters last night, seemed to consist only of high-rise apartment buildings. We were told that high rise apartments would be ideal "infill development" for Norristown. This is basically where I said "no."

I pointed out that, unless Montco is going to come in and give us loads of money to solve parking, trash, water runoff and snow removal and other problems caused by people living too close together, that they shouldn't expect a poorer community like Norristown to solve their population problems, simply because the people in the richer communities don't want to give up their low density lifestyles. We don't want more apartments in Norristown, we want more homeowners.

They asked what I'd do with the vacant lots across and up the street (Dekalb and Main). I said this was the downtown and the Arts Hill district (from talking with attendees before the meeting, I found none who knew we HAD an Arts Hill district). Development should either be retail stores, restaurants, or arts venues, like galleries, theaters, etc. They could have apartments upstairs, but the buildings should blend in with the existing Victorian/Art Deco/1940s look of the downtown. They shouldn't be over 4 or 5 stories in that area. They shouldn't make canyons out of Main Street.

They pointed out that Conshohocken had highrises. I pointed out that Conshohocken also had flooding problems because of poorly planned development (not to mention that a lot of Conshy's highrises are still empty).

I also could have pointed out, if they hadn't been so busy rushing us out of there, that we just spent a lot of time redoing our zoning codes, with the guidance of the Montco Planning Commission, and those zoning codes specify where and how high apartment buildings can be in Norristown.

They said Norristonians should also be encouraged to attend an Open House at the Montco Planning Commission offices (Montgomery Plaze, suite 201), on Wednesday, Feb 12, from 3:30 to 6:30 pm. I said that we were a working community and that an evening open house would be better. No one cared.

I'm really getting tired of outsiders thinking they know what's best for Norristown. I'm tired of people like the Montco Planning Commission making a show of accessibility, then scheduling workshops like this for times when working people simply can't get there, then rushing through the presentation. That tells me they don't value us or our community at all.

So go online and fill out the survey. Let's fill up their inbox with our opinions.

Tuesday, February 4, 2014

Council Meeting Tonight? Your Guess Is As Good As Mine.

There's still no agenda posted for tonight's Council meeting, only 10 hours before zero hour (7:30 pm). I haven't heard that it's being cancelled.

My street doesn't look all that bad--a plow actually did go up and down my street several times yesterday. No salt truck, though. One pass with salt would have been worth 5 passes with the plow. Still, the main roads are like mine, they ought to be passable, especially with the sun on them all day. And the next batch of weather isn't due in until 2 am or so.

Tonight is also supposed to be the Montco Planning meeting at 5 pm at Centre Theater. Residents asked for this meeting, and it was already rescheduled once because of the weather, so I hope people can get to it tonight.

I'll now go out and see if I can find an agenda for the Council meeting. If so, I'll update this blog later.
~ ~ ~
3:30 pm : 4 hours before meeting time and still no agenda on Norristown.org nor a notice that the meeting has been cancelled in lieu of an agenda. My messages to the council president and my district rep today haven't been answered. A new low in bad communication.




Monday, February 3, 2014

Being Forced to Trade Down

Council hasn't listed their agenda for tomorrow night yet, and I don't want to waste a whole day waiting for them. Chances are no one will be in to work at Muni. Hall today because of the snow anyway. Plus they're calling for more snow tomorrow night, so maybe the meeting will be postponed again. At least the high temperatures are supposed to be above freezing today through Wednesday. If they get some salt down on the main roads during and between storms, we shouldn't have the impassable streets we had in January.

I told you all about the petition to stop the demolition of Montgomery Hospital last week and I'm happy to report that we already have 182 signatures. Thanks to those who signed. Please keep spreading the word. As soon as we get some decent weather, we'll also round up some volunteers to canvass the hospital neighborhood, to make sure the residents there know about it. If you haven't signed, click on the photo of the hospital on the right of this column.

