This Community Profile is a summary of relevant background information regarding open space, natural features, historic features and recreational uses, which may impact preservation policy and investment decisions. The section is comprised of five components: Historical Background, Regional Setting, Local Setting, Existing Land Use and Demographic Analysis.
Lower Merion is a community that is surrounded by a rich cultural and religious heritage, but what attracted our ancestors and our current neighbors to live here?
To answer this Lower Merion’s history can best be understood if we look at the various transportation networks that were used in the past. Let’s chronicle the development of our community from this perspective through four eras: namely, the river, the road, the railroad, and the regional highway.
THE RIVER ERA -
More than 12,000 years ago the first inhabitants of this area were a group of Native Americans who were part of a loose confederation of the Algonquin Nation called the Lenape. The Lenape who lived in this region were of the Unami Tribe which translates to “People From Down River.” They encamped along Ganoshowanna, which means “Falling Water” (Schuylkill River) and used this waterway as their means of transportation.
The Lenape practiced a “nature” religion; they had a devout respect for the forests and the streams. Their “wisdom-keepers” tell us “...land is something sacred and alive.... Our belief is to keep the Earth and all life in proper balance and in harmony. Each generation is here but for a little while, and while we are alive, it is our responsibility to see that the land remains pure and undefiled, so that our future generations may continue to live here in health and happiness.”
THE ROAD ERA -
In 1616, the first Europeans to appear in this area were the Dutch, who named our river the “Schuil-Kil” or “Hidden River.” A few years later the Swedes arrived, but it was not until 1664 that the English took possession of the region.
In 1681, due to a land grant from King Charles II of England, William Penn began his “Holy Experiment” in the New World. Penn was a Quaker and “Penn Sylvania” or “Penn’s Woods” was to be a refuge of religious tolerance. In 1682, the first Welsh settlers occupied “Merion.” These early immigrants wrote home to their friends expounding of the natural resources of their new homeland. “I hope it will please thee, and the rest who are concerned, for it hath most rare timber. I have not seen the like in all these parts, there is water enough besides. The end of each lot will be on a river...it is called Skool Kill River.”
Again, from the early records of Lower Merion’s ancestors, they described their new homeland as having a “Garden of Eden” quality. “...good land as any of Adam’s progeny need ask for. Its surface is undulating but not so much so as to make it undesirable for agricultural purposes... Over its surface, and through its miniature valleys, meander quite a number of streams of good soft water. So numerous are the rivulets that there is not a single farm of any magnitude without one or more fountains of the living crystal as Rebecca went to procure when she met Isaac.”
During these early years, hundreds of immigrants came through this area. Some stayed and occupied their new land and established working plantations. These farms were prosperous. The next priority was building a systematic road network that would link the meetinghouses, villages, and mills that were necessary to accommodate the needs of the community.
As America grew, so did the need from more roads to accommodate the trip westward to Lancaster, the frontier post to the “wild west.” As a result of building more roads, like the Lancaster Pike (1794), inns and villages began to appear along these roads to aid the travelers.
THE RAILROAD ERA -
The steam locomotive arrived on the scene and began replacing the horse and wagon. In 1832 the Philadelphia & Columbia Railway, the Main Line of the Public Works of the State of Pennsylvania, came on the scene, and in 1857 was replaced by the Pennsylvania Railroad.
In their marketing brochure the Pennsylvania Railroad described Lower Merion as “...its atmosphere is pure: it is thoroughly drained by numerous streams: its soil is fertile; and it is in a striking degree picturesque. Nature - the great landscape gardener - has carved and molded it into rolling hills and placid vales, and so studded it with trees and interlaced it with crystal rivulets, that the picture everywhere is lovely to look upon.”
This improved rail transportation system, and nature at its best, brought wealthy city dwellers in search of country estates. In the 1870’s, much of the “Main Line” was being transformed into a premier suburban community. Large farms were being bought up and mansions and country homes were replacing farmhouses. To support these large estates, schools, churches, railroad stations, hospitals, hotels and clubhouses were built. Lower Merion was becoming gentrified.
Another quote from a similar brochure states “...What is accepted as, ‘The Main Line’ of the Pennsylvania Railroad, forms a residential gateway to Philadelphia, which has no equal on the American Continent. The undulating country from West Philadelphia to Paoli is rich in natural scenery.”
REGIONAL HIGHWAY ERA -
As the steam locomotive replaced the horse and wagon, so has the car replaced the locomotive. With the abundance of automobiles, an improved road network was needed, and early in the 1950’s, the Schuylkill Expressway was constructed that hugged the Schuylkill River along the north and east boundaries of the township.
We are a living and evolving community that is growing in different ways than we did in the past. This master plan recognizes that Lower Merion is a suburban township connected to Philadelphia, which is the fifth largest city in the United States.
Lower Merion remains a highly desirable place to live and work, but the township is becoming more densely developed. These pressures for development and increased density require vigilance and continual effort to identify, resist or modify unregulated land development.
Good planning can minimize the impact of today’s stress on our township. If you look back at our history, nature has always been an asset of this community. “Where Nature Smiles” is Lower Merion’s legacy and it’s vitally important that open space continues to play a key role in the continued growth of the township.
Lower Merion Township encompasses 23.6 square miles, which is slightly larger than the island of Manhattan. The Township is located at the southeast corner of Montgomery County and is bordered to the east and northeast by Philadelphia County, to the south by Radnor and Haverford Townships of Delaware County and to the west and northwest by West Conshohocken Borough and Upper Merion Township of Montgomery County. The Schuylkill River forms the 7-mile northern boundary of the township and separates it from parts of Philadelphia and Montgomery County.
