Lower Merion Township is a big place with a lot of open space needs. Open space is integral to maintaining the high quality environment that residents currently enjoy and vital for revitalizing older residential and commercial areas. This section evaluates current open space needs in relation to current and anticipated future needs based upon national open space standards and demographic projections. Additionally, this section evaluates how open space is distributed within the Township and identifies underserved areas and targets them for future investment.
There are a variety of different methods for determining open space needs. This section utilizes widely employed standards derived from the National Recreation and Park Association (NRPA) that were used in the 1996 Lower Merion Parks and Recreation Plan. Surrounding Montgomery County communities and the County Planning Commission also routinely uses these standards in determining local needs.
The NRPA standards are best used as guidelines and not as an absolute target. Local geographic and demographic conditions such as income and education influence local open space needs. Generally, affluent and well-educated communities, such as Lower Merion have higher levels of open space needs than national standards.
Projected needs are based upon the growth projections presented in the Community Profile that anticipate moderate population growth resulting from scattered infill and higher-density redevelopment in commercial areas.
Current needs have been determined by updating the demographics contained within the 1996 Park and Recreation Plan. The NRPA recommends a range between 6.25 and 10.5 acres of total open space per every 1,000 residents and further refines these recommendations according to different types of open space, particularly active and passive open space. NRPA standards only include municipally owned, publicly accessible parkland and do not accurately incorporate the impact of institutional open space upon a community such as Lower Merion.
This evaluation employs the higher end of the recommended range regarding total acreage of open space. A detailed analysis of all recreational resources, such as numbers and types of courts and fields is beyond the scope of this Plan and is addressed in the 1996 Parks and Recreation Plan, incorporated into this document by reference.
The NPRA standards for parkland table indicates general sizes of parkland and how they apply to current demographic conditions.
This analysis indicates that on the whole, Lower Merion has a slight surplus of open space to satisfy the higher range of NRPA Standards (628 total acres are recommended and the Township currently contains and 652 acres). However, a closer look reveals that the majority (71%) of the Township’s open space is classified as passive open space and that the Township is significantly deficient (249 total acres) in regards to active open space.
The 1996 Park and Recreation Plan addressed this deficiency with the following recommendation that is still valid.
Acquire 75 acres of land (30 acre minimum sized parcel) to develop as an active community-park.
Due to development pressures this action must be prioritized. This single act could crystallize the positive future of parks and recreation in Lower Merion Township. Land acquisition for active recreation will provide a community park that will fulfill numerous recreation facilities needs identified in this plan. In a single step, this acquisition could unite citizens previously aligned with either open space preservation or active recreation development. Creating facilities for soccer and baseball will reduce pressures on open space and protect it for future generations. Target the western portion of the Township for acquisition. Potential tracts should have convenient, safe access, available utilities, and land that can be configured for active recreation development.
At this time, the likelihood of acquiring parcels to meet this recommendation are slim, particularly in the western portion of the Township, where topography may limit the amount of flat land suitable for recreation. While this remains a worthy goal, it may be more realistic to seek smaller parcels between 5 and 10 acres in size that can accommodate individual soccer fields or baseball fields. These activities require a minimum footprint of 5-acres for each field and associated parking.
Recreational Opportunities and Future Growth Projections
While large parcels suitable for specific types of organized recreation (soccer & baseball) may be difficult to attain, the Township can still create recreational activities by developing a first class, decentralized recreational network of multi-use trails that can be used for more individual activities such as biking, rollerblading, skateboarding and running. This proposed network meets the qualitative recreation needs of the Township even if it doesn’t technically satisfy the quantitative recommendations of the NRPA.
Construction of a multi-use trail network that provides access to the Schuylkill River would also open up this long-forgotten natural resource as a recreational amenity. Potential recreational opportunities include swimming, fishing hiking and other water sports. Until recently, swimming in the Schuylkill River would be unheard of (and ill-advised) but years of state and county planning has reduced pollution to levels acceptable for human contact.
Water quality in regards to recreational usage of the River is monitored daily by Philly RiverCast a web service provide by the Philadelphia Water Department that predicts potential levels of pathogens in the Schuylkill River between Flat Rock Dam and Fairmount Dam. RiverCast classifies suitability of the river for recreational use according to three categories:
According to the Philadelphia Water Department, the river is “green” 60% of the year.
