Hatboro Dish, Hatboro, Pennsylvania

Who will steward the Jenkintown2035 plan into reality?

Making the case to hire a Main Street manager for Jenkintown

Central to the discussion of Jenkintown’s revival is the Jenkintown2035 plan. Two years ago, through the input of Jenkintown residents, we drafted our vision for the town’s future. You can read all about it on the Borough’s website.

As plans go, it is pretty comprehensive, and it does have plenty of fine ideas. Its contents lay out a fairly predictable but solid vision for an older, inner-ring suburb such as Jenkintown: An emphasis on “walkability”, architectural preservation, good connections to transit, etc.

However, we’ve heard repeatedly that the number one concern of residents is the revival of the commercial district. In the section covering economic development which includes the commercial district, the plan lays out these three guiding principles:

Continue to support the growth of Jenkintown’s Town Center district as a destination for arts, entertainment, dining, and music while maintaining its distinctive identity and sense of place.

Build upon the established scale and historic character of Jenkintown’s commercial areas while improving the downtown experience by enhancing the public realm, creating a pleasant strolling environment, and establishing a cohesive identity for the Borough’s commercial areas.

Encourage new development that grows the Borough’s business and property tax base and creates new and diverse employment opportunities within the Borough.

Not meaning to beat a dead chihuahua, but how does a Taco Bell advance any of those three principles? How does a million-dollar pocket park?

How Hatboro manages

We have frequently cited Hatboro as an example to follow. It has not only kept its on-street parking, it today finds itself in the midst of a real revival. It has many things in common with Jenkintown. It has transit, a traditional downtown district, walkable neighborhoods, and ready access to transit.

Hatboro also has a plan for its future development, but unlike Jenkintown, it hired a steward for that plan in 2011 — a professional consultant named Stephen Barth of Barth Consulting Group. Since Mr. Barth became Hatboro’s Main Street Manager in 2011, he has overseen the rehabilitation of its downtown as well as more than $45 million in residential and commercial development throughout the borough.

Hatboro’s council and manager delegated that authority to Barth, and the results speak for themselves. As Barth describes it, he serves as the point man for any new project in Hatboro. He takes the plan, and as he describes it, works backward from the outline, always asking the question, how does that help us achieve our goals, and if it doesn’t how can we steer it in that direction?

We sat down for lunch with Barth at Bernie’s in the heart of Hatboro to chat about his role in the budding revival. This Bernie’s he pointed out, represents a true $2 million investment in the town’s commercial district. It has preserved the streetscape, and gives both residents and visitors yet another contemporary dining option.

Bernie’s also features outdoor seating, something that Fontana’s Restaurant, its predecessor, did not have. Though still open when he became the Main Street manager, Barth stepped into the very tired space and found it completely empty at lunchtime on a beautiful day. So, he proposed to the owner to conduct a little experiment.

“I said if he would let me set up tables on the sidewalk, I would buy lunch for anyone who sat there.”

Then as now Hatboro had no ordinance prohibiting sidewalk cafes as long as it didn’t block pedestrian traffic.

“Just my putting tables outside started to attract attention, drawing people into the restaurant.”

The experiment proved a rousing success, although one that took more than a few dollars out of Barth’s wallet. “I didn’t consider that people would start ordering the most expensive items on the menu,” he smiled, “or bottles of wine!”

Nevertheless, he proved his point. At a certain point, foot traffic attracts more foot traffic — something that a traditional downtown like ours is designed to accommodate.

Cloudy with a chance of 8 balls

Borough Council member Kieran Farrell reminds residents at every opportunity to read and comment on the Jenkintown2035 plan. While laudable, Council’s recent actions show the futility of further public involvement.

We strongly recommend that if the Borough truly believes in this plan that we helped to draft, then it must allocate funds for a trained professional to turn it into reality. No one in Borough Hall currently has the qualifications for that role, least of all our current Borough Manager who spent most of his time during the “Conversation” in the corner of the cafeteria.

Do we seriously believe that current Council leadership will delegate that authority? Let’s ask the Magic 8 Ball.

Uh oh.

Jenkintown's assessed value

Council Meeting Roundup: A real debate, smokescreens, and warm turds

A packed house witnessed Jenkintown Borough Council engage in some actual debate and three presentations for developments that promise to have real impact in the community.

Here’s a quick roundup of the lengthy but lively meeting.

Proposed Taco Bell Development

Handed the chance to redeem themselves for gutlessly supporting a project that abrogates their own zoning and degrades our town, Borough Council treats it like a warm turd.

