Shops line the street in downtown Ardmore.
By: Paul Schwedelson
A recommended zoning change to allow for taller buildings, one of the most controversial parts of the proposed Ardmore master plan, is being removed after Lower Merion Township commissioners argued it distracted from the rest of the guiding document.
The year-long process of writing a master plan for the Main Line town came to a head earlier this spring when a draft was unveiled publicly. The plan called for the exploration of a transit overlay zone, which would allow four-story buildings by right and five-story buildings with frontage setbacks and affordable housing. Six-story buildings would be allowed if located along train lines and if they have frontage setbacks and affordable housing.
After pushback from residents and commissioners, the zoning changes are now being removed from the next version of the plan.
Any zoning change proposed in the master plan would need separate approval anyway. A future task force could be created by commissioners to further consider zoning proposals.
Removing the zoning changes from the master plan is a win for residents and commissioners unhappy with allowances for taller buildings.
“The majority of the community has pretty loudly said over the years we don’t want greater height. We don’t want greater density,” said Micah Snead, former Ardmore Progressive Civic Association president and a member of the master plan steering committee. “We continue to get it despite saying that. Having that removed from the document, I think yes, that’s good.”
Lower Merion Senior Planner Jillian Dierks has said allowing more density was included in the plan after receiving feedback from residents desiring walkability, affordability and sustainability. She believes allowing more density would help address those concerns.
Opponents of the height allowance argued more density would come with more traffic on roads and the loss of Ardmore’s charm.
At a previous meeting, Commissioner Ray Courtney and Lower Merion Director of Building and Planning Chris Leswing agreed the proposed zoning overlay, which would require a different approval, shifted people’s focus away from the master plan’s purpose as a guide to steer Lower Merion’s future decisions.
With the master plan scheduled to be approved in the next few months, a clash over building heights and density could play out in the future.
“Six stories is still hard to swallow particularly since in the zoning code rewrite it wasn’t even an option,” Courtney said. “Five was the original maximum. … It’s still troubling six is in here as an option."
Courtney is referring to considerations for a future task force to explore taller buildings.
The updated master plan also calls for the separate task force to explore an option for incentives in exchange for higher density allowances. For example, new developments could be allowed to have more density if they include underground parking, affordable housing, public gathering space, sustainability components and multimodal transportation improvements.
Until 2020, a mixed-use special transit district in Lower Merion allowed for higher-density residential buildings. Three years ago, the township rewrote its zoning code to scale back density.
While pleased the township responded to feedback when the draft master plan was released, Snead said he’s concerned the zoning topic is unresolved.
“This is just like another, ‘Oh well we’re not going to have a final answer on this quite yet, but we’re going to keep thinking about it,’” Snead said, “which to me is the opposite of a plan.”