Lower Merion is one of the largest municipalities in the Philadelphia region in both land area and total population2. It is the largest municipality in Montgomery County, in both population and land area, and ranks as the 9th most populous municipality in Pennsylvania.
The Township is characterized as an inner-ring, built-out, first generation suburb of Philadelphia. Lower Merion still maintains a strong connection with the center city employment and cultural attractions. However, besides the cultural and educational features immediately adjacent along the City Avenue Corridor and in Manayunk, the Township is largely segregated from the rest of Philadelphia physically, economically and socially.
Direct access by the Schuylkill Expressway, Mid-County Expressway (Blue Route) and multiple regional lines still allows Lower Merion to function as a bedroom community for Philadelphia. Additionally, in the last several decades these transportation routes have also provided residents access to the growing employment centers on the periphery of the region in Wilmington, King of Prussia and Fort Washington. Access to high-paying, regional employment centers and its relative geographic separation from surrounding communities has allowed the Township to maintain high levels of income and in many ways exhibit characteristics of an outer-ring, developing suburban community.
The high levels of income and property values have allowed the Township to avoid the fate of many other neighboring first generations suburbs of the region, which have experienced significant disinvestment and population loss. Lower Merion and the other former railroad suburb communities that comprise the ‘Main Line’, including Radnor, Upper Merion, Tredyffrin, Easttown and Newtown comprise a wealth belt extending west through Montgomery, Delaware and Chester Counties away from central Philadelphia.
Lower Merion Township also contains a unique political distinction by completely encircling the half square mile Borough of Narberth, which is located in the eastern portion of the Township. While politically separate entities, the Township and the Borough are in many ways functionally integrated with residents sharing cultural and recreational amenities.
The physical separation of the Township from adjacent communities and the rest of the region has also denied Township residents the opportunity to fully participate and enjoy regional open space and recreational amenities without driving. This is particularly relevant regarding the Schuylkill River Trail, which runs along the eastern side of the Schuylkill River and connects with the entire Montgomery County Trail network, Valley Forge National Park and the Wissahickon Valley Park. Even though it is just across the river, the lack of meaningful pedestrian and bike connections excludes Township residents from accessing this important amenity without driving.
While this report presents a plan for the Township of Lower Merion, the open space needs and resources of such a large and diverse community are most effectively explored at a smaller scale. Fortunately, the Township functions as a federation of smaller neighborhoods, each with a distinct history and identity. There is strong identification with local neighborhoods and residents are more likely to say they are from Ardmore, Bryn Mawr or Gladwyne than Lower Merion Township.
Lower Merion contains a total of 16 separate census tracts, each of which roughly corresponds with local neighborhood boundaries. For the purposes of this report the Township has been subdivided into 16 separate planning areas (Villages) and each planning area has been assigned a name generally associated with that neighborhood. (Refer to Villages Map)
Regional Location Map
The following geographic description of the Township is provided from the 1937 Comprehensive Plan:
Lower Merion Township is roughly rectangular in shape, approximately 6 miles long and 4 miles wide, and has an area of 23.64 square miles. With two sides bordering Philadelphia, Lower Merion forms a wedge pointed toward the heart of that city. The center of Philadelphia is less than five miles from the nearest point in the Township but little more than eleven miles from the farthest. In distance and in time, the communities of Lower Merion are closer to the center of Philadelphia than is a large part of the city proper. This favorable location, has, of course, been a major factor in the growth of Lower Merion as a suburban residential area.
Another physical characteristic influencing the development of the Township is topography. A discussion of this feature invites a division of the area into two parts roughly defined as north and south of Montgomery Avenue. The southern part is a gently rolling plateau largely drained by Cobb’s Creek and its branches. Elevations above sea level range from 250 feet at City Avenue to 400 feet at Rosemont. Through this area run the Main Line of the Pennsylvania Railroad and the Lancaster Pike. The easy grades and excellent transportation facilities have permitted intensive development of this area. Within it live 75% of the population and within it are located the major business centers of the Township.
The dominant physical feature of the larger section north of Montgomery Avenue is the Schuylkill River, which borders the Township on the north and east for over seven miles. Elevations range from 20 feet above sea level on the banks of the lower Schuylkill to 500 feet on the hills overlooking Conshohocken. Short, steep, tributary streams have carved narrow valleys through this more rugged area, resulting in less direct road systems but more scenic beauty. In olden times, the steep gradient of the creeks afforded valuable water power for mills of various kinds. Today, the comparative isolation and natural beauty of the area encourage the establishment of country estates and large suburban homes. This type of development should continue in the future as the rough topography discourages the intensive development characteristic of the southern part.
Politically, Lower Merion Township is a part of Montgomery County. The county was separated from Philadelphia County in 1784. Lower Merion was organized as a Township of the first class in 1900. Located entirely within the Township is the Borough of Narberth, one-half square miles in area. It was incorporated as a borough in 1895.
Next to physical geography, the most defining physical feature of Lower Merion is its transportation infrastructure. The following section describes the various components of this infrastructure, including the local road network, public transportation and freight rail systems and pedestrian/bicycle network.
LOCAL ROAD NETWORK
Lower Merion has a large and diverse road network and that includes two regional highways, several arterial roads and numerous tertiary and local streets. Of these, the largest are the east/west oriented Schuylkill Expressway (76) and north/south oriented Mid-County Expressway (Blue Route 476). Both expressways run along the periphery of the Township and the construction of the Schuylkill Expressway in the 1950’s effectively cut off significant public access to the last open sections of the Schuylkill River in Lower Merion. There are numerous access points to both expressways within and immediately outside of the Township, providing residents with direct connections to the regional road network and corresponding employment, shopping and cultural attractions.