Council member Michael Golden proposed that the Borough ask Summerwood Corporation to voluntarily pay a 50% surcharge over their legal tax obligation in support of the school system. In my time covering these issues, I couldn’t think of a single instance anywhere where such a solution was ever proposed much less implemented. Golden didn’t provide any examples to show precedence either, and Solicitor Kilkenny also thought little of the idea.

In response, Golden back-pedaled and amended his motion to instead withdraw its support of the project. Mind you, Council’s vote has no real affect over the project moving forward. That lies in the hands of the Zoning Board.

However, it did provide Council a golden opportunity to express its contrition for callously dismissing not only its own zoning code, but public sentiment as well.

In the discussion, Council Vice President and Social Media Bully Rick Bunker again spouted his sky-will-fall sentiments by calling this insult to our community a “bird-in-hand” situation. One has to wonder why a person with such eagerly expressed erudition and above-average intelligence would back such an obviously terrible idea. Either he’s not so smart after all, or he’s putting his own personal interest over that of the community he represents.

The motion to withdraw support was tabled 11-1 with Golden standing alone.

Jenkintown School District Budget Presentation

Between the Jenkintown School District and, say, the Trump Administration, I’m not sure which governmental entity lays down a better smoke screen for its acolytes. The JSD claims it is in the red — at least $600,000 this year. It then showed us some very clear charts to illustrate the state of its finances over the course of the past ten years.

You might not be aware that that as it raised your property taxes over the past ten years, the JSD enjoyed some healthy surpluses — more than $2 million at one point. In fact, the JSD has run a surplus every year since 2008. In 2003, we paid a total tax bill of about $3,000 per year. Last year it was over $7,000. One can be forgiven if they think that the JSD took food off your table and kicked a few families out of their homes just so they could sock cash in their piggy bank.

The JSD blames their predicament on falling property assessments, in decline every year but one since 2008. Did it ever occur to the JSD that the more they raise our taxes, the less salable our homes become? Yes, people move here for the school district, which raises our taxes, which suppress our property values, which compels the JSD to raise our taxes again. Wash, rinse, repeat.

What’s the solution? According to Council, Ms. Takacs, and those that regard the arguably overrated school district as untouchable, we should write our state reps. Steve McCarter, our rep, typically looks for solutions for this broken system by nibbling around the edges, tinkering with formulas, and raising taxes — all of which have proven ineffective.

The real solution calls for eliminating the school tax altogether and supporting Property Tax Independent Act. Education benefits the entire commonwealth. More members of this commonwealth should contribute — not just property owners. The current system is broken.

Assurances that the teachers pension system obligations will plateau soon — always “soon” — has not, and will likely never, come to pass. The whole pension system resembles a Ponzi scheme anyway. It’s time teachers contribute into a 401K program like the rest of the work force. I want good teachers paid well, but after they no longer work for us, their retirement becomes their responsibility.

Abington Friends School Development

The Abington Friends School plans to build a brand new, state-of-the-art athletic facility and outdoor track with lighting. Because this all lies within Abington, Jenkintown has no real standing, but because of its proximity to our border, an inter-governmental courtesy is exercised, giving our Council the opportunity to comment. A few residents expressed a concern about the lighting of the field, but it looks like construction crews will be moving in very soon.

New Apartments at 610 Summit

Roizman Development wants to tear down Salem Baptist and build 74 mostly one-bedroom apartments for the elderly. The new building, while conventionally handsome, sure does seem to loom over that location. It stands at four stories tall, and its occupants will have a commanding view of the back yards of their Cedar Street neighbors.

York Road and Noble Station Bridge

We will soon get to test drive a road diet for York Road, though not in the heart of our town. According to Council President Deborra Sines-Pancoe, PennDOT plans to begin the reconstruction of the bridge at Noble Station. The project will pinch the road down to two lanes in both directions, with lengthy merge lanes on both sides.

Remember that it took PennDOT two years to replace the bridge at the train station, so we’re going to get a good taste of what we believe should happen anyway.

Sign the Petition: Put Parking back on Old York Road in Jenkintown

Route 611/ Old York Road traffic is making it impossible to revitalize Jenkintown’s commercial district. It’s four lanes of traffic make what is the heart of our town hostile to pedestrian traffic. Thanks to the fact that parking is not allows on the street, there exists no buffer between the traffic — which is both voluminous and typically in violation of posted speed limits — and pedestrians. Unfortunately, this road is owned and controlled by PennDOT, which has expressed little interest in the needs of Jenkintown or its survival.

Restoring on-street parking accomplishes two things: It provides the buffer pedestrians need to feel safe while on the sidewalk, and it provides much needed parking for local businesses. It would also help to restore the traditional small-town charm of the community, bolster property values, and make Jenkintown a retail magnet once again.

