The history and evolution of Town Center West

With the development of the Swarthmore Inn now in full swing, and the construction of the roundabout still a controversial stir among townspeople, the Phoenix has found the original plans for the Inn site and tracked its development to its final design. Over the course of the Town Center West (TCW) development, there had been discussions of condominiums and residential apartments, but those proposals was scrapped before the ideas fully materialized due to zoning restrictions. Stu Hain, the Vice President for Facilities and Capital Projects, said in a Swarthmorean article from June 2010 that plans for residential apartments had been discussed, but that it was unlikely to occur due to zoning restrictions. “Going that route would require an amendment, as current zoning allows 80 hotel rooms”. Professor Timothy Burke, chair of the history department, stated in an interview with the Phoenix that condominiums were under consideration as early as 2007, but that “the committee was really skeptical about that” because the college was unwilling to sell the land. When asked whether the condominiums would be low-income, he said “No, the plan was to build pretty nice units targeted at retirees” though the price range was never discussed. Professor Burke was on a committee in 2007 that heard proposals by developers for the project.

The first reference to the Inn construction project appears in a 1999 document titled Swarthmore Town Center Revitalization Strategy. The document, made by the Town Center Revitalization Strategy Task Force, sought to outline some of the pressing desires of the town’s residents and determine the most concerning flaws of the town center to be addressed. The committee collected the opinions of over 900 community and college members over the course of their decision-making process. The plan that arose out of their meetings listed 34 potential improvements to the town of Swarthmore. Some of these minor improvements included the addition of new signs in the Town Center to decrease confusion and hazardous driving conditions, as well as new pedestrian walkways and improved property accessibility.

Other proposed improvements were much bigger in scale though; these included the construction of the new Co-Op building in conjunction with the extension of Lafayette Avenue (completed in 2004), improving the train station site, and the creation of an Inn. The original description for the Inn is consistent with the final design that we are familiar with today. The document states, “It is recommended that the Borough and the College pursue development of a high-quality, small-scale inn (approximately 65 rooms) with a restaurant.” This, along with a new College bookstore, would be built on a new Town Green that would be located “along S. Chester Road south of the Swarthmore Train Station”. The location for the Inn, which we know as the former softball field, was referred to as the Town Green in the document:

“The Green would encourage the staging of public events and festivals within the Town Center and provide an aesthetic passive open space that links the Swarthmore College campus to the existing Town Center. “

As early as 1999, the Inn/Restaurant/Bookstore development was already laid out in significant detail, and the accepted layout closely aligns with this original design. However, the design has evolved several times over the last decade.

Little progress was made on the Inn project for 6 years, until zoning rights to the Town Center West, as the site was now called, were approved in 2005. In 2007, the development of the Inn gained traction when the College began to meet with potential consultants. In February 2008, the Daily Gazette published an article describing the planned site with a diagram that included a site for condominiums. According to the article, the Inn project would create “43 condominiums, 63 hotel rooms, 15,000 ft bookstore, a fine arts cinema, an upscale restaurant, bar, 50 student parking spaces, and a sunken amphitheater.” This design differs significantly from the original. Ultimately, the prospect of condominium development was scrapped because the TCW site was owned by the college and was being rented out to developers on a 60-year lease, meaning that prospective condominium owners would not legally own the property and thus could not develop on it. Timothy Burke was on the committee that met with this original group of developers.

“We ended up selecting one of the qualifying firms as the “approved developer” for the college to pursue a further negotiation with,” said Burke. “Then the year after that, the collapse of the subprime bubble and the general crash of the economy meant that the negotiations took a significant turn away from the more expansive plan that had been proposed the previous year, but the committee had disbanded by that point, so that the discussion was strictly between senior administration and the developer.”

When the Great Recession hit, all discussion of the Inn was put on hold. The project was revitalized again in April 2010, when the Pennsylvania Governor’s Office awarded the Swarthmore Borough the opportunity to apply for a $2 million grant as part of the Commonwealth’s Redevelopment Assistance Capital Program. The money would be used to revive the borough and the college’s plan to build an inn on the college’s campus. The college promptly applied, and won the $2 million seed money, with support from State Representative Bryan Lentz of Swarthmore and the former mayor of Swarthmore Eck Gerner.

When asked if there would be future developments near TCW, Maurice Eldridge ’61, vice president for college and community relations, said “The college is moving the playing fields and there may be at some point in the future some additional residence halls because we are growing in size… and the fieldhouse might be renovated too. But beyond that no.” Eldridge said that the focus on developing the southwest side of campus where the Inn is being constructed will shift to other areas of the College campus, such as the Northeast corner where the future Psychology, Biology and Engineering building is expected. If that project is anything like the TCW development, then it is likely that a lot more time will pass before construction begins.

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