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.
There has been much discussion of the Inn project in the campus and local press lately. As proposed, the project would include building an Inn, restaurant, possible residential apartments, and a relocation of our campus bookstore – to a space adjacent to the College’s athletic complex and in close proximity to the train station.
Since some of our students were not here when this planning process began, and some new residents have moved into the area, I thought it might be helpful to lend some historical context to the conversation.
In the mid-1990s, there was growing concern that Swarthmore might succumb to the decline afflicting the inner ring of suburbs around Philadelphia. It was felt that it was in the best interest of town and college to understand the issue and to plan proactively for the revitalization of the Town Center business area.
The Borough’s Town Center Task Force then engaged Urban Partners with Kise Straw and Kolodner to study the issues. In the course of conducting “a thorough analysis of the physical and economic conditions of the Town Center,” they heard from over 900 members of the residential and college communities. In September 1999 they produced the “Swarthmore Town Center Revitalization Strategy.”
Thirty-four strategic elements for revitalization were presented in the report. They were grouped in six categories, including improving the appearance and circulation of Town Center; promoting new development activity; strengthening business activity; protecting residential areas adjacent to Town Center; promoting Town Center development west of South Chester Road; and encouraging an intergenerational Town Center.
Some of the recommendations – such as the reconstruction of the Co-Op and the creation of an economic development position in the Borough – have already been implemented. Other more long term goals called for the Borough and the College to jointly pursue development of a high-quality, small-scale inn and restaurant (approximately 65 rooms were suggested).
Soon after the report was issued, subsequent discussions with the consultants led to the conclusion that a restaurant with a liquor license had the greatest likelihood of success. A referendum of Borough voters passed legislation enabling a liquor license at a restaurant in the Borough on College property.
The report also suggested that the Swarthmore College Bookstore could be relocated to a larger space in this area, possibly in joint development with a restaurant. Should this happen, the Bookstore would move with its current management team in place and every effort would be made to maintain the very comfortable, down-to-earth feel our community so enjoys. There are no plans, as I’ve heard suggested recently, to “sell” our Bookstore to a large chain.
Further, the report recommended a new south college entrance at Rutgers Avenue and S. Chester Road that would not only formalize what has been a subtle connection between the Borough and College, but also provide safer, easier access to and from the area by motorists and pedestrians, and improve overall circulation in the Town Center.
While it is not unusual for such projects to take years, even decades to come to fruition, this project was further delayed due to changing economic conditions.
Then, this past spring the Borough was awarded $2 million through the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania’s Redevelopment Assistance Capital Program (RCAP) to pursue the Swarthmore Town Center West project with the College. The state grant was awarded by Pennsylvania Governor Edward G. Rendell and enjoys bi-partisan support, with assistance from both State Representative Bryan R. Lentz (D) and State Senator Ted Erickson (R).
It is now time for a developer (or developers) to come forward with a concrete proposal. That plan would need to move through the appropriate legislative process, including submission to the Borough Planning Commission, the County Planning Commission, the Environmental Advisory Council, the Delaware County Conservation District, and Borough Council. It is only after extensive community discussion and ultimately, legislative action taken by Borough Council that a final decision will be made about the Inn project.
There has been and continues to be a commitment to keep the community informed of any development activity. There will be open forums initiated by the Borough going forward, in which the College will participate. The College community will also be engaged through open forums and informed conversation and debate.
There is already great passion surrounding this project. Proponents believe the project will result in more jobs for the area; provide an economic engine to the retail district; create new tax revenues for the Borough, the Wallingford-Swarthmore School District, and the Commonwealth; provide a place for parents, friends, and visitors to stay while on campus; and create an enhanced sense of community between and among College and Borough residents. Others are concerned it may further erode green space; hinder existing retail outlets; create the possibility for public safety and health hazards; and may not be economically viable.
I hope that as the weeks and months unfold, and once there is a more concrete proposal to respond to, we will collectively honor what has been a longstanding tradition in the Borough and at the College – to study the facts; to listen respectfully; to engage passionately; and to analyze all elements of the plan before reaching an informed conclusion about it. I look forward to many more conversations about this as the project, long ago identified as an important part of Swarthmore’s economic future, moves from “concept” to “proposal.”