As part of this planning process, the Township has investigated the narrow stretch of land between the expressway from Flat Rock Park to Belmont Avenue and from Belmont Avenue to the Penncoyd Railroad Bridge as a linear greenway. Between Flat Rock Park and Belmont Avenue the expressway is significantly elevated and acts to enclose the land between it and the river. This area is wide enough for creation of a multi-purpose trail and contains spectacular views of the river, almost always overlooked by motorists speeding by on the expressway.
The primary arterial streets in the Township are Conshohocken State Road, City Avenue (Route 1), which runs along the border with Philadelphia, Lancaster Avenue, which runs from West Philadelphia through Lower Merion to the western main suburbs of Wayne, Saint Davids and Paoli, and Montgomery Avenue, which runs from West Philadelphia through Lower Merion to Radnor. Montgomery, Lancaster and City Avenues also serve as the primary commercial corridors in the Township. Other significant roads include Belmont and Haverford Avenues and Rock Hill, Spring Mill and Wynnewood Roads.
Most of the primary arterial streets of the Township predate the automobile and as a result have been expanded to capacity over the years to accommodate increased traffic. The result is that the entire right-of-way of these roads is almost entirely paved and there is very little room outside the cartway for sidewalks, street trees or parking. This is particularly evident in the older commercial districts of Bryn Mawr and Ardmore and makes significant streetscape enhancements difficult.
Many of local roads and streets in the western part of the Township were established in the late 19th and early 20th century to connect exclusive, low-density residential neighborhoods. These winding tree-lined streets were designed as integral components of the pastoral landscapes these subdivisions sought to mimic. As a result of their original layout many of these local streets have narrow shoulders and do not have sidewalks. The current minor roadway and platting pattern is the result of the continued, gradual subdivision of large estates over the years. Successive subdivisions incorporated the established pattern of curving streets without sidewalks.
Many of the local roads in the eastern section of the Township were established in the early part of the 20th century at a much larger scale than those in the western portion. As a result, these subdivisions are more regularly platted and contain curving, roads within them generally followed existing contours and have limited connections to main arteries, so as to create defined neighborhoods. A pamphlet prepared by the Lower Merion Township Planning Commission in 1936 entitled The Development of Real Estate contains the following principles for the subdivision and development of real estate to “maintain the distinctive residential character of Lower Merion Township”:
These principles and others were codified into the original subdivision and land development ordinances of the Township. Sidewalks, between 4 and 6 feet wide were required along new residential streets as a result of these ordinances, however many developers requested and were granted waivers from these requirements with the intention of maintaining the exclusivity of their developments.
During the comprehensive planning efforts of the 1930’s the Township also required developers to plant street trees along all new roads. Large canopy trees were planted at regular intervals along residential streets in the 4–6 ft. parkway located between the edge of curb and the sidewalk. Street trees were of such importance, that a Shade Tree Commission was established by the Board of Commissioners in 1931 to ensure the design and continued care of shade trees in new residential construction. The 1949 annual report of the Shade Tree Commission reported a total of 50,000 shade trees, within the public ROW and the 1939 report boasted of removing 3,200 diseased or dead trees and replacement with 5,000 new trees.
In 2005, most of the original large street trees of these neighborhoods have been removed or are reaching the end of their life expectancy. Replacement trees do not always follow the original layout because of potential damage to sidewalks and resulting liability issues. Instead, smaller ornamentals are planted on private lawns outside of the ROW as replacements. The shift from ‘street trees’ to ‘lawn tree’ is changing the appearance of Lower Merion’s neighborhoods and significantly reducing overall tree cover within the Township.
Public transportation was instrumental in the development of Lower Merion as a ‘main line’ railroad suburb in the 19th century and the Township still enjoys exceptional public transportation access. Currently the Township has multiple stations on two regional rail lines, the R-5 Thorndale/Paoli and the R-6 Cynwyd.
The R-5 line includes local service provided by SEPTA and regional service provided by Amtrak. Amtrak stops at the Ardmore Station and provides service to the Keystone line from Pittsburgh and beyond to Philadelphia.
SEPTA, which locally provides service from Thorndale/Paoli to Center City Philadelphia, provides residents access to and from multiple stations including, Merion, Narberth, Wynnewood, Ardmore, Haverford, Bryn Mawr and Rosemont. Two of these stations Ardmore and Bryn Mawr and are integral components of surrounding commercial districts. The Township is currently investigating State funding for transit-oriented development to revitalize the areas around these stations. The intention is to recreate the traditional civic orientation, which placed train stations at the centers of downtown. The Township is considering including significant public open space as an integral component of the physical revitalization of both facilities.
The R-6 line runs from Cynwyd to Center City and includes the Cynwyd and Bala stations within the Township. The R-6 line formerly extended west from Cynwyd to Manayunk and Norristown until the 1980’s. Since then the tracks between Cynwyd and Manayunk have been removed and the corridor is vacant and rail banked. This corridor is being considered for one of two possible alignments for the proposed Schuylkill Valley Metro (SVM) line extending from Philadelphia to Reading. Due to current Federal and State transportation funding policy, the SVM remains a long-range project and will take years to realize. The ‘Cynwyd’ alignment remains a secondary alignment choice due to the necessity of maintaining the former Pennsylvania Railroad Bridge between Manayunk and Lower Merion and the existing R-6 alignment between Manayunk and Philadelphia on the other side of the Schuylkill River.
The current conditions of this rail corridor present a tremendous open space/recreation opportunity for the Township until the time that it is reactivated. This line originally connected two of the largest open spaces in the Township, West Laurel Hill Cemetery and Westminster Cemetery, with Philadelphia and Manayunk. Both cemeteries still connect with the corridor. The Township should investigate converting this corridor to a recreational trail extending to Manayunk. The lack of adjacent residential neighbors backing up to a public trail and potential access to the trail networks within the cemeteries increases the desirability of this trail. Of course, the development of a trail should in no way impede construction of the SVM, a transportation project with high regional and local importance.
