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Pa. gerrymandering ruling moves college into competitive 7th district

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The Pennsylvania Supreme Court released a new congressional map on February 19th. The map was a remedy the Republican-majority Pa. General Assembly gerrymandering that occurred under the 2011 Pennsylvania Congressional Redistricting Act. The Supreme Court created a new non-partisan map that allows districts to follow the standards of being contiguous, compact, equal in population, and adhering to the redistricting criteria in the state constitution. Under the new map, Swarthmore is in the 7th district, whereas it was previously in the 1st district. The redistricting means that Swarthmore students now have an opportunity to make an impact in the upcoming midterm elections.

In January, the Pennsylvania Supreme Court struck down the old congressional map as unconstitutional. The court ordered the Republican-controlled legislature and Democratic Governor Wolf to negotiate a new map that overturned the 13-5 tilt to the Republicans for congressional seats in the state. The negotiated map was never created and Republicans submitted independent maps.

“The legislature didn’t hold any open hearings or [do] anything at all until two days before the deadline and at the last minute, the Republican majority leader and Speaker of the House just drew their own map and they didn’t consult other Republicans, let alone Democrats,” Ben Stern ’20, president of the Swarthmore College Democrats and deputy campaign manager for U.S. congressional candidate Mary Gay Scanlon, said. “It was basically the same map and of course Governor Wolf rejected it.”

The Republican legislators claimed that the court had over-exercised its power to favor Democrats. Some have called for impeachment of justices. Republicans have also attempted to appeal the case to the U.S. Supreme Court.

“This is so complicated because whichever way you spin it, it seems as though the map is favoring one group over the other,” Jorge Tello ’20, president of the Swarthmore Conservative Society, said. “From what I know about it, the original map was already favoring the Republicans. I see how it can look like a politically motivated act no matter how you draw the map.”

According to Justin Snyder ’21, whose family lives in Wallingford, a neighboring community to Swarthmore, the new map is more logical. He also stated that the negative reactions to the redistricting are in anticipation of the upcoming elections.

“I think that [Republicans of the congressional delegation] are just very upset that the map is going against them with the elections coming up,”  Snyder said. “I think they don’t want the maps to be different because these politicians probably would’ve had a better chance with the old map.”

According to Dylan Clairmont ’21, secretary of outreach for Swarthmore College Democrats, the redistricting created a more level playing field for local and state politics by correcting the gerrymandered districts that the Republican legislature drew after the 2010 census.

“Before redrawing the map, [Pennsylvania] used to be so skewed to the Republicans,” Clairmont said. “I think it’s better that we don’t have local politicians thinking through how they can link two populations together while excluding another group.”

“The districts here prior to the court ruling were heinously gerrymandered,” Stern said. “It was one of the worst cases of politically motivated gerrymandering in the country.”

Snyder also believes that the redistricting made a better map that not only makes things more fair, but also is more logical.

“I believe my district is a little smaller than it was before,” Snyder said. “I was in District 1 before and now I’m in District 5 which is much more of a fixed shape that actually makes sense.”

According to candidate Mary Gay Scanlon the redistricting did a good job with resolving the partisan gerrymandering in Pennsylvania. However, she wishes the process had been done differently.

“I’m certainly thrilled that [the redistricting] happened because the state had been badly gerrymandered to distort our electoral process,” Scanlon said. “I wish that it could have been done with the cooperation of the legislature because it is their job, but they screwed up and they didn’t take the opportunity to fix it.”

While the Pennsylvania Supreme Court drew the new map — a job normally done by state legislature — the map followed non-partisan criteria by the Pennsylvania state constitution. While the Democrats are likely to gain three new seats, the claims that the new map is now favoring Democrats are contested.

“I think it’s natural that the people that say that this is judicial overreach are Republicans,” said Stern. “Prior to the redistricting decision, 15 congressional seats are Republican while 5 are Democrat because of partisan gerrymandering. I think the prediction after the elections are 10-8 which you could say is advantageous to Democrats, but even then, Democrats still have less seats than they should have proportionally at the state level.”

