Monday, March 24, 2014

Our Latest, Greatest Slumlord

As promised, here's the report on last week's Town Hall with Einstein and Elon. First, I want to say how proud I was of the Norristown residents who came to the meeting. The thirty or so in attendance had varying opinions as to the fate of the hospital buildings, but their questions and comments were well thought out and intelligent. The meeting was exactly what Town Hall SHOULD be -- democracy in action. I wish more meetings in town could be like this, but usually the citizens don't have the information ahead of time to do their homework. In this case, those who attended the first meeting had a month to think about what was said, and it's clear the neighbors from the surrounding block had some discussions as well.

I have to thank Linda Christian, too, for allowing the many opinions to be heard. She began by recognizing a resident from Locust St, across from the back of the hospital. He was in favor of demolition, yet read a long list of hazards that leveling the place could bring, from noise to the effects of masonry dust on lungs, cars and roof paint, to the runoff of dust and debris during storms into the sewers and into Stony Creek. What he wanted as compensation was an exemption from taxes for nearby residents during the months of demolition.

Next Doug Seiler presented a summary of the Norristown Preservation Society's paper that I published on the Diary last Thursday. He showed a plan of the hospital, and photos from other hospital-to-apartment conversions to how the feasibility of renovation, especially if the non-historic building (the Horsey Pavilion) was demolished. He pointed out that renovation could actually be cheaper, given the federal tax credits for historic preservation, and that it could be done in such a way to extend the development plan by only about 6 months. He explained how demolishing a documented historic site causes a denial of federal and possibly state funding for development on that site. He also gave his opinion as an architect that, after examining the buildings from the outside, he saw no cracks or structural defects that supported Einstein's claim at the last meeting that the building was in bad shape and "couldn't be saved." And he pointed out that we should get a say in the demolition and development because our public taxpayer money will be used.

Matt Edmonds in the head of Norristown's Planning Commission. He couldn't be there, but his wife read a letter from him (they live on Locust, a couple blocks from Montgomery). He explained that the process for new development, from Zoning through Planning to Council's approval, would take a year to 18 months, and that Einstein/Elon hadn't yet begun that process. Yet Einstein wanted to begin demolition soon, meaning the building could be leveled long before Elon's plan, or their funding, was approved. Matt advised that demolition NOT begin until Elon had funding, at least, or we could end up with a vacant lot. Though he also said he thought the building should come down because it looked old and dingy.

I got my turn next. I told of my personal history with the hospital, having lived a few blocks away from it for more than 50 years. I told about reading the documentation from the National Park Service and PA Historic & Museum Commission about the site's historic certification and eligibility for the National Register. I also pointed out that if we routinely demolished every building in Norristown that was old and dingy-looking, the Cigar Factory and Scheidt Brewery buildings would never have been renovated. That's what power-washers are for. I said I couldn't understand why Einstein would spend 5 million to demolish the site, after selling the property to Elon for only one dollar, when they could both save money by using the existing structures.

A few other opinions were expressed, in favor of renovation. I got the impression that the majority of those present were in favor, for various reasons: the history of the building, the dangers of demolition, the fact that Norristown's Comprehensive Plan called for renovation of our older architecture, the fact that masonry structures seem safer than 4-story wooden apartment buildings.

Einstein took the floor. They were represented by John Finger, Chief Administrative Officer and Rich Montalbano, VP/Project Executive (who was also at the last meeting). Mr. Finger began by agreeing with my statement that renovation would be cheaper, saying he wishes he COULD renovate, but that the inside of the building was in bad shape. Mr. Montalbano said that they'd placed clear window guards over the 1st and 2nd floor windows, but that someone had broken windows higher than that, causing the cold air to freeze pipes so that they burst and the water shorted out electrical wires. Because of this, they said Einstein had to turn off the water, so that they currently had no sprinkler system, but that they were working with the Fire Chief and HE was telling them what they had to do to remedy the problem.

If Mr. Finger thought this would gain them sympathy, he forgot that he was standing before a roomful of homeowners. They were appalled to hear that Einstein hadn't been taking care of the property, to the point where it created a hazard to the surrounding neighborhood. They remembered Mr. Montalbano saying before that Einstein "wasn't going to spend a penny on a building that's coming down." Several residents mentioned that if any of us did that, the codes department would throw the book at us. They said that Einstein had no business buying a property that it had no intention of maintaining. They insisted that the problems be fixed and the sprinkler system be turned back on.

At some point, while trying to reassure the audience, Mr. Finger said that Einstein had "full-time security" at the site. That raised more questions in my mind. Didn't the guards do rounds of the buildings, looking for security breaches like broken windows? If they did, you think they'd have reported the problem long before the pipes froze. And if there IS full-time security, why aren't they shooing away the skateboarders, who Einstein blames for the cosmetic wall that toppled? The graffiti on the McShea building took more than a few minutes to create--where were the security guards then? What exactly does Einstein mean by "full-time security?" Because they apparently aren't keeping the site very secure.

To top it off, Francis Vargas of Elon held up his drawing of the first building his company intends to put up. It was the same tired drawing he showed us last time, with all the same flaws that would cause nightmares for senior citizens. In the month since the last meeting, no one at Elon took to heart what we'd said and made changes to improve the plan. Audience members who hadn't been at the February meeting immediately saw the flaws and asked, "Why not have a door closer to the street so no one has to walk in the rain? Why isn't there a pickup and dropoff area?" etc. Elon, like Einstein, was obviously not about to spend an extra penny to give Norristown something decent.

Mr. Finger promised to "take a second look at" the idea of renovating the historic building (though he kept ending sentences like that with "but....") One resident wisely asked what "taking a second look" meant exactly. Mr. Finger said he'd meet with Mr. Montalbano and Elon (they were to meet last Friday morning), but he ended that sentence with "but..." as well. In other words, the 2nd look wouldn't be serious.

When Judge Nicholas raised a question, Mr. Finger (exasperated that he couldn't manipulate the audience by this time) said he'd sell anyone the property for a dollar if they thought they could do better than Einstein. Are any developers out there willing to re-use the hospital buildings, assuming Einstein would give you the same deal as Elon (including the removal of asbestos and other materials, and the demolition of the Horsey Pavilion)? I think I can say that the people of Norristown will work with any developer willing to work for us, for the betterment of our community.

What we don't like is having another absentee landlord in town, who doesn't maintain their property, and a developer using taxpayer money to give something we don't want.

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