The Township also has several bus routes that run through the Township and link with regional rail facilities. In addition, the Township enjoys the benefits of the R-100 regional line that runs along the southern periphery of the Township and connects the 69th Street Transit Center in Upper Darby with the Norristown Transit Center.
Two freight rail lines operated by Conrail traverse the Township. CSX operates occasional freight service along the R-5 corridor. Norfolk Southern operates a twin track freight line on the former Reading Railroad line between Philadelphia and Norristown. This line is a busy regional intermodal freight corridor and often carries double-high container shipments and is anticipated to increase traffic in coming years. It extends from a rail yard under the City Avenue Bridge in the eastern part of the Township and runs on an elevated embankment westward through the Flat Rock Tunnel south of the Schuylkill Expressway. West of Flat Rock Park the tracks continue along an elevated embankment north of the expressway until they reach the intersection of Waverly and River Roads, from this point on the tracks run at grade between the expressway and the river. The Waverly/River Road intersection is a grade crossing.
This rail line does as much, if not more to cut off residents from the Schuylkill riverfront as the Schuylkill Expressway. During the creation of this Open Space Plan, the Township has determined that a multi-use trail can be physically constructed between the expressway and the rail corridor from West Conshohocken to Waverly Road and between the elevated rail corridor and River Road from Waverly Road to Flat Rock Park. Currently the Township is investigating ownership of this vacant land, which includes the former River Road, abandoned and destroyed during construction of the expressway and the extent of the railroad ROW. Due to the high volume of freight traffic on this corridor, location of a multi-use trail parallel to the tracks will be challenging, but possible. The cooperation of Norfolk Southern will be critical if this segment of the Schuylkill River West Trail is to be realized.
PEDESTRIAN BICYCLE NETWORK
As part of this Plan, Lower Merion contracted with Campbell Thomas and Company (CT&C) to prepare a Township-wide Pedestrian and Bicycle Network Feasibility Study evaluating the existing pedestrian bicycle environment and investigating the potential for the creation of an integrated network linking parks and natural areas with neighborhoods, business districts, schools and adjacent municipalities. The plan evaluated multiple forms of transportation including walking, running, biking and horseback riding. This study is incorporated into this report by reference and its analysis and recommendations are integral components of this plan.
The Township has a variety of formal and informal pedestrian bikeways including sidewalks in residential and commercial areas, informal paths and the Bridlewild Trails network. Generally, this system has been cobbled together over the years by different parties and has suffered from the reliance upon automobiles as the primary form of transportation. As a result, many important sections of the network, such as shoulders wide enough for joggers or bikers, were never developed or were removed to make way for road expansion.
The pedestrian environment throughout the Township varies from neighborhood to neighborhood, with some sections in excellent condition and others non-existent or dangerous. These conditions derive from the piecemeal manner in which pedestrian amenities were constructed or not constructed, by individual developers over many years. Generally, the denser areas of the Township in the east and south have more developed sidewalk systems than areas to the north and west, many of which do not contain sidewalks at all.
Bicycling between residential neighborhoods, parks and commercial areas throughout Lower Merion Township is a challenging and often dangerous experience. The overall bicycle environment throughout the Township is generally poor because bicyclists are forced to share already constricted roadways with automobiles. Some routes, such as Montgomery Avenue, while designated and signed as bike routes, are still very dangerous. In many cases bicyclists are forced to ride on the sidewalk because of narrow road widths and traffic volumes. Bicycling within residential neighborhoods is generally much easier due to reduced through traffic. Commercial areas have few bike amenities, such as bike racks, which would encourage occasional trips.
The Township is fortunate to have an informal network of pedestrian and equestrian trails known as the Bridlewilds trails that exists in the Gladwyne area. This network runs via a series of formal and informal easements through and between private properties and Township parks. The system is open to members of the Bridlewild Association.
Generally, Lower Merion is a first class Township with a second rate pedestrian network that is a direct result of its evolution as a 20th century, auto-oriented, residential suburb. The Township-wide Pedestrian/Bicycle Plan proposes a long-range, comprehensive plan for developing an integrated multi-use 21st century trail network throughout the Township. The Plan identifies key nodes such as commercial centers, parks or schools and develops a series of priority routes connecting them. These routes include recommendations for physical improvements, such as new sidewalks or striped bike lanes to make them safer and more conducive for jogging or biking.
HISTORIC LAND USE PATTERN
The existing land use pattern is the result of historic precedents, zoning and land use ordinances. Lower Merion’s land use has not changed significantly for many years and the current land use pattern is the direct result of land use controls that implemented low-density, residential land use pattern articulated in the Township’s 1937 Comprehensive Plan. The 1937 Plan recognized the Township’s evolution from a series of 19th century railroad suburbs, mills, farms and factories into a complex, auto-oriented, modern suburb, with residential neighborhoods of various densities, commercial centers and limited industrial activities. While the Plan acknowledges the historic importance of commuter rail for the Township, it is one of the few comprehensive plans of that time that devotes an entire chapter to the issue of automobile parking.
The 1937 Plan initiated several important policies that resulted in the Township’s current land use pattern including encouraging low density, detached single-family uses, limiting areas zoned for commercial uses and high density residential uses and eliminating row houses, (multiple attached housing). However attached (twins) housing was encouraged in limited locations for low-income housing.
The original zoning ordinance (1927) established a total of 7 zoning classes, 5 residential, 1 for business and 1 for industry. Over the years, the ordinance has been amended and currently provides for a total of 18 zoning classes, 10 residential, 5 for business, 1 for industry, 1 for medical uses at Lankenau Hospital and 1 for medical uses in Bryn Mawr. In addition, there are three overlay district; Open Space Preservation District, Historic Resource Overlay District and Floodplain District.
