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Ardmore Keeps Growing and Attracting Main Line Residents

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Booming Ardmore continues to lure more new residents and businesses. But when is so much growth simply too much?

Ardmore resident Chris Leswing loves his town’s walkability—and he’s not alone. “People are always on the Internet and social media. They’re not meeting people,” he says. “If you have a civic commons, you can get that.”

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It’s no surprise that Leswing is a fan of the project that will soon be sprouting along Lancaster Avenue. It includes 70,000 square feet of retail space, 279 apartment units and 615 parking spaces. Full disclosure: Leswing has been director of Lower Merion Township’s Building and Planning Department for the past four years. And he’s hopeful the new development will continue to stoke Ardmore’s recent growth spurt.

The collaboration between Toll Brothers and Piazza Auto Group will begin at the southwest corner of Ardmore and Lancaster avenues and continue west to Greenfield Avenue. Piazza’s Acura and Volkswagen dealerships will be relocated to make room for the stores and residences. The Piazza Project was approved this past July, after several years of wrangling and mulling other proposals (including one that would’ve had a Target as its anchor).

As always, there are those who are none too thrilled by the prospect of increased traffic and density issues—concerns that also surrounded recent projects like One Ardmore Place, Cricket Flats and the latest Suburban Square enhancements. “A lot of the commercial areas in the township were designed in the 1950s and ’60s and are reaching obsolescence,” Leswing says. “They’re at the end of their design life.”

To make room for the mixed-use property, two dealerships, a parking lot and the IHOP will be razed. This could well be the last project of its kind in Ardmore, since it snuck in before new zoning laws were approved to reduce building density throughout the township. Passed in 2020, the new ordinance prohibits any building taller than three or four stories.

In the early 2000s, there was a sense that Ardmore needed large-scale projects to generate some momentum and bring people to town. Now that there’s been an influx of newbies, the township’s board of commissioners felt it was time to cap the growth. “Residents were seeking to have some of the development dialed back,” says Dan Bernheim, who’s been the board’s president for five years.

A change in the code is always a possibility should something particularly attractive arise for, say, Ardmore West. But that appears unlikely—which may be a good thing, as Ardmore isn’t blessed with the roads to handle a significant influx of people. “The issue on this project is not traffic,” Bernheim says. “The elephant in the room is density. That’s the whole circus. With density comes traffic.”

Ardmore residents like to see their corner of Lower Merion Township as somewhat unique, given its blend of commercial and residential areas. “We’ve always thought of Ardmore as a destination,” says Nancy Scarlato, executive director of the Ardmore Initiative, which manages the town’s business district and promotes its growth and development.

Ardmore’s vision is hardly a new concept in the area. During the past five years, similar developments have sprung up in West Chester, Malvern, King of Prussia, Plymouth Meeting and even the site of the former Granite Run Mall. The goal is to replace older commercial entities with more modern concepts that cater to residents new and old. The massive King of Prussia Town Center is an amalgam of office, residential and commercial space that includes communal areas designed to be walkable. The same goes for the Promenade at Granite Run.

And while those two mixed-use projects have a unifying theme, Ardmore is accomplishing its improvements piecemeal. It began in the early 2000s with a plan called the Mixed-Use Special Transportation District, designed to make Ardmore something other than a shopping destination. “We wanted to revitalize Ardmore and get feet on the street,” Leswing says. “We wanted to get more people living there and making the town walkable.”

With that in mind, the Piazza Project will have apartments that reflect a 21st-century