The preservation of Lower Merion's open spaces and natural features in the face of relentless development pressure is as much a challenge in 2005 as it was when the Township first prepared a Comprehensive growth management Plan in 1937. Between 1920, when the passenger automobile became relatively affordable and 1960 when the Schuylkill Expressway was effectively completed, the population of Lower Merion nearly tripled from 23,866 to 63,564 residents. During the period, many of the lavish estates, sprawling farms and working mills that defined the green country character of the Township were subdivided, over and over, to make way for the tens of thousands of new residents, homes and automobiles.
Between 1920 and 1960 Lower Merion Township underwent a dramatic transformation from a 19th century railroad suburb to a 20th century automotive suburb. However, unlike many other older, inner ring suburbs across the country and throughout the region, Lower Merion managed ‘to remain one of the most attractive suburban residential sections of the country’. The ability of the Township to make such a graceful transition, while preserving the essence of its physical character, was a direct result of the anticipatory planning efforts initiated with the 1937 Plan that integrated preservation of open space and natural features into land development decisions.
Since 1960, the population of Lower Merion has remained steady and has slightly decreased. However, in 2005, growth and its consequences, real or perceived, remain as great a threat to the residential character of the Township as ever. While the Township still faces development pressures resulting from continued subdivisions, traffic congestion, shortage of parking, and the need for modernization of community facilities, in the last decade a new set of planning challenges has resulted from pressure to redevelop and modernize the Township’s late 19th and early 20th century housing stock, residential neighborhoods and commercial districts to meet 21st century needs.
Older homes in architecturally homogenous neighborhoods are being demolished and replaced with larger homes of different architectural styles. Many of these new homes often have more cars, larger driveways and larger outdoor entertainment spaces, requiring additional impervious surfaces. Construction often results in large trees being damaged or removed. In addition many historic residences and commercial structures may be determined to be too costly to renovate.
In addition to the need for larger, more modern houses, shopping districts and institutional facilities, the Township’s recreational infrastructure needs to be updated to meet 21st needs and desires.
The most significant challenges of 21st century redevelopment are the potential environmental degradation resulting from increased impervious surfaces and the perceived increased density resulting from the continual pace of development and loss of open spaces.
Planning commission studying plan for development
Lower Merion Township is better positioned than most communities in the Commonwealth to protect its vulnerable environmental resources and to create a network of linked open spaces to address the challenges of 21st century redevelopment. This is largely due to decades of open space planning initiatives that have resulted in the Township’s considerable inventory of public parkland, recreation facilities and vast body of open space, natural features and historic preservation controls.
This plan recognizes the inherent inter-relationship between recreational, open space, natural features and historic resources and the role that each contributes to maintaining the high quality of life that Township residents have come to expect. This plan seeks to codify various protections and planning initiatives undertaken to protect these valuable resources into a single document, presenting a long-range open space plan to guide open space policies, programs and major project investments, permanently protect land from development, conserve local landscapes and provide new recreational opportunities to residents.
Redevelopment and growth in and of themselves are not inherently bad, however poor planning and haphazard growth can result in negative environmental, social and aesthetic consequences. The next phase of growth and redevelopment requires the Township to plan wisely to maintain and protect what it cherishes and also presents an opportunity to address past mistakes.
Open space means different things to different people. Open space in the broadest sense is all undeveloped land within the township, such as parks, streams and nature preserves. In a mature, fully built-out community like Lower Merion, open space exists at a variety of scales in different locations. Open Space also includes undeveloped parts of lands within the Township that contain natural features such as fields and hills or green elements such as public landscapes and streetscapes. Open space for the purposes of this plan includes the totality of natural and designed green features that contribute to the natural processes or character of the Township. Under this definition, the large wooded estates of Gladwyne, leafy tree lined streets and public gardens of Bala Cynwyd are equally considered Open Space along with the more commonly recognized elements like Mill Creek, Rolling Hill Park and the Schuylkill River.
Appleford, a former private estate now used as public open space
in Rosemont. It is situated on nearly 20 acres, featuring
The core of this Open Space Plan is centered around establishing a comprehensive inventory of the many different types of open space, natural features and historic resources in the Township and determining the level of protection of each resource. Lower Merion is geographically large and blessed with an abundance of beautiful natural features and architectural riches. This Plan identifies, maps and describes these different resources and evaluates the importance each plays within the larger open space network and to the Township.
Open space/historic resource planning is usually considered a defensive exercise that involves keeping sensitive land and architectural resources away from development. This plan evaluates the Township’s excellent body of preservation tools and strategies in light of current conditions in order to identify what works and what could use improvement. In addition, this plan identifies opportunities to enhance and expand the Township’s inventory of open spaces and historic resources. Toward this end, this Plan surveys Township, County and regional development, preservation and recreational trends to determine opportunities for improvement.