CURRENT LAND USE PATTERN
Over two-thirds (69.0%) of Lower Merion Township is devoted to residential uses, primarily single-family detached housing. This high percentage is indicative of post-war, automobile suburbs such as Cherry Hill or King of Prussia, but unusual for older, inner-ring suburbs throughout the region. Lower Merion also contains an unusually high percentage (13.2%) of land occupied by institutional uses, such as private schools, hospitals and churches. Public parks and privately protected open spaces comprise the third highest percentage of land use (5.8%). The remaining land within the Township is occupied by commercial/office (3.6%), public lands, including public schools and Township owned property (2.4%) and other uses (6.0%). Other uses include vacant land and land used for transportation such as roads and railways.
Lower Merion Township is predominantly a suburban residential community. Over two-thirds (69.0%) of the Township consists of residential uses. The vast majority of residential properties are single-family detached homes, with a small number of single-family attached (twin) homes and clusters of multi-family apartment/condominium buildings.
The Township is facing significant infill development pressure impacting the existing density patterns resulting from subdivision and the teardown/rebuild of smaller homes with larger homes. While this redevelopment may not result in significant increases in absolute population it is contributing to a perception that overall density is increasing due to new construction and the demolition of existing historic and natural resources. The Township should consider additional measures to preserve existing large trees and incorporate new shade tree plantings as part of redevelopment as a means to maintain existing character.
Housing exists at a variety of densities throughout the Township with lower densities generally toward the north and west and higher densities toward the south and east. This low-density, detached residential pattern has historically precluded the need for additional open spaces on a Township-wide level, since the majority of neighborhoods have high levels of open space built in. However higher-density neighborhoods with attached and multi-family housing would benefit from additional infill public green spaces, such as pocket parks and tot lots.
Lower Merion has a vast and diverse inventory of institutions distributed throughout the Township, including Bryn Mawr Hospital in Bryn Mawr, the Henry Foundation in Gladwyne and the Barnes Foundation in Merion. Institutional uses play an important part in perpetuating the low-density, residential scale of the Township because institutions often include large tracts of open space. Institutions also contain important architectural and landscape architectural elements such as walls, fences and large trees that contribute to the unique public landscape of the Township. Institutional uses comprise the majority of the Township’s inventory of temporarily protected open spaces.
Because of their importance in defining the public landscape, many of the institutional uses over five (5) acres in size, containing an historic resource, or sited at an intersection have been inventoried and mapped in the inventory section of this report. Specific open space and landscape design issues are addressed in that section.
Many of the larger institutions within the Township, such as the Barnes Foundation and Lankenau Hospital, are facing pressure to grow and expand. Institutional growth often results in a perceived increase in density resulting from additional traffic and loss of open space. Institutional growth presents a planning dilemma for the Township, which must balance the operational needs of these important uses with the goal of mitigating negative externalities resulting from increased development.
The Township has taken proactive measures toward the preservation of large-institutional tracts of land through its open space district overlay and historic preservation ordinances. However, the incremental growth of institutional uses is becoming a significant land use issue.
PARKS AND PRIVATE PROTECTED OPEN SPACE
The Township also has a large and diverse collection of public parks and privately protected open spaces. Privately protected open spaces include properties like Saunder’s Woods, which is administered by the Natural Lands Trust, as well as subdivision open spaces protected under the Open Space Preservation Ordinance.
The Township has acquired the majority of its public parks and open spaces through donation or timely bargain sale acquisition. Many of these spaces resulted from the subdivision or transfer of large estates. Many also contain the historic resources, which are the remnants of the former estates.
The Township has long-recognized the importance that parks and open spaces play in maintaining a high quality of life for all residents and is committed to maintaining and expanding its inventory of public open spaces. A full analysis of park and recreational resources is provided later in this report in the “Evaluation of Recreation Resources” section.
Lower Merion contains a very small percentage (3.3%) of land occupied by commercial and office activities. Commercial land use is clustered in a handful of districts throughout the Township; these areas coincide with those mapped on the Growth Areas Map later in this chapter. Of these, the City Avenue Corridor, Ardmore and Bryn Mawr are the largest and serve Township and regional customers. Ardmore includes the Lancaster Avenue Corridor from Wynnewood to Haverford as well as the Suburban Square shopping mall. The Gladwyne, Penn Wynne, Merion-Cynyd, and Bala Avenue districts primarily function as neighborhood commercial centers.
The Township is committed to maintaining and improving its small, but important commercial districts. The three largest districts, City Avenue, Ardmore and Bryn Mawr are each currently involved with individual revitalization planning initiatives. Each of these studies proposes the addition of enhanced public landscaping and the creation of central, public spaces. Public space has been recognized as an integral component in downtown revitalization and presents the Township with the opportunity to create central meeting places it currently lacks.
The Township has numerous property holdings throughout the Township that serve a variety of municipal uses. These uses include public schools, leaf composting facilities and recycling centers. Public schools serve as neighborhood green spaces and are well used by residents after hours for active and passive recreation. There is a potential for some other public lands, such as the leaf facility on River Road to be utilized for more active open space/recreational activities.
OTHER LAND USES
The Township has very little vacant land and what vacant land exists is often developed quickly. A significant percentage of Township land is devoted to transportation uses, primarily for the automobile. Roads are a significant image generator for the Township and Lower Merion has long-stressed the importance of enhancing them by planting street trees. Street trees and public landscapes are an integral component of the overall open space of the Township and comprise its “green infrastructure”. Issues relating to green infrastructure are addressed in the “Analysis of Green Infrastructure” section, later in this report.