The efforts to remedy the gerrymandering in Pennsylvania and negative responses to the redistricting both point to the upcoming midterm elections and the political ramifications of a new map. Swarthmore is now in the 5th District, which encompasses all of Delaware County and is now a safely Democratic district.

“I could definitely see Swat having an impact on the upcoming elections,” Tello said.

According to Clairmont, the college is an important voting group in a new district that is now more competitive amongst Democratic candidates after the redistricting.

“It’s important that students, if they can, vote here with the exception of maybe people who live in swing states since absentee ballots don’t really get counted until months afterwards,” he said. “Swat is a useful resource for candidates and we can, in turn, help pick a candidate that represents our beliefs instead of just going for a liberal Democrat.”

Swarthmore Democrats have been tabling at Sharples for several candidates, including Scanlon, to sign their petitions in order to get them on the ballot, in addition to other political activism initiatives.

According to Stern, Swarthmore College Democrats have been in the process of writing up policy platforms, especially regarding immigration, with other groups on campus to send to Democratic candidates.

“We can say that if [the candidates] don’t meet these policy asks of us, we will vote for the more progressive candidate,” Stern said.

The redistricting and ability to gain approximately 3 seats for Democrats not only increases voting power for students, but also incentivizes candidates to appeal to this demographic.

“In an election with so many candidates, [sending out a platform] can actually make a big difference because we’re now in a pretty safe Democratic district, so Democrats in this race are practically rushing to be the most progressive. They’re not running on this centrist, moderate platform trying to win against a Republican in suburban Pennsylvania,” Stern said.

As expressed by Scanlon, students should take seriously the opportunity to vote and exercise citizen engagement.

“I’m a civics and elections junkie. You don’t get to complain if you don’t vote,” Scanlon said. “I think it’s really important that students, if you can vote, that you do get engaged and understand the issues. Clearly people here [at the college] are smart and engaged.”

Students of the college who can vote are able to do so in a significant way for a new district especially in the midterm primaries since they fall during finals on May 15th.

“We used to be in a silly district that snaked up to Philadelphia where Republicans never ran, so our vote was basically meaningless,” Stern said. “Now, there’s an open wide primary in the 5th District and it’s great that we have some political power. Especially since districts are small and people don’t vote in midterm general elections to begin with and even fewer people vote in primary midterm elections. It’s such a small voter turnout that a college campus of 1500 students can actually have a pretty big impact.”

College and borough collaborate effectively despite tensions

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With a student population one-fourth the size of the town it inhabits, the college maintains a considerable presence in the town of Swarthmore. The two bodies have shared the same space for 153 years, and while there have been tensions, community members reported that they are most often met with compromise.

The recent construction of the Inn at Swarthmore was one such hiccup in the college’s relationship with the borough. In hopes to revitalize the town center and gain new revenue, both parties decided to build an inn next to the railroad. The project required many considerations, such as how traffic would be organized around the building and how to ensure the Inn would produce a profit. The respective answers: a roundabout and a liquor license.

However, the borough has forbidden the sale of alcohol since 1949. Thus, the liquor license created some controversy, according to economics professor and longtime borough resident Mark Kuperberg, because maintaining a dry town coaligned with some residents’ moral view. Despite several residents pushing back against the idea of a liquor license, Swarthmore Council President David Grove said that most community members agree that the Inn has proven beneficial to the town, the college, and the relationship between the two.

Swarthmore Mayor Tim Kearney added that the building of the inn was a collaborative effort between the college and the town: the borough outlined the specific location of the Inn, which the college paid for, in addition to the roundabout.

“I hear very little complaints about the Inn,” Kearney said, calling the building a nice asset to the town. “It’s a really nice mix of townspeople and college students. Everytime I go in there, I wind up in a conversation with someone I didn’t expect to have a conversation with.”

However, the college also initiates construction that doesn’t directly benefit the town, like the $100 million Biology, Engineering, and Psychology building next to residents’ homes. Kearney called such construction, along with New PPR behind the baseball fields, a temporary inconvenience. Grove said the most irritations come when the college builds on its periphery.