Additional information on RiverCast is available online: www.phillyrivercast.org/
The creation of a multi-use trail network is consistent with several of the goals of this Plan and is also consistent with growth projections. The proposed trail network includes a rail trail along the R-6 line between Cynwyd and Manayunk and also along the entire Schuylkill riverfront. These two trails intersect, overlap and connect two of the largest projected growth areas, Rock Hill Road and the Pencoyd waterfront. It is conceivable that both of these areas will be redeveloped with high density, upper-income residential uses primarily catering to young professionals and empty nesters. Both of these populations enjoy active recreational lifestyles and would be attracted to first-class multi-use trails. The Township has begun discussions with potential developers regarding implementation of trails into future development of these nodes. It should be noted that these trail sections will be available to all Township residents and have connections to multiple neighborhoods.
Similar opportunities exist in other projected growth areas, particularly Bryn Mawr and Ardmore. Both of these communities will most likely experience higher-density, mixed-use development in the future and both communities are currently among the most underserved in regards to open space in the Township. Open space is a critical component of higher density, mixed-use developments. Redevelopment of Bryn Mawr, Ardmore and City Avenue presents a tremendous opportunity to provide new open spaces to both existing and future residents of these communities.
Because of the small-scale of individual projects, continued residential infill presents a different set of open space issues. Infill and subdivision of residential properties increases population while reducing open space in residential neighborhoods. The Township may consider requiring a fee in lieu to cover the cost of additional open space and recreational facilities resulting from this form of development. The Township should also explore alternative acquisition arrangements where neighbors can purchase threatened infill parcels at low interest low loans providing that land is dedicated as open space. Toward this aim, the Township can act as facilitator and may partner with local conservancy organizations. Additionally, the Township may consider providing some degree of matching funds or grants in addition to technical assistance.
Another option to create public open space is to encourage public use of portions of preservation areas in future properties developed under the Open Space Preservation Ordinance. This is particularly relevant in regards to properties like the Merriam Tract in Wynnewood, which is the last large open space in this part of the Township.
While it is important to consider adding new recreational and open space facilities, the Township must remain committed to maintaining its existing inventory. Active and passive open spaces have different maintenance requirements. Much of the passive open space in the Township was acquired for environmental resource and natural features protection. It is vital that the Township continue to invest in the resources necessary to properly manage these areas by ensuring that invasive species and erosion is controlled in natural areas.
Distribution of Open Spaces Throughout the Township
The 1996 Park and Recreation Plan also identified the need for additional open spaces in the more underserved portions of the Township. With increased development pressure, this need is more pressing than ever in order to preserve the suburban quality of these neighborhoods.
It is unavoidable that in a Township the size of Lower Merion, open space would not automatically be evenly distributed. The following tables and chart show the distribution of parkland and open space on a village-by-village basis. This analysis was prepared utilizing the Township’s GIS.
This analysis reveals a wide discrepancy of available open space throughout the Township. There are two ways to improve the uneven distribution of open spaces: first by adding new open spaces in underserved neighborhoods; and second by providing improving access from underserved neighborhoods. This Plan recommends both strategies.
Creation of New Open Spaces in Underserved Neighborhoods
There are various types of open spaces that can be created. Because of their likely proximity to surrounding residences, new open spaces should be designed to meet local needs and include public input and support. Various types of new open spaces include:
Pocket parks and the like present an example of ‘positive infill’ development and can be undertaken in several ways. The Township can identify, acquire, design and manage the spaces or can partner to some extent with neighbors and community groups in acquisition or maintenance. However, any project using public funds must provide full public access.
The Underserved Areas Map was prepared using the Township GIS and presents an ‘under served neighborhood’ index compiled from the intersection of three important open space recreational factors:
One of the core objectives of this Plan is to use open space to preserve the existing character of Lower Merion Township. Toward that end, the Township should remain committed to incorporating temporarily protected historic resources, open spaces and natural features into its inventory of permanently protected resources. However, because of the sheer number of potential resources that could be added, the Township should prioritize resources with the highest synergistic value, such as properties along planned trails, within underserved neighborhoods or that provide significant public access.
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