LAND USE SUMMARY
Lower Merion has a well-defined land use pattern predominantly comprised of single-family detached housing at varying densities as well as number of large institutional uses. The overall pattern is anticipated to remain, but will become more dense over time as large residential lots, former estates and institutions are gradually subdivided. In order to preserve the unique open character of the Township, the preservation of large open spaces, particularly those along public roads, is crucial.
Lower Merion has the unique opportunity to ‘create’ new open spaces in commercial areas through redevelopment of underutilized surface parking lots or Brownfields. If designed properly, these new public spaces can become the town squares of the 21st century and anchor the revitalization of these districts.
The Township also has the opportunity to create linear greenways in conjunction with its extensive and diverse transportation infrastructure. For years roads and rail beds have been viewed as impediments to recreation and open space. But a fresh and creative look at these resources presents the opportunity to create an extensive network of multi-functional hard-surfaced trails alongside the primary transportation use. In turn this could transform a simple expressway into a 21st century multimodal transportation corridor.
The following section presents a demographic profile of the Township as a whole and compares that profile with the rest of the County and the region. While the population has remained relatively level for decades it may increase due to higher density infill redevelopment.
The community profile of Lower Merion is very different from the rest of Montgomery County or the Delaware Valley region as a whole3. Generally, the population of Lower Merion is older, better educated and much more affluent than either the county or the region. The Township has the highest levels of white collar and professional workers, married couples, and single-family dwellings in Montgomery County.
While there are striking demographic differences between the Township and the region, more importantly for this Plan, there are also significant demographic and land use variations between different villages within the Township4. Demographic differences within the Township are the result of several factors, including when the neighborhoods were originally established, the density at which they were originally constructed and their orientation to automobile or train travel.
Demographic variations between the different villages of the Township are particularly relevant to the Township’s open space planning efforts. Open space is planned at the municipal level as an interconnected network, but is practically experienced at the neighborhood level as a series of individual spaces by different individuals.
Open space functions differently and is perceived differently in each community. In Gladwyne and Rosemont, open space exists in large areas and helps to reinforce the rural, low-density pattern of the former country estates. In Wynnewood and Bala, open space is more formal and exists in neighborhood parks and along tree lined streets. Along the commercial districts of Lancaster Avenue in Ardmore and Bryn Mawr, comparatively small public plaza open spaces can function as town squares or commons. The low-density single-family homes of Penn Valley and College Park contain large private yards for the private enjoyment of open space, while the higher density multi-family developments near City Avenue require shared open spaces5.
This analysis was prepared using data from the 2000 Census provided by the Montgomery County Planning Commission (MCPC) and the Delaware Valley Regional Planning Commission (DVRPC). Additional economic and demographic projections have been provided by the DVRPC. Data has been analyzed at both the Township and Census Tract levels and has been integrated with the Township’s Geographic Information System.
The Township contains a total of 16 different census tracts. Each census tract is self-contained within the Township boundary and varies in size and population. Census tract boundaries do not follow political divisions, but generally follow conventional ‘village’ designations. For the purposes of this report, Census Tracts have been defined as follows.
Demographic and economic characteristics of a community have an effect on demand for recreation resources, opportunities and leisure services. While recreational preferences vary according to each individual, recreational interests are associated with characteristics of the population such as age, income, education, family relationships and trends in leisure spending.
The Township currently has an average population density of 2,504 persons per square mile. The Township’s average density is higher than the average for the United States (79.6), Pennsylvania (274.0), the Delaware Valley (1,438.9) and Montgomery County (1,553.0). This density is actually lower than other similar, first generation, transit-oriented suburban townships throughout the County such as Abington (3,631) and Cheltenham (4,084). While Lower Merion is the most populous community within Montgomery County, statistically, the Township ranks in the middle (36/62) in regards to overall population density.
Population density varies widely within the Township, from a low of 873 persons per square mile in Gladwyne to a high of 11,027 persons per square mile in West Ardmore. The density of Gladwyne is comparable with some of the County’s most rural communities, like Lower Salford Township (894) and Upper Providence Township (863). Statistically, Gladwyne ranks among the lowest quarter of all communities in Montgomery County in regards to population density.
Conversely, West Ardmore (11,027) and East Ardmore (9,926) contain some of the highest population densities in the County and have rates that are comparable with that of neighboring Philadelphia (11,241). In Montgomery County the population densities of East and West Ardmore are only exceeded by a handful of census tracts located primarily in Norristown, but also including single census tracts in Cheltenham and Pottstown.
While the extreme low population densities of Gladwyne and high densities of West Ardmore and East Ardmore are significant, these three villages only represent 20% (11,987) of the total population of the 16 total villages of the Township. Generally, population density within the Township is indicative of moderate, low-density single-family, detached land use pattern. In the majority of the Township, population density is generally lower in the northwestern quadrant near Radnor Township and higher towards the southwestern quadrant and adjacent to Philadelphia. Correspondingly these are the areas with the greatest concentration of large lot single-family homes and multi-family housing.
Since the 2000, census was released, the DVRPC has prepared updated population projections for every municipality in the region. According to these projections, population in Lower Merion was anticipated to remain flat through July 2003 (total net increase of 37 persons or 0.1%). However, Montgomery County as a whole was projected to grow at a healthy rate of 2.6%6.
POPULATION COMPOSITION BY AGE
Between 1990 and 2000 the median age of Lower Merion residents increased from 40.5 to 41.2 years of age. This trend is consistent with the general graying of America as the ‘Baby Boom Generation’ population continues to age. Between 1990 and 2000 the median age of Montgomery County increased from 35.8 to 38.2 years of age, which roughly corresponded to the pattern of the State (34.9 to 38.0) and the Country (32.9 to 35.3). The median age of Lower Merion’s 2000 population (41.2.) is older than Montgomery County (38.2) and Pennsylvania (38.0). It should be noted that Lower Merion’s median age is actually skewed downward due to the high percentage of college students residing within the Township.