This plan “thinks big” and attempts to present a long-range vision for the possible preservation, enhancement and creation of open spaces with the Township. These possibilities are presented as immediate, ongoing and long-range projects and programs and are derived from the synergy between the realities, inventories and opportunities analysis of the plan.
Hidden River - The Schuylkill River contains a wealth of open space, recreational & historic resource possibilities.
The plan includes Possibilities both small and large such as formalizing the existing ‘Harry Olsen’ Trail along the Schuylkill River between Belmont Avenue and Flat Rock Park and then extending that trail east to West River Drive in Philadelphia. Formalizing the ‘Harry Olsen’ trail can be readily accomplished in the short term and is within the scope of the Township to accomplish. Extending the trail to Valley Forge and West River Drive is possible, but will require technical and financial assistance, from a multitude of partners over several years, to complete.
The Plan also presents other possibilities such as linking the multitude of open spaces, natural features and historic resources of the Township together via a larger, more complex system of trails. This trail system can then be linked to the regional trail network and provide residents direct trail access to regional open spaces like the Wissahickon Park System in northwest Philadelphia, the East and West River Drives extending from Center City and the entire Montgomery County trail system.
Beyond trails, this Plan also presents possibilities for the creation of new open spaces where they are needed most in the densest residential and commercial sections of the Township. None of these projects will be easy and each will require different levels of cooperation and participation between multiple parties beyond the Township, including community groups, private developers and other governmental agencies.
Bryn Mawr College occupies over 115 acres and is one of five National Register Historic Districts in Lower Merion Township.
Finally, this Plan presents a multitude of targeted strategies for realizing the possibilities and implementing the projects. The original impetus for this Plan was the availability of approximately $3.8 million dollars through the Montgomery County Green Fields Green Towns Open Space Bond Initiative. The Township has open space needs far exceeding that amount and this Plan seeks to identify sources of financial and technical assistance to realize the vision. This Plan contains a detailed matrix identifying sources of technical and financial assistance and identifies their individual project focus. The idea is to match the Township’s various projects with specific partners.
Some of these strategies involve working within the Township between Township Staff, community groups, private developers and advisory Boards to develop ways to fit new open spaces into developed neighborhoods and enhance the green infrastructure. Some strategies involve partnerships with State, County and adjacent Municipal agencies to identify common issues and implement common projects. Multi-municipal cooperation is a key strategy to implement this Plan and Township leadership will be crucial to accomplish this strategy.
The open space process includes many of the important background components necessary to make a plan work. The Open Space process involved reviewing past efforts, consulting with stakeholders and establishing the personal connections and relationships necessary for implementation. The open space plan is the result of a comprehensive review of past and current municipal, county and regional plans, policies and initiatives, interviews with Commissioners, Township Advisory Boards, staff, current and former employees as well as consultation with an open space subcommittee that included Commissioners, Staff and Open Space stakeholders.
A major component of this process was the mapping of open space resources into the Township’s Geographic Information System (GIS). This will allow future analysis and links with County, State and regional databases. On one hand it will help plan for regional solutions to large-scale problems like trail gaps and flooding and, on another hand, it will help identify where sidewalks and street trees are needed.
With a population of nearly 60,000 people, spread out over 24 square miles, Lower Merion is a large and diverse community with multiple open space issues. Variations in housing, demographic and economic characteristics throughout the Township have a direct impact on the how people experience and use open space and recreational facilities. The introduction of the 1996 Parks and Recreation Plan recognized how this diversity influenced open space and recreational planning throughout the Township:
Neighborhood identity is very strong in Lower Merion Township. Residents tend to think of being from areas such as Bryn Mawr or Ardmore rather than from Lower Merion Township and this identity adds to the desirability of the community. As the Township’s undeveloped land dwindles and resources are threatened, the need to plan and collaborate as a larger community to meet common goals is increasingly important. This is very evident in the protection of natural resources and the search for facilities to meet expanding recreation and leisure interests.
Clearly the open space and recreational needs of the community outstrip the immediate resources of the municipal government to meet them. The high cost and limited availability of land within the Township makes direct purchase of large tracts of land for preservation or recreational purposes expensive and unlikely. Many of the same parcels that would be attractive public open spaces are also the same parcels that make attractive residential investments.
