When the COVID-19 pandemic hit, Shannon Elliott was worried she would have to close the doors of Harvey Oak Mercantile (HOM), an artisan crafts store in the Celia Building on Park Avenue that she’s owned since 2018. When she started getting a steady stream of online orders through her website and began making deliveries to area homes, she thought she had survived the worst. Then, in September, she learned that local developers Bill Cumby and Don Delson planned to demolish her building and replace it with a high-end condominium complex.
“It was heartbreaking,” said Elliott, who shares the building with Gallery on Park, a handmade gift shop and local art gallery owned by Martha Perkins. The building also houses several apartment units and office spaces with lower rents for the area.
If approved, the thirty-million-dollar development project would replace the Celia building and another building at 110/112 Park Avenue with a five-story mixed-use space. The space would consist of 36 high-end condo units above roughly 3,000 square feet of retail space and a below-ground garage.
The project would be among the first mixed-use, high-density developments in the downtown area. Some residents fear it will change the character of the town, but others argue that high-density housing will serve the community and is more environmentally sustainable.
The nine member Planning Commission is due to meet Wednesday, Dec. 15 to consider the proposal, which will also need support from the Borough Council.
Cumby, a former mayor and 50-year resident with deep ties to the town, says the units—whose prices would range from six-hundred-thousand to a million dollars—are intended for senior residents and empty nesters who want to downsize from their current homes but stay in town.
“We’re trying to build something that isn’t really available outside of Center City or the Main Line area, we want to give seniors an opportunity to age in place,” said Cumby.
But others worry that the building is out-of-scale and will set a precedent for more demolition and redevelopment in the town center.
“Replacing two-story buildings with a five-story block that towers over the neighborhood just doesn’t maintain the visual character and scale of the town — it’s clearly oversized,” said James Peyton-Jones, a borough resident and engineering professor at Villanova University.
If the developers get approval, they will need a permit to demolish the two buildings. They hope to break ground in June. Construction would take 14 to 18 months, they estimate.
A rendering by Philadelphia-based architecture firm Bernardon shows how the 110 Park Avenue project is expected to look if approved by the Planning Commission and Borough Council. The building would replace two historic properties on Park Avenue which currently house two local businesses and several apartment units.
An article published in the Swarthmorean on Oct. 8 announcing the project drew allegations of bias from some readers, who raised concerns that it was a paid advertisement on behalf of the developers. Delson was a co-owner of the Swarthmorean until 2018, and the piece featured a paragraph listing many of Cumby and Delson’s activities and charitable contributions to local organizations. In an editor’s note, the newspaper later clarified that the paragraph was intended “as contextual background rather than as an endorsement of the project.”
Martha Perkins said she was stunned when she received a letter from a property manager in September informing her that the owners of the Celia building had entered a sale agreement with Cumby and Delson.
“It was a punch in the gut,” she said.
“Our landlord never indicated this was something they planned to do, they’d always said this was their retirement plan,” Elliott added. “They made them an offer they couldn’t refuse, I guess.”
Even if they could survive during construction, Eliott and Perkins said that rents in the new building would be too much to afford.
The developers have given Elliott and Perkins until June to find a new space. Cumby said that he and Delson have offered to help the business owners find an alternative retail location at their current rent during construction. With the lack of available retail space in Swarthmore, however, Perkins and Elliott worry they might be pushed out of town.
Shannon Elliott prepares a gift item for a customer at her business, Harvey Oak Mercantile. Both Elliott and Perkins have been given until June to find another space for their businesses. (Anatole Shukla/The Phoenix)
“To be told that you have to exit your business, which you’ve built for four years, in less than a year, with no available retail space, is way too fast — I don’t have options right now,” said Elliott.
Elliott lives in Swarthmore with her husband and two children and said she feels a deep sense of attachment to the town. Both Perkins and Elliott said they’re worried that the loss of their businesses would be devastating for the area arts community.
“We showcase and sell the work of a lot of local artists, if we go, that’ll have a significant impact,” said Perkins.
In November, Elliott and Perkins launched an online petition and Facebook Page called “Save our Swarthmore” opposing the project.
Perkins and Elliott plan to canvass residents and gain more support for the petition in the coming months.
A Changing Downtown
The 110 Park Avenue proposal comes amid a wave of changes in the downtown area. The 2014 construction of the roundabout and Inn at Swarthmore building drew controversy, with some residents voicing concerns about the projects being inconsistent with Swarthmore’s character. In 2017, residents passed a referendum allowing the borough to grant liquor licenses, which has led to the opening of new businesses like Village Vine and Ship Bottom Brewery (which will open in late December).
Cumby says the idea for the condo project was first conceived after a 2013 ordinance established a town center zoning district and called for more “mixed-use” spaces.
On Oct. 20, the developers presented an earlier version of their plans at a meeting of the Swarthmore Planning Commission, where residents expressed a range of concerns about the project.
Multiple residents voiced worries that the project would be out-of-scale for the community.
