Hotel/apartment complex proposal moves forward

Editor’s note: This article was initially published in The Daily Gazette, Swarthmore’s online, daily newspaper founded in Fall 1996. As of Fall 2018, the DG has merged with The Phoenix. See the about page to read more about the DG.

Last night, the Swarthmore Borough Planning and Zoning Committee voted to recommend that the borough council provide for a hotel/apartment/restaurant complex in a new zoning ordinance. The proposed complex, with 25 hotel rooms and 55 apartment units, is significantly smaller than one that had discussed in the past.

With seven committee members present, last night’s meeting began with a review of the discussion at the previous week’s Borough Planning Commission meeting, which featured presentations by Stu Hain, the College’s Vice President of Facilities Management. Hain presented four possible plans for the complex, three of which did not include the apartment units since such construction would not be legal under current zoning ordinances. It was stressed that these plans are still highly preliminary. As with previous proposals, the complex would be on a piece of college property that will be leased to a developer.

The main issue of that meeting had been deciding on a suitable size for the complex, as several had expressed concern that a previous proposal of 100 residential units was unsuitably large. The council instead agreed on a complex including 50 residential units, 30 hotel rooms, as well as the previously discussed restaurant and retail space. Projected averages of 1.5 cars per residential unit and 0.8 cars per hotel room cut the capacity of the proposed parking garage from around 300 cars to 230/240 cars, which could now be fit into a 2.5-deck structure.

Committee members expressed disappointment at the news that the College “seemed to be backpedaling” on implementing an idea to place the college bookstore in the retail section of the complex. “If the bookstore isn’t retail, what is?” asked one member. Another explained his view that the bookstore could become “kind of like a Borders” with a coffee shop and become a “real hang-out spot”, citing the increasingly broad base of products being sold by the bookstore as internet orders cut into textbook sales.

The current plan includes an extension of Rutgers Avenue (which currently ends on Chester Road at the south end of its underpass of the train tracks) through to Field House Lane, where it would come out approximately on top of the site of the current Field House parking. This extension would create a more easily accessible south entrance to the college. A new frontage road for the inn will also be constructed. Concerns were raised, but ultimately dismissed, regarding the new construction interfering with the pedestrian-friendly character of the Ville. The committee decided that while the ground floor section of the complex fronting Chester Road should be made up the hotel lobby, the restaurant, and retail to present an enticing face to passers-by, higher floors could contain space for offices.

Another issue articulated by the committee was how much leeway to give potential developers in terms of numbers and design of each type of unit. The committee wanted to avoid being too prescriptive and heavy-handed to the point of scaring developers but also wanted to avoid “something awful”. Some members wanted to further decrease the recommended size of the hotel, perhaps as low as 16 units (the minimum required to keep the restaurant project feasible) but concerns that this would take away too much of the potential benefit to the Ville’s commercial district and that the hotel rooms could be replaced with larger-sized apartment units, increasing the total square footage of the complex, prompted the compromise solution of 25 rooms.

Further issues that will require resolution include negotiations between the College and the Pennsylvania Department of Transportation regarding a possible right-of-way related to the nearby SEPTA tracks and further studies of the effects of the construction on Ville traffic patterns. A new traffic light at the entrance to the complex is already included in the plan and has been approved by the DOT.

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