“Most of [the] college’s buildings have been interior to the campus, so they would have little effect on adjacent areas,” he said. “Now, they are building behind some houses in the resident areas.”

However, Grove commended the college for attempting to anticipate these inconveniences. In prior years, many trucks parked in places they shouldn’t have, Grove noted. Now, workers on the BEP building park in the mall and are shuttled in. When new problems arise, Grove said, the college tries to respond.

One such problem was the amount of nontaxable space the college occupies. None of the academic buildings, which make up most of the college, are taxable, and to make up for such a considerable loss in taxes, the college came to a monetary agreement with the borough that began last year and will continue through the next four years. Annually, the college pays $90,200 to the police department, roughly the amount for one police officer; $91,800 to “Life Safety,” which includes fire department and ambulance usage; $330,720 in sewer fees; $33,163 in trash fees; $126,333 in real estate tax, which includes all non-academic buildings like faculty housing; and $107,000 in fees to Swarthmore Borough Authority, a group that allocates tax-free bonds to the college that are used to build buildings.

Kuperberg said such actions show a reasonable balance of interests between the college and borough.

“The college is a huge resource to the town, and the town understands and appreciates that,” he said. “Their interests don’t always align. There is going to be some tension once in a while and that’s how it should be.”

Kearney said the two parties’ relationship has only gotten stronger. Fifteen years ago, Kearney said, it seemed rare to see students in town. Now that the OneCard can be used at Hobbs — the hipster cafe in town center — and the Co-Op — the town’s only grocery store — students frequent both locations as well as the Broad Table Tavern Inn when their families visit. Such initiatives only aid in student and community integration, and Kearney added that he hopes such efforts will lead to more integration.

Both Kearney and Grove commended the collective work of President Valerie Smith and Vice President of Finance Greg Brown for the strong relationship between college and borough, calling the college administration members responsive and active participants in the community.

“Just recently Val invited my wife and I to a ‘Dinner With Strangers,’ where she had twelve people at her house for dinner and none of them knew each other,” Kearney said, adding that he also meets with Public Safety, the police department, and Brown once a month to keep open communication between the borough and the college.

President of the Swarthmore Democrats Taylor Morgan ’19 echoed the sentiment of an intimate relationship between the two bodies.

“When I go to a [borough] meeting as a representative of Swarthmore Dems, [the residents] say they are so thankful for having college students engaged in local politics,” Morgan said. “They say, ‘We find it so great that students care about the things we care about.’”

Morgan cited several instances of kindness she’s felt from Swarthmore residents, such as several of them volunteering to drive students to political events and donating poster supplies to the Swarthmore Democrats. One resident even let her borrow pieces for her Halloween costume this year.

Kearney said that in ninety percent of the cases, college and borough interests align.

“I moved here because it was a college town,” Kearney said. “People like that more than anything. The work that the college has done is really stunning.”

Borough responds to concerns about roundabout

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Photo by Sadie Rittman
Photo by Sadie Rittman

The construction on Chester Road, the most visible of the College’s projects, continues to face significant opposition from a small but vocal group of borough residents. A lawsuit to halt this particular construction project, led by attorney Patricia Biswanger and several community members, has been filed against the  Pennsylvania Department of Transportation on the grounds that a 23-point review of proposed road construction had been circumvented. Community members also expressed discontent at how quickly the project was moving and how invasive the development was, and they also felt as if their voice had not been heard during the planning stages of the project.

Patricia Biswanger’s office declined to comment on the developments, but other groups in the borough feel that the lawsuit is only delaying a process meant to improve the quality of life for both Swarthmore students and borough residents.

“The roundabout was always in discussion. There were opportunities to discuss the roundabout,”  said Jane Billings, manager of the Swarthmore borough.

She explained that there had been an extensive review of the way in which the development projects were being implemented and that PennDOT had even “sent [the reviewing procedures] to an outside contractor” in order to assure that all the proper procedures had been followed. Billings also expressed confusion as to why borough residents would be opposed to the project.

