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.

Jenkintown 2035: Wishing and hoping and planning

The Jenkintown 2035 Visioning Workshop turned out an impressive attendance last Thursday night, which included several Borough Council members, Mayor Ed Foley, and Jenkintown Borough Manager George Locke. The overall group seemed to represent a cross-section of Jenkintown society that didn’t have to commute long distances to and from work.

For anyone who’s never attended these exercises, think of it as a big brainstorming session. Organizers distribute the attendees into groups of four to eight seated at their own tables with a leader who takes notes and guides the discussion. The county officials running the show assemble all the notes, listen to all the visions, and then return to Norristown to process it all into a coherent plan.

At the end of workshop, hopefully everyone leaves feeling like they’ve contributed to their community. Only time — twenty years, to be exact — will tell.  Whether or not that plan sits on the shelf and collects dust for the next twenty years depends on the priorities of our representatives, political opportunities, and fate.

Screenshot 2015-11-01 19.27.50
Click on the plan to download.

For anyone who thinks that these plans amount to nothing, keep in mind that the 1962 plan for Jenkintown called for the removal of Old York Road’s on-street parking in order to make it a four lane “modern” highway. Be careful what you wish for.

Here it is in black and white. Be careful what you wish for.
Here it is in black and white. Be careful what you wish for.

Speaking of which, “fixing” Old York Road found support across the room. How people want to see that happen is another matter. We have said all along that making Old York Road a desirable place to walk requires not only slowing down the traffic, but also providing a safe, effective pedestrian buffer. The absolute best way to do that is to restore parallel parking on both sides of the street.

The extra parking this provides comes as an added bonus with minimal impact to the district’s current developed assets. In other words, no more demolitions and no more eminent domain seizures. People, however, have a hard time understanding the simplicity of this solution, mostly because they fear a line of traffic bottlenecked for five miles in either direction. They see current traffic and falsely assume all of it would still jam through Jenkintown.

The workshop focused on three areas: Land use, open space and parks, and transportation. Open space and parks seems hardly germain to any discussion about Jenkintown’s future since it has so little available. To provide more open space, the town would have to either accept it as a gift or to seize it via eminent domain. The former is unlikely, and the latter is unacceptable. And yes, someone suggested the latter.

We live close enough to some excellent parks in other communities. Unfortunately, we can’t use best of them, Alverthorpe Park. We support any effort to gain access for Jenkintown residents as well — within reason.

Regarding the other two:

Land Use

Jenkintown has next to no land available for development. We do, however, have a very good mix of residential and commercial. We are a classic traditional community, developed well before the post-war, sprawl-making madness that destroyed most of the rest of the region. Old York Road remains the elephant in this room. Unless the state and county can address the walkability issues of downtown, the development pressures will favor anti-pedestrian policies.

Because people cannot park on the street itself, developers will push for their own parking, often through expansive setbacks that will further decay the pedestrian experience. Looking north along the road around IHOP shows a potential future for the rest of the district. Little buildings — big parking lots. I don’t think anyone at the workshop wanted this. If the Borough does not have design standards that prevent it, I don’t know what will stop it, especially when tax receipts are involved.


Besides its highly rated school system, Jenkintown lays claim to the busiest suburban train station on the SEPTA system. Aside from its rather inconvenient location downhill a half mile away from the business distict, it makes Jenkintown one of the best connected locations in the region. About the only thing missing from the transporation equation is more intersecting bus routes and better biking corridors.

Despite the volume of ridership that originates at Jenkintown-Wyncote, SEPTA runs only a single intersecting bus line, #77. This compels too many suburban riders to drive into the area and park on the street, something SEPTA wants to address with a new parking garage and station that hopefully it will never build. We would like to see SEPTA develop new bus routes, but given the topography and the lack of space for larger buses, this may have to wait until gasoline hits six dollars per gallon.

As expected, someone did suggest a shuttle to take passengers from the station to our downtown. Here’s the problem with shuttles: No one rides them. They only work where driving to your destination becomes impossible. That only happens in successful, densely packed, walkable districts, which we don’t have.

Bicyclists face another challenge. We have narrow roads, making bike lanes impractical. Also, because Jenkintown and its skinny streets sits on top of a hill, only the youngest and fittest of our residents will risk their lives to pedal anywhere.

I made the suggestion that SEPTA include a bike trail within its right-of-way, at least from Jenkintown all the way to Beth Ayres, where it could connect to the brand new Pennypack Trail. An extension south at least to Old York Road in Cheltenham would might present more opportunities for safe bike commuting. In most places, the right of way provides for plenty of space for a bike path.

Finally, some readers have wondered how all this concern for Old York Road relates to our sidewalk policy. The prideful mention of Jenkintown as a “walkable community” probably came up at least a few dozen times. Obviously, most residents place great value on this characteristic. It takes but a tiny leap to connect our embrace of our walkability as a community asset with making it a community responsibility. A more walkable Old York Road would therefore become the jewel in the crown that shows the world that when it comes to transportation, Jenkintown values foot traffic above all else, and as a community, makes itself available to support it.

Jenkintown Congestion = Jenkintown Revival

For automobile flooding (congestion), the only way to deal with it and still have a successful economy is to address it at the source. We need to absorb those trips locally before they become a flood. Instead of building lanes, we need to be building corner stores. We need local economic ecosystems that create jobs, opportunity and destinations for people as an alternative to those they can only get to by driving.

Source: Dealing with Congestion — Strong Towns

This quote comes from an excellent essay by Charles Marohn at, and a recommended read before attending the Jenkintown 2035 “visioning” workshop. Keep it in mind as you consider what to do about Interstate 611 as its traffic tears through our downtown.

Marohn makes many valid points on the nature of traffic congestion and how to deal with it, and adding lanes, as he writes, is like buying bigger pants when you put on weight. Stop solving the symptom and start curing the disease.