Lower Merion remains one of the most affluent municipalities in Montgomery County, and has the 2nd highest Median Household Income in the County ($86,373) only behind Whitpain Township ($88,933). The Median Household income for the Township is significantly higher than that for the County as a whole ($60,829) or compared with the State as whole ($40,106).
Between 1989 and 1999, the Township experienced a modest increase (2.0%) in Median Household Income, which was almost 1/2 of the rate experienced by Montgomery County (3.8%) and 2/3 that of Pennsylvania (3.0%)
The Township also experienced a slight decrease (-0.6%) in Per Capita Income between 1989 and 1999. The decrease in per capita income contrasts sharply with the significant increases experienced by the Montgomery County (4.9%) and Pennsylvania (10.8%). However despite the decline, the per capita income of Lower Merion ($55,526) is the highest in Montgomery County and is significantly higher than the 2nd ranked municipality, Lower Gwynedd Township ($41,868).
While Lower Merion contains an impressive number of households with high incomes, the Township also contains a significant number of households with lower incomes. In 1999 nearly a third (29%) of all households in the Township reported incomes less than $50,000, which was less than the Median Household Income of the County ($60,829). Nearly one in five (19.6%) households in the Township reported incomes less than $35,000 in 1999 and nearly one in twenty (4.8%) households reported incomes less than $10,000.
The Township has an impressively high average household income, however this number is significantly skewed upward by the number of households earning over $200,000 a year.
While Lower Merion has high Median Household and Per Capita Incomes, there is a significant variation how income is distributed throughout the Township. The highest Median Household Incomes were reported in the Villages of Gladwyne ($177,098), Rosemont ($158,634) and South Penn Valley ($137,761) and the lowest Median Household Incomes were reported in the Villages of West Ardmore ($47,813), East Ardmore ($50,337) and East Bryn Mawr ($52,174).
AGE OF HOUSING INVENTORY
The majority of the Township’s housing stock (70%) was constructed prior to 1960. The median year when a house was constructed in the Township was 1950. In all villages the majority of housing was constructed prior to 1960, except Gladwyne and Belmont Hills/College Park where the majority was constructed between 1960 and 1970. Between 1990 and 2000 a total of 736 housing units were constructed, representing only 3.1% of the Township’s total housing stock. This data is indicative of a fully developed or built-out community.
A more relevant measurement of the Township’s housing inventory is the rate and type of infill housing construction. Since 1993 there have been a total of 132 demolition permits issued by the Township, the majority of which were for the reconstruction of new homes.
The composition of the Township’s housing stock is generally comparable with Montgomery County. The predominant housing type is single-family, either detached or attached. In Lower Merion 69.7% of all housing units are single–family compared with 74.7% throughout the County. Most single-family units are detached. On average 57.8% of household units in the Township are single-family detached, compared with 56.0% for Montgomery County. However, a quarter (25.2%) of all household units in Lower Merion are in structures with five or more units compared with only 16.6% for Montgomery County. Correspondingly, Montgomery County contains slightly higher rates of family attached and 2-4 unit structures than Lower Merion.
There is a significant variation of the predominant type of housing from Village to Village throughout the Township. South Penn Valley (91.8%) is almost entirely comprised of single-family detached units, while Bala and East Bryn Mawr contain very high concentrations of multi-family units of 5 or more units.
JOBS LOCATED WITHIN MUNICIPALITY/
While the Township is largely considered built-out and lacks significant land for new development, it is nonetheless still experiencing significant redevelopment pressure. The vast majority of the former estates and large holdings that defined the Township at the turn of the 20th century have since been subdivided and the remaining properties over five (5) acres in size that remain are governed by the Township’s Open Space Ordinance, which requires a minimum of 50% of the tract to be set aside as open space. However, redevelopment pressure is evidenced in the number of teardowns of mid-20th century residences in the northwestern parts of the Township, scattered infill, and conversion of the limited number of former industrial sites into higher-end residences.
The areas with the highest probability for growth are the areas around train stations, particularly in Ardmore and Bryn Mawr. The Township has designated the area around the Ardmore station as a both a Redevelopment Area and a Revitalization Area and is exploring opportunities for higher density, mixed use development to capitalize upon national trends and State and County financial incentives. The Township hopes to use higher density mixed-use development, primarily consisting of street level commercial/entertainment uses and upper floor residential to provide the investment and street presence to revitalize Ardmore.
The Township’s comprehensive redevelopment strategy for Ardmore consists of targeted new mixed-use development, conversion of the existing train station into a 21st century transit center and additional transportation infrastructure improvements including structured parking and realigned intersections to provide the financial investment to convert its excellent stock of early 20th century buildings into renovated mixed-uses.
The Township is currently involved in preparing a comprehensive plan for the Bryn Mawr area. The plan is being prepared in accordance with the Pennsylvania Municipal Planning Code (MPC) and will include the same elements required for municipal comprehensive plans, with the intention of establishing consistency between the two documents. The comprehensive plan will evaluate existing land uses, circulation patterns, housing conditions, community facilities and historic and open space resources to establish a long-range vision and land use plan for the community.
Due to the complexity of the planning process, the Plan will involve extensive public participation along with professional and staff input in order to reach a consensus vision for the growth and revitalization of the area.
Both the Ardmore and Bryn Mawr plans also include the creation of several important public open spaces to serve as central commons and locations for recreation and entertainment. These spaces are envisioned to be ‘Town Centers’ with high quality design and construction and are integral to the eventual land use pattern. The primary open space in Ardmore will combine Shauffele Plaza with Municipal parking Lot #5 located near the Transit Center and Township Building. The subcommittee preparing the Bryn Mawr Master Plan has determined that the large surface parking lot between Lancaster Avenue and the Train station should be redesigned as a surface level public park and contains underground parking.