“Their dislike of the roundabout is a little blinding … because of the good things it will bring,” she said. She also said that at one of the community meetings about the construction projects, a resident complained that he was not going to be able to speed through the town anymore because the traffic circle would require him to slow down. The traffic circle would indeed slow down commuters, but in a safer way that would actually decrease commute times for local residents, Billings explained. She also said she had positive opinions regarding the college’s interactions with the borough as well as in regards to the development projects specifically.

“It’s disappointing that there were such extensive reviews and people still want to speak out. People in town really do feel a connection to the college … [and] I’m personally very grateful to the college for spending their own money on a public improvement project,” she said.

Timothy Kearney, the mayor of Swarthmore, holds a similar opinion. Kearney has been involved in these construction projects since their earliest stages.

“One of my main interest[s] in joining the Planning Commission was the Town Center Revitalization Project, now known as Town Center West,” he wrote in an email. “I helped draft the ordinance that defined the zoning requirements for the project. Counting my attendance at the Town Center Revitalization meetings and the discussions of the liquor license, I have been following this particular project for 15 years.”

He believes that the borough and the college have a very strong relationship.

“Nine times out of ten, college goals and borough goals are parallel. The fact is that many people in the college community are in the borough community as well and most of the people I speak with like living in a college town.  Speaking for myself, the reasons that we moved here 19 years ago was because of the college and the train,” he wrote.

He also said that the opponents to this project were a small yet vocal group, and a definite minority.

“The people who are against it gripe a bit but for the most part the comments have been positive, more relief that it is finally happening,” Kearney continued. The pending lawsuit won’t have any impact in future projects unless the borough of Swarthmore decide to put more roundabouts on state roads.

But more roundabouts may be constructed in the near future because of their utility. Mayor Kearney supports the construction of roundabouts, explaining that they make neighborhoods more walkable and safer for residents.

Roundabout construction is increasing all over the country and is supported by a large volume of research and publications on safety. The Federal Highway Administration notes that traffic circles are vastly safer than traditional intersections, by causing more than a 90 percent reduction in fatalities, 76 percent reduction in injuries, 35 percent reduction in all crashes and slower speeds that are generally safer for pedestrians. They also reduce congestion by being more efficient during both peak hours. Roundabouts are more environmentally friendly, as well. They reduce pollution and fuel use due to fewer stops and hard accelerations, and motorists spend less time idling.  They save money because traffic circles often have no signal equipment to install, power, and maintain.

Swarthmore residents issue complaints over college construction

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IMG_1844
Photo by Sadie Rittman

For the past few months, extensive construction in the area of the Ville near the college has been disrupting the lives of local residents and college students alike. Part of the construction currently underway near PPR will change the current layout of the streets into a roundabout in order to reduce traffic in the area at peak travel times. According to an article in the Swarthmorean, the borough’s local newspaper, there has been a noticeable amount of public backlash regarding the construction project. The daily lives of students, especially those living in Palmer, Pittenger and Roberts halls, have been affected by the noise and pollution caused by the construction work. Several sections of the sidewalks into the borough of Swarthmore have been closed off.

All of this construction, according to PennDOT, the Pennsylvania Department of Transportation, is part of a project to improve infrastructure in the town of Swarthmore. But a lawsuit was filed last week in the Commonwealth Court of Pennsylvania that sought to halt the construction of the roundabout. The following Monday, the standing-room Borough Council heard an unusual number of complaints from Swarthmore residents regarding the lawsuit and the construction project.

In the Swarthmorean, several community members expressed disappointment that there was another lawsuit because it would only serve to further delay completion of the construction project. In addition, Republican State Representative Joe Hackett paid a visit to the construction site on September 10 and has since proposed legislation that would “promote a greater level of review of high occupancy permit applications for large scale projects,” which would require procedures such as holding a public forum to hear complaints from residents if the project affects a significant number of people from more than one municipality.

The construction project has impacted more than just the lives of politicians and policymakers in the community. Many local residents of Swarthmore also feel strongly about these new construction projects. Miguel Florez, a Swarthmore resident, called the traffic circle construction “completely inconvenient. You get blindsided by the backhoes when he’s shaking off his dirt and whatnot. [And] did they have to cut down all those old trees?” Regarding the execution and planning of the project itself, Florez said, “It [is] very ill-managed. They start too early and wake you up.”