But Montgomery isn't our only endangered building. On the other side of town, at Stanbridge and Airy, is Central Presbyterian Church. Central Pres, as it's been called my whole lifetime, was built in 1906 as a missionary extention of First Presbyterian at Airy and Dekalb. The exterior walls of Central Pres are Valley Forge marble. The sanctuary is Gothic, with windows by Philadelphia artist Nicholas D'Ascenzo, who also did the windows in Valley Forge Chapel, West Point Chapel, the National Cathedral, and historic Riverside Church in New York City.

But the congregation slowly died off the last few years, and now Central Pres and its large lot are up for sale. It's listed for $490,000 on Loop-Net.

Recently, members of Norristown Nudge  talked to the realtor for the property. The realtor was thinking of putting a Family Dollar store there. if you're like me, your stomach sinks at the thought of this. Why is this a bad idea?

1)  Family Dollar is headquartered in North Carolina. Profits not only leave our town, but leave our state. Corporate stores like this are an economic drain on our town. Most jobs in their stores don't pay a living wage, and there have also been reports of underhiring, where managers are expected to complete the extra work without overtime compensation.

2)  Norristown already has 2 Family Dollar stores, plus 6 other dollar stores in the surrounding area. We absolutely do NOT need another. The ones we have don't give anything back to the community.

3)  We'd once again be forced to "settle" for a trade-down. We gave up the Norris Theater for what? A McDonald's that never helped our town. We swapped a YWCA in a great building for a CVS that also does nothing for our local economy or town image. In fact, it's hurting our image because you only see that store in the news when there's a robbery.

Time and time again we allow realtors looking for an easy sale to dictate what our town will become. Do they look to put Family Dollar stores in King of Prussia or the Main Line? No, only in depressed places like  Norristown, Pottstown, Coatesville and Reading. In doing so, they contribute to the depression. They have a negative opinion of us--they have a detrimental vision in their minds of what should and shouldn't go into our town--and they're the ones determining what Norristown will look like future. If it were up to them, we'd demolish all our buildings to put up Family Dollars, Walmarts, fast food, convenience stores, etc. We'd have no local economy left--no decent jobs, no way to entice outsiders to come spend money in our community.

What's needed are realtors, perhaps guided by Council and our administration, who'll look at vacant buildings as opportunities to trade UP for the good of our town.

I've been in Central Pres's fellowship hall, and it would be a great venue for wedding receptions, reunions, funeral luncheons, and anniversaries--something we don't have much of in Norristown. Most people go outside town for those functions, and we often have several weddings per Saturday in the nice months. We could keep that commerce in town. Here we have an ideal building for the purpose, along with parking for 50 cars. Caterers could be brought in from outside, at least until the kitchen could be re-done. The sanctuary, too, could be repurposed for that kind of business, or could be used as a concert/theater venue. It could be rented to a congregation for weekly services--we have a few congregations who need this, but can't afford the upkeep of the whole building. Possibly the Sunday school rooms and offices could be let out as office space, or for a school of some sort. Nothing says the building has to have one purpose.

I'm sure some of you could come up with better ideas for Central Pres besides a Family Dollar. Any entrepreneurs out there willing to give Central Pres a second life? Let's save the art and architecture.

Saturday, February 1, 2014

Stuff I Forgot

I forgot to include 2 events yesterday that aren't on the Community Calendar, plus there's been an update.

The New Vision Gospel Choir of Philadelphia will perform at the 4 pm mass this afternoon at St. Patrick's Church (Dekalb and Chestnut). Free dinner afterwards in the church basement. New Vision also gives scholarships annually to aspiring artists in the performing arts. Check out www.TonyaDorseyAndNewVision.org for info.

Jus' Java's event today has been cancelled.

Starting Monday, February 3rd at 6 pm at St. Patrick's, free classes will be offered for anyone who wants to learn Spanish (you only have to pay for the textbook--about $10). Father Gus Puleo taught high school and college Spanish before becoming a priest. This course could come in handy for Norristown businesses who have or want to attract Latino customers. I'm thinking of trying it myself. The classes will be in the school building. Enter from the parking lot on Green Street behind the church. The course runs, I think, 6 or 8 weeks.