A full fifteen years after the college proposed its Town Center West inn and restaurant complex, the Swarthmore Borough Council at last granted final approval to the project at a meeting in late February. Thankfully, the acrimony that surrounded Town Center West for years seems to have died down. The proposed design was released last May, and construction is set to begin this spring or summer, Vice President for Facilities and Services C. Stuart Hain told the Phoenix.
It’s hard to see now why the project got so much angry blowback from students and borough residents alike. With Town Center West the college is offering a set of valuable amenities to the borough — a relatively upscale hotel, a new restaurant, a bookstore, as well as a roundabout at the dangerous intersection of Chester Road and Rutgers Avenue — at a time when the borough’s downtown has an opportunity to leverage that kind of investment for further improvements. The project, which will be constructed between the SEPTA station and Palmer Hall, has been supported by borough government for years.
To understand the importance of the project, it’s necessary to understand how the borough got where it is today. The traditional downtowns of aging commuter suburbs like Swarthmore were hit hard by the advent of modern suburban sprawl. Once, the post office and train station served as the anchors of the vital suburban town: they were the connection between the country and the wider world. Boroughs like Swarthmore developed along the local Pennsylvania Railroad line which provided frequent service between the borough’s larger neighbor Media and downtown Philadelphia, where many borough residents went to work and shop.
The rail line remains open today, and Swarthmore remains a commuter suburb of Philadelphia, but the importance of its quaint downtown has diminished considerably now that the profusion of cars has allowed for almost unlimited sprawl: borough residents can access the city via highways like the Blue Route/Interstate 476, and can find entertainment and shopping in suburban strips on the Baltimore Pike, Route 320 and Macdade Boulevard. For many people, there’s no longer a compelling reason to spend much time in Swarthmore’s downtown — and there’s nothing wrong with that: the auto-oriented suburban way of life works well for millions of Americans.
But that doesn’t mean that hope is lost for traditional downtowns. The key, as many developers and planners have recognized, is to make visiting them into a desirable experience: you no longer need to pass through downtown for access to the wider world, but instead you choose to go there, because a dense downtown, even on a small scale, can have an appealing, organic vitality rarely found in sterile malls. Industrial cities like Pittsburgh and Philadelphia have worked with much success to reinvent themselves as “lifestyle centers,” places people want to live and visit for the city experience: the crowds, restaurants, nightlife, and high and low culture of all kinds. Many aging towns have pulled off similar reinventions on a much smaller scale: Media has succeeded at drawing a good number of restaurants and other businesses and building an image as lively yet manageable.
One of the keys to successful revival is density: there need to be plenty of people around to patronize businesses and keep the area alive. That’s something Swarthmore is missing, and something Town Center West ought to change. Not only will patrons of the inn — the only nice hotel within miles of the area — spend time and money in the surrounding downtown, but the restaurant and bookstore will draw more residents and students into the town center, and generate additional evening activity. That, in turn, will hopefully lead to additional business investment — renovations, extended hours, new restaurants and businesses.
The college benefits too, of course. Parents and other visitors will appreciate being able to stay close to the campus, the bookstore will receive more business, the traffic pattern around the train station will be improved, and Pittenger, Roberts and Palmer Halls will be better connected to the rest of campus.
The only significant complaint we have about the project is the proposed architectural design, by Cope Linder Architects. Just how bad is Cope Linder? Here’s Inga Saffron, the Philadelphia Inquirer’s architecture critic, on their recent Home2Suites Hotel in Center City: “In the heated competition for the worst new architecture in Philadelphia, the sickly yellow, synthetic-covered mid-rise across from the Reading Terminal Market is now the one to beat.” And: “The hotel facade is so flat and plasticky it makes Parkway Corp.’s adjacent brick-and-concrete garage look like a work of heft and dignity.” Cope Linder also designed the unfortunate Sugarhouse Casino on the Delaware riverfront.
The proposed design for Town Center West, while not as bad as that of the Home2Suites, also looks flat and plasticky, with an overdone sloping roof and all kinds of odd fake detailing intended to help it “fit in,” or pretend it’s 100 years older than it is. To fit a basically contemporary building layout into this faux-old style, and probably also to “break down the scale,” the architects resorted to shoving an unfortunate agglomeration of forms onto the back of the building: add in the unfortunate detailing, and the result is a design with all the historical intelligence of the contemporary McMansion, dressed up just a bit for college property. The whole thing is suffocatingly quaint.
It’s unlikely that the college will hire a different architect so late in the process, but that’s exactly what it’ll have to do to allow this otherwise excellent project to live up to its full potential.