Swarthmore students are also feeling the effects of this large-scale construction project, but described them as being minor, if somewhat inconvenient.

“[It] disrupts my biking route to campus during the day, because I can’t use the sidewalk on Chester Road, but if there aren’t any workers on the site I just use the sidewalk anyway,” said Murphy Austin ‘16. He also noted that the sprawling construction also affects the quality of dorm life.

“It’s very noticeable from PPR,” said Austin. “Loud construction noise during the day and all the cones, fences, and trucks [are always] hanging around just outside.”

It remains to be seen whether or not the pending lawsuit will affect the completion date for the construction of the roundabout.

Some borough residents fight Town Center West liquor license

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The college announced their application for a liquor license in 2012.
The college announced their application for a liquor license in 2012.

Later this month, the fate of the college’s plans for a restaurant and inn at Town Center West (TCW) will be decided after months of trial at Media’s Delaware County Courthouse. On Tuesday, April 22, Amy Rosenberg, a longtime Swarthmore borough resident, will formally appeal the decision of the Pennsylvania Liquor Control Board (PLCB) to approve the college’s application for a liquor license for TCW. The college plans for TCW to operate as an inn, restaurant, bar and bookstore that will be owned and operated by the college but open to the public. Rosenberg represents a coalition of borough residents who oppose a liquor license in the borough on the grounds that it could have negative impacts on the borough’s safety and moral and economic well-being.

“The TCW project will contribute new tax revenues to the borough, generate jobs, provide new retail and dining options and foster increased foot traffic to the borough’s existing commercial district,” said Maurice Eldridge ‘61, the college’s vice president for college and community relations, who has served on the planning committee for the TCW since its inception in 1999. “In particular, the inn will serve as an intellectual living room in a project we hope will provide a closer, stronger connection between borough residents and the college community.”

Shortly after the college announced the project, however, some borough residents began to question the extent to which they would actually benefit from TCW. Opposition arose initially in 2005 after the college first received zoning permits to begin development on the land at the corner of Chester Road and Fieldhouse Lane. Those wary of TCW’s installment cited the detrimental effects the facility could have by changing the borough’s traffic patterns, removing parking spaces and destroying green areas. Still, the Borough Council, guided by former Mayor Rick Lowe, has remained largely in support of TCW’s construction.

In 2012, however, after the college formally applied for a liquor license to the PLCB,  the concerns of residents opposed to TCW’s construction shifted from the physical imposition of the structure to the potential safety hazards caused by liquor sales.

“They are putting a bar right where there is an incredibly dangerous intersection,” said Will Stanton, a longtime borough resident and member of the coalition against TCW. “I just think that common sense tells you that that is going to make the intersection less safe.”

The location raises additional concern because of its close proximity to the Palmer, Pittinger and Roberts dormitories, also located on Chester Road. Despite the fact that the bar will not be serving underage students, Rosenberg, who lives above the shops on Chester Road, has expressed wariness in their appeal that if the liquor license is approved, they may be subject to increases in “nightly noise” and “rambunctious activity” at the college.

These issues do not only worry borough residents who live close to the college. Stanton, who recently moved out of the borough, echoed similar sentiments.

“Most colleges have large problems with the bars that exist in their nearby towns,” he explained. “West Chester University and Penn State have had huge problems with this. It’s incredible to me that a college would consider putting a bar within 300 feet of a dormitory.”

Aside from the safety concerns raised by TCW’s application for a liquor license, residents also felt that to grant the restaurant at TCW a liquor license in a town where other restaurants are legally forbidden from serving alcohol would unfairly privilege the college’s facility.

“Giving a liquor license to the college and not to other businesses just seemed unfair,” said Stanton. “There have been a lot of restaurants in the borough that have come and gone. They probably would have loved the opportunity for a liquor license, but the college having this special rule where they can have a liquor license on campus and this gives them an advantage.”