The Township is also exploring the revitalization of the former industrial Rock Hill Road corridor for residential/mixed use development and has received interest for the redevelopment of the Georgia Pacific site along the Schuylkill River opposite Manayunk for high end residential development. The Township is committed to integrating public open space into both of these growth areas. In particular, the Georgia Pacific site with its waterfront location and proximity to two bridges is a vital link in an eventual Schuylkill River West Trail. These connections must have public access if a meaningful bike pedestrian connection to the Wissahickon Valley Park is to be established. This connection is of importance to not only to the Township, but also to the region.
The growth opportunities map indicates potential areas of growth in the next decade.
The Township last prepared a Comprehensive Plan in 1979. The Township previously prepared Comprehensive Plans in 1962, 1954, and 1937.
The Township Planning Department, Planning Commission and Board of Commissioners are currently updating the demographics and examining the goals and community development objectives contained within past plans for the purpose of preparing a completely new Comprehensive Plan to face the challenges of the 21st century. This Open Space and Natural Features Resource Protection Plan is intended to serve as an element of the Township’s new Comprehensive Plan.
Since the Township last prepared a Comprehensive Plan in 1979, there have been significant changes in the Pennsylvania Municipalities Planning Code (MPC), which serves as the enabling legislation for municipal planning. Many of these revisions and amendments concern the required elements of a Comprehensive Plan and specifically address provisions for natural resource protection.
This Open Space and Natural Resource Protection Plan has been prepared to satisfy the natural resources criteria required under Element 301.6 of the Pennsylvania Municipalities Planning Code in regard to natural and historic resources. This plan accomplishes that goal by comprehensively inventorying open space and natural feature resources within the Township and by providing an analysis of the issues facing these resources and by offering recommendations toward their continued protection.
This plan provides a detailed inventory and summary of issues facing the Township’s historic resources to the extent that such historic resources interrelate with open space and natural resource protection. The Plan includes a historic resource inventory and summary of historic resource protection issues in regards to open space and natural features. However, due to scope and complexity of historic resources and historic resource issues within the Township, this plan has not been prepared to satisfy the Historic Resource requirements of section 301.6.
The 1979 Comprehensive Plan, while 25-years old, remains the Township’s principal planning document. The core planning assumptions, goals and policies of the plan remain valid. Most of the policies and recommendations regarding open space recreation and natural resource protection have been implemented in the intervening years and are now incorporated within the Township’s land use and development control ordinances and within the current recreation plan.
Many of the issues and ideas presented within this 2005 Open Space and Natural Features Resource Plan are similar to, if not the same as, those faced by the Township in 1979. What is significant is the degree to which the plan has been followed, the issues have been addressed and the recommendations and policies implemented.
The goals and objectives of this Plan are generally consistent with the goals of the 1979 Comprehensive Plan. While new open space issues and new needs have arisen in the past quarter century, the Township is uniquely prepared to address them after having successfully confronted the majority of open space issues from 1979.
PARKS AND RECREATION PLAN
The Township last prepared a comprehensive Recreation Plan in 1996. The planning assumptions, goals and strategies of that Plan are still valid. A goal of this Plan is to implement the Findings of the 1996 Parks and Recreation Plan. That Plan is summarized in the section evaluating recreational needs and incorporated into this document by reference.
In May 1999, Township staff, under the direction of then President of the Board of Commissioners Kenneth E. Davis, prepared a strategic agenda to address the interrelationship between open space conservation, historic preservation, and environmental protection. This report entitled The Conservationist Agenda comprehensively examined prior Township efforts and policies and developed an action plan that integrated these issues into the core of Township planning efforts. The final report incorporated extensive stakeholder and community input.
The Conservationist Agenda outlined fundamental community values and assumptions and established specific goals to reinforce these values. Goals addressed the range of diverse and often competing administrative, open space conservation/outdoor recreation, environmental protection and historic preservation efforts within the Township.
The following summarizes the progress of the report:
Open Space Conservation/Outdoor Recreation Goals
1 Narrative supplied by Jerry Francis of the Lower Merion Historical Society.
2 The Philadelphia region, which includes Montgomery County and eight other counties in Pennsylvania and New Jersey, is a complex and dynamic region. With a population of over 5.2 million people (in 1994), the Philadelphia region (the Philadelphia PMSA and the Trenton PMSA) is the fifth-largest metropolitan area in the United States.The nine counties in the region are completely subdivided into cities, townships and boroughs; there are no unincorporated areas. In addition to the counties, school districts and numerous water and sewer authorities, there are 352 municipal governments.
3 For purposes of this report, the region is defined as the nine counties covered by the Delaware Valley Regional Planning Commission, including Bucks, Chester, Delaware, Philadelphia and Montgomery in Pennsylvania and Burlington, Camden, Gloucester and Mercer in New Jersey.
4 Villages include: Bala, Cynwyd, Gladwyne, Villanova, Merion, Bryn Mawr, Rosemont, Ardmore, Wynnewood, Penn Valley, General Wayne, Penn Wynne, Belmont Hills and Haverford.
5 Generally, the more dense the neighborhood, the more functional open space should be. In lower density areas children are able to play in their own yards (private), in higher density areas open space is more public and multi-functional.
6 DVRPC Data Bulletin #77, Municipal, County and Regional Population Estimates 2000 – 2003, dated August 2004.
7 DVRPC 2030 Long Range Plan
Next Chapter - Goals and Objectives
Previous Chapter - Audit of 1995 Open Space Plan