To help this happen, and because Jenkintown’s Borough Council has failed to make this issue its number one priority, we have set up a petition on Change.org to be sent to Governor Tom Wolf. If PennDOT refuses to listen to us, maybe it will listen to its boss.

Please sign the petition!

Especially if you live in the Jenkintown area and would like to see the traditional charm restored to this borough.

Make Jenkintown a Pedestrian-First community!

The latest tempest to thunder into our fair borough comes on the back of a chihuahua, that despite our laws against it, sports a drive-through window.

Taco Bell tolls for Jenkintown’s fiscal mismanagement

Is Council about to sell us out to cover for an impending financial crisis?

We seem to have a Borough Council that relishes controversy — or is perhaps clueless about how they cause it. The latest tempest to thunder into our fair borough comes on the back of a chihuahua, that despite our laws against it, sports a drive-through window.

My experience has taken me down dozens and dozens of main streets across this country. I’ve sat down and spoken with many from those communities and discussed the challenges that they’ve faced. Towns go into decline and stay there because of gutless or ignorant leadership eager to make any deal, no matter how Faustian.

When I lived in Worcester, Massachusetts, the city had just completed a magnificent $60 million restoration of its Union Station. Eager to spark more development around it, the city almost offered up a lot across the square to Days Inn for one dollar! This signaled to the business community and to the community at large how little City Hall actually valued the city it governed.

Jenkintown today finds itself at a similar crossroads. Old York Road, which traditionally served as our borough’s commercial heart and soul, has become blighted thanks both to PennDOT’s intransigence and the Borough’s inability to challenge it.

We’ve run out of band-aids.

I’ve lived here now for 15 years, and I’ve long heard all the heartfelt and colorful stories about how vibrant Jenkintown used to be. Like many traditional towns that could not adapt to the automobile age, it lost its way. It has since applied many band-aid fixes with mixed results at best.

People like to point to our Town Square and all the new restaurants, but the restaurants are here because of our demographics and improving economy, not because of any Borough policy. The Town Square, though not without its charms, is really a poor excuse for a public space. Frankly, it’s a back-alley consolation prize given to Jenkintown by the county and really provides little to no tangible benefit to the community or the businesses around it, as evidenced by how our school taxes keep going up to compensate for the declining assessments.

Doylestown, Hatboro, Manayunk, Chestnut Hill, Media, and West Chester have no such town square, and yet you would never mistake their economy with Jenkintown’s. What they do have are pedestrian-friendly thoroughfares — streets that they can actually close off when necessary and have a parade. Thanks to Jenkintown’s failure to convey to PennDOT or our governor that Route 611 is killing this town, we must funnel our festivals and parades onto side streets. In 1974, Jenkintown staged its centennial parade on Old York Road.

No standards. Lax enforcement. And soon, no plan.

So, yes, let’s bring a Taco Bell here and grant them a variance for their drive-through window. Then we can finally state the obvious and just declare that we’ve given up. We have no standards, and we need the cash. Sorry for the time you wasted helping us develop the Jenkintown 2035 plan.

The Borough needs the money to pay for a parking lot that doesn’t pay for itself, for leaves they have to pick up from private property, for a theater and library and other community programs that are not fully supported by the residents who use them, for the maintenance of six police vehicles, and for a pocket park that looks more and more like a holding yard for borough trucks and less like a bird sanctuary with every month.

Why should the Borough care about its own building codes and zoning? It has for years ignored ADA laws by willfully allowing cars to park on Walnut Street sidewalks, by failing to cite crumbling properties for health code violations, by ignoring pedestrian safety on disintegrating slate and brick sidewalks, and by gathering revenue from illegal stop signs placed throughout the borough.

When you remember that Council granted George Locke a 23% pay raise without a performance review, it recalls George W. Bush commending his FEMA director after Katrina destroyed New Orleans.

For the record, I have no issue with any business setting up shop providing that they adhere to our established rules. However, this Taco Bell idea smacks of desperation, especially when Michael Golden puts lipstick on this pig by saying “At least we’ll get a traffic light out of it.”

And that there strikes to the heart of exactly the problem with this proposal. Old York Road makes it impossible to develop foot-traffic and the types of businesses that would cater to it. Instead, we get more sprawl, with Taco Bell planting that flag. Before long, we will become another traffic-choked Willow Grove instead of another New Hope, or any town with a business district we can point to with pride.

We can and should do better, but we won’t if we continue to be led by the same tone-deaf Council and the machine that puts it there.