Chris Kenney, an architect, relocated with his family from Center City in 2005 because he was attracted to Swarthmore’s walkability and small-town feel. Kenney said that the project would be “essentially a gated community in our downtown.”
“I have great concerns about the scale and character of the town. I think it won’t just change the town, this will change us and not in a good way,” he said.
Some residents were more supportive.
Sharon Mester, a former president of Swarthmore Town Center, an advocacy group focused on boosting economic growth in the downtown area, highlighted the need for dense housing to serve empty nesters and bring foot traffic to local businesses downtown. She said she was hopeful that Elliott and Perkins would be able to find other retail space.
Martha Perkins at her business Gallery on Park at 104 Park Avenue. Perkins worries that having to close her business will be a loss for the local arts community. (Anatole Shukla/The Phoenix)
But Elliott says that finding available space is harder than a lot of residents realize.
“There’s actually only one leasable space open in the entire town. I just can’t go in and tell another business to get out so that I can go in,” she said.
Cumby said that he offered Perkins and Elliott “right of first refusal” in the project — meaning that they would be able to lease two of the ground-floor retail spaces in the development before they went to the open market. Elliott said that the price range for the new units wouldn’t, however, be affordable.
“The new retail space would be at the higher end of Swarthmore leases and I’m at the lower-end,” she said.
Cumby estimates the retail spaces will be priced at around twenty-five dollars per square foot, which is more than both Perkins and Elliott currently pay.
“I can’t tell you that every business is appropriate for the nicest retail in town, it may not be. There’s nothing I can do about that,” he said.
Bill Cumby Jr. sits at Hobbs in downtown Swarthmore with the latest renderings of the 110 Park Avenue Project. Cumby’s construction management company, W.S. Cumby Construction, has been responsible for several recent projects in town including the Inn at Swarthmore and the PPR Apartments. (Owen Mortner/The Phoenix)
Setting a Precedent for Demolition?
“I was really horrified when I heard the building might be torn down. It’s like your past is gone,” said Elvira Celia Poeisz, who grew up in Swarthmore during the 1960s and now lives in New York. Her grandfather, an Italian immigrant, built the Celia building in the 1920s. For decades, Poeisz’s family lived in the building and ran a shoe shop out of the space now occupied by Harvey Oak Mercantile.
Per a Historic Resources Survey commissioned by the borough in 2001, nearly every building in the downtown area is historic. The designation doesn’t, however, provide any legal protection for these buildings.
“It’s tricky, because every building in the town center is on that historical zoning. I don’t know why whoever made that decision years ago made that decision,” said Kim O’Halloran, the current president of Swarthmore Town Center.
Several residents have urged the developers to incorporate the existing facade of the Celia building into the new project. Cumby and Delson’s initial renderings showed the Celia building being integrated into the design, but they were later scrapped.
“I went to the site with a structural engineer and an architect, it really turned out to be not plausible. It was not the concrete fortress that I was led to believe, there was no way to incorporate it,” said Cumby.
Kenney said that tearing down buildings and starting from scratch is “one of the least sustainable ways to build,” and suggested that the developers try harder to preserve and renovate the Celia building as part of the project.
“The building is currently occupied, it would be quite surprising to discover that it was in a state of structural failure. Buildings are adaptively reused all the time,” he said.
Melanie Rodbart, a structural engineer and borough resident, worries that replacing the two buildings could set a precedent for the demolition of other historic buildings in the business district.
“If these two buildings are demolished, then all the guardrails are off. If this happens, this will continue to happen,” she said.
“If this plan is approved, then there may well be others in the pipeline. There would really be no basis to deny the conversion of the rest of the town center into five-story blocks,” added Peyton-Jones.
Cumby argues that the Historic Resources Survey wasn’t intended to protect buildings in the town center from demolition.
A ‘massing model’ prepared by Swarthmore resident and architect Chris Kenney shows the scale of the development in the context of the surrounding streetscape. Both Kenney and Rodbart expressed concerns that the renderings released by the developer showed only a limited perspective.
“This isn’t an anti-demolition ordinance, it’s just a list of buildings that were there at a time. No one would suggest demolishing the Shirer Building or Michael’s, but this isn’t an iconic building,” he said.
The decision to grant approval for the demolition rests with the Borough Council. Cumby expects to receive approval by April of this year.
Along with Kenney and other concerned residents, Rodbart is looking into options to legally challenge the demolition, including hiring an attorney.
“Our zoning code specifically references when buildings are permitted to be demolished and right now this project just ignores that,” she said.
The developers have included environmentally sustainable features like a green roof and electric vehicle charging stations in the most recent version of the design, but some community members are pushing them to go further.
“I’d like it to be an all-electric building. The whole idea for climate change is, ‘Let’s make everything as energy efficient as possible and then electrify everything,’” said Phil Coleman, a lifelong borough resident and energy-use professional who has advised governments around the globe on energy efficiency.