However, this doesn’t mean that the goal of preservation should be compromised. Instead this plan seeks to identify the variety of open space and recreational challenges facing the community and prepares a comprehensive, long-range strategy to address them. This plan identifies multiple implementation opportunities for each need in order to maximize resources. This diverse strategy is based upon the following principles:
Make more with less. Due to the limited availability of prime undeveloped land in the Township for open space or recreational use, this plan instead looks at previously overlooked or unrealized parcels. The most striking of these is the Schuylkill riverfront, which can become a linear greenway with a multi-purpose pedestrian/jogging/equestrian/biking trail right along the waterfront. Other ‘overlooked’ open space opportunities include converting parking lots in commercial centers into public parks, transforming vacant lots into pocket parks and repurposing private historic properties into public open space or recreational uses.
Open space will play an increasingly important role in ensuring that other uses fit and blend together. As the Township becomes increasingly redeveloped, particularly in the form of higher density, mixed-use developments around transit and commercial centers, new opportunities will arise to create new open spaces. Open space is integral to successful, mixed-use development because it integrates divergent land uses and provides locations for public amenities and enhanced landscaping.
This plan seeks to make limited open space resources work more efficiently by working together. Part of this involves recognizing the interrelationship between opportunities and resources. For instance, increased impervious surfaces and the resulting stormwater runoff and the declining street tree inventory are major issues throughout the Township, mainly for different reasons. Increased impervious surface leads to flooding and the loss of street trees negatively impacts community character. However, greater street tree cover significantly reduces stormwater runoff by reducing the rate that water reaches the ground, thereby reducing the concentration of stormwater that results in flooding. Street trees are located adjacent to the largest concentrations of impervious surfaces in the community - roads and driveways. Simply put, planting more street trees and establishing a traditional canopy for roadways will improve neighborhood character and mitigate increased impervious surfaces resulting from development.
Synergy. The impact of stormwater on impervious surfaces can be mitigated by street trees. Landscaping also enhances commercial districts.
One way to make the Township’s collection of small, separated open spaces work better is to integrate them into a comprehensive network and then connect that Township open space system to the regional network. This plan will accomplish this by identifying a diverse network of bike paths, recreational trails and open space linkages. For instance, West Laurel Hill Cemetery in Cynwyd is one of the largest open spaces in the Township, but is also one of the least used. The cemetery is committed to fulfilling its original mission as a park by opening its unique collection of trails, landscapes and architectural features to the public for strolling, dog walking and biking. The proposed trail network would connect this with the greater network through a series of on and off road pedestrian and bike paths linking one end of the Township with the other and, via the Schuylkill River Greenway, connecting it to Valley Forge and Wissahickon Park.
Many of the opportunities identified within this plan are complex and will involve the efforts of multiple parties to realize; they simply cannot be realized through Township investment alone. This plan identifies opportunities for cooperation between the Township and a wide variety of governmental and community groups in overcoming these hurdles. For instance, many green infrastructure projects, such as street tree plantings, can only result from neighborhood identification of planting locations and neighborhood commitment to tend new installations. The Township however can provide the financial, operational and technical resources to write grants to acquire new trees and have them delivered and planted.
A core focus of this strategy is inter-municipal and inter-county cooperation between Lower Merion and its neighbors, including West Conshohocken, Upper Merion and Philadelphia in developing a continual greenway/multi-purpose trail along the west side of the Schuylkill River connecting Valley Forge National Park with the Wissahickon Park system.
West Laurel Hill Cemetery in Cynwyd is an important open space that could be used more with enhanced linkages.
This Open Space Resource and Environmental Resource Protection Plan envisions a Lower Merion in 2015 that looks very similar to how it looks in 2005, except even more so. In 2015, this Plan sees a Township with a few thousand more residents and a lot more open space. This Plan sees the vast majority of the Township’s existing open space inventory preserved and many new sites added. This Plan envisions the creation of one of the finest intra-municipal trail networks in the Country, where residents from every neighborhood in the Township have pedestrian and bike access to the amenities of every other neighborhood.
This Plan envisions the creation of high-quality public spaces in Bryn Mawr, Ardmore and along City Avenue, which are integral to their revitalization. This Plan sees the creation of a variety of new pocket parks, tot lots and community gardens in the denser neighborhoods of the Township. This Plan sees an enhanced public realm where open space preservation is intertwined with recreation and community building. This Plan pictures an enhanced public landscape with thousands of new trees along both residential and commercial areas and the establishment of lush public gardens at focal points and gateways throughout the Township.
This Plan envisions a Township that remains connected with its rich past and where the scenic beauty and natural splendor of the Schuylkill River is once again at the forefront of the community. Finally, in 2015, this Plan sees Lower Merion Township remaining one of the most attractive suburban residential sections of the country, which still combines the charms of beautiful open country with fine houses and exceptional regional access. In 2015, Lower Merion will still be a good place to live in.
Next Chapter - Open Space Audit