According to Eldridge, the college’s quest for a liquor license for TCW was driven by a desire to make the facility more economically viable. Many on the Design Oversight Committee felt that a liquor license would make the inn and restaurant far more appealing to visitors, allowing it to compete with similar establishments outside of the borough.

In 2001, the college began pressing the borough to conduct a referendum vote that would give the college the right to apply for a liquor license. The college could circumvent the “dry” status of the borough that has been in place since 1906 by applying under a Pennsylvania liquor law that allows for liquor licenses to be granted to hotels on the property of accredited colleges and universities. Swayed by the potential economic benefits that a liquor license for the TCW would bring to the town, a majority of voters approved the referendum.

On May 17, 2011, the Swarthmore Borough Council organized a second referendum to provide residents with the opportunity to revise the borough’s earlier decision. The referendum was instigated largely by the protests of students at the college who circulated petitions around the borough for a revote on the 2001 referendum. While the primary concern of these students were the labor practices to be employed at TCW, specifically that the college would not allow employees o join labor unions, many of the residents initially opposed to TCW’s construction used the students labor concerns as a platform for their anxiety about the college’s liquor license.

The referendum presented by the Borough Council asked: “Do you favor the granting of liquor licenses for the sale of liquor in the borough of Swarthmore?” This time, according to Swarthmore Borough Council records, a majority of 499 out of 927 voters voted against the sale of liquor in the borough, which Rosenberg claims renders the decision of the 2001 referendum null.

Nevertheless, according to the May 2011 issue of 121 Park News, a pamphlet distributed monthly throughout the borough, the PLCB had explained that the referendum would not change the college’s ability to apply for a liquor license at TCW. It would only change the status of alcohol sales in the borough.

“If the vote on the 2011 referendum is not in favor of granting liquor licenses in Swarthmore, the status quo will remain,” the pamphlet states. “Swarthmore will remain a dry town, with the single exception of a liquor license permitted at a hotel on the campus of an accredited college or university.”

Under the same belief, in the summer of 2012 the college erected signs around the proposed site of the TCW announcing that Parrish LLC — the college-owned entity responsible for the construction of TCW — had applied to the PLCB for a liquor license for TCW. In February 2013, the application was approved by the PLCB.

Following the decision of the PLCB, a coalition of borough residents began making preparations to appeal the board’s decision, and on May 22, 2013, it brought its case to court, with Rosenberg serving as plaintiff. They were represented by Michael Homans, an attorney at Flaster Greenberg PC, who lived in the borough for 12 years. Given his personal relationship with the issue, Homans agreed to work on the case pro bono.

Now, almost a year after Rosenberg first filed her appeal, the future of the liquor license at TCW remains undetermined. Attorneys representing Parrish LLC have intervened legally on behalf of the PLCB, and the hearing date for the case has been moved back three times on technicalities.

According to Stanton, many residents have been dismayed by the college’s behavior throughout the process.

“They haven’t shown any concern at all for the people,” Stanton said. “It’s kind of sad what the college has become. They just have a lot of political influence and an unlimited amount of money.”

According to the court records provided by the Delaware County Courthouse, Parrish LLC has called on Mayor Lowe and President Rebecca Chopp to voice their support for TCW’s construction and liquor license.

“It has not been easy for the plaintiff,” Stanton said. “At one of the hearings, the college challenged Amy [Rosenberg]’s sincerity and claimed she was only doing this for money. They have characterized us as a small group against any type of progress which is just baloney. We’re doing this because we care about the borough.”

Homans shared this view.

“We are working on behalf of local residents,” he explained. “This all originated out of concern for the well-being of the community.”

Until the formal hearing takes place later this month, however, the future of TCW’s liquor license and its potential social and economic implications remain uncertain.

“Until this court case is resolved, if the residents prevail, the college won’t get its liquor license,” Stanton said. “But I am sure the college is prepared to appeal it all the way to the state supreme court because without the liquor license, they are not going to build the project.”

Eldridge explained that the college has no intention of slowing development on TCW in the near future, describing the coalition’s challenge in court as “a matter that will be resolved soon.”

According to Eldridge, if the license is approved, construction on TCW will begin this summer with an expected completion date of Spring 2016.

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