During the Planning Commission meeting on Oct. 20, Robin Schafley, a member of Swarthmore’s Environmental Council, urged the developers to use renewable energy such as solar panels, static solar heating, and geothermal heat pumps in the project.
According to Cumby, many of the exact energy features of the building are not yet certain.
“We haven’t gotten that far yet, once we know that we have the shape of the building, that’s where a lot of the green aspects will be developed,” he said.
Cumby said that he isn’t sure if the building will meet requirements for LEED — a green building certification program that rates buildings based on environmental sustainability. But he noted that his firm usually uses many LEED-recommended practices in their projects including recycling waste.
The project would have 40 parking spaces under the building, with hydraulic lifts that could stretch the total capacity to as many as 70. Coleman said the total number should be closer to 20, noting the building site’s proximity to mass transit.
“It can be dramatically lower than what they’re proposing,” he said. “This whole one person, one car economy is on the way out.”
“We have a train line and we’ve got a bus that goes from Chester to Upper Darby, we’ve got Uber and Lyft, do you really need a car?” he added.
Some environmental and housing advocates see denser housing near public transit hubs as a priority. That struggle has mostly played out in cities but is increasingly debated in suburban communities like Swarthmore.
Gabriel Straus ’23, who rents a four-bedroom apartment with roommates on Park Avenue, is a supporter of the project.
“From a climate standpoint, we need to build more dense, transit-oriented development in inner-ring suburbs like Swarthmore,” he said.
Coleman agrees, noting that the embodied energy lost in the demolition of the existing buildings will be “dwarfed by the energy benefits of denser living over the 50 or 150 year lifespan of the new development.”
‘No Goals for Affordable Housing’
The six-hundred-thousand dollar starting price point for the condo units has heightened concerns for some residents about the lack of affordable housing in town. The project would involve the destruction of several rental units that are moderately priced for the area.
Gavin Stief is a current tenant in the Celia Building. He said in a September op-ed published in the Swarthmorean that he is looking for a new apartment but that there are “slim pickings out there in this overheated rental market.”
Schaufler urged the developers to set aside six affordable units to replace the ones that will be lost if the project is approved in her public comment in October, but Cumby said he has no plans to do so.
“We’re not an affordable housing developer, we’ve worked with those developers in the past and they tend to build in impacted places like North Philadelphia, Chester, or Jersey City — not in Swarthmore,” he said.
Rachel Pastan, Helen Nadel, and Jayatri Das, three Swarthmore residents, created a petition calling on the Borough Council to establish an affordable housing task force to look at increasing the number of affordable units in town.
“The town government has no definition for affordable housing or goals for affordable housing. Naturally-occurring affordable housing exists in town, but there’s no record of how many units exist or where they’re located,” said Nadel.
The group plans to present their proposal at an upcoming meeting of the Borough Council in January and hopes it will be voted on in the coming months.
Kim O’Halloran said that mixed-use projects like 110 Park Avenue are a step in the right direction but noted the need for more community input, especially from the merchants.
Cumby and Delson plan to hold a Zoom meeting to field questions from town center merchants this Monday.
Theresa Richardson, who owns popular Park Avenue brunch spot Occasionally Yours with her husband, said she doesn’t yet know enough about the project to make a judgment but has concerns about how the construction process might impact business.
“My biggest thing is the timetable, I’d like to know how long it’s going to take from beginning to end, that’s going to be something that’s hard for them to predict, but I’d like to at least get an idea,” she said.
Pete Canakis co-owns Renato Pizza with his father and lives in Broomall. He said he thinks the development is part of a new wave of construction that will modernize the downtown area and bring more customers into his business.
“Small businesses need foot traffic, this will bring more people into everyone’s businesses, whether it’s a pizza shop, a market, or hardware store,” he said.
Bill Ryba has owned Paulson and Company Rugs since 2007, which is just steps away from the proposed building site for 110 Park Avenue. He said he thought the construction process would be “a big deal” but that proximity to new housing would bring in more customers.
“I imagine they’re going to have flooring, they’re going to need rugs and I’m right here so it should benefit me and I can help them out,” he said.
Small business owners Martha Perkins and Shannon Elliott stand outside the Celia Building which houses Gallery on Park and Harvey Oak Mercantile. Elliott and Perkins’ businesses will be displaced if the 110 Park Avenue project is approved. (Anatole Shukla/The Phoenix)
For now, Elliott and Perkins have their hands full with a steady stream of holiday shoppers buying candles, greeting cards, jewelry and other handcrafted gifts — many of them delivered to the stores by local artists.
The uncertainty about the future of their businesses is a source of near-constant worry for both women.
“If I had to relocate outside of Swarthmore, I wouldn’t, that would be that. I’m Gallery on Park, I’m committed to staying in Swarthmore, and if my business can’t find a place to land in this town, then I would close my doors,” Perkins said.
Elliott said that many customers who come in are supportive but unaware that the project is still moving forward.
“So much of the community just doesn’t know what’s going on,” she said. “They like cute shops like mine, but there’s a very high chance that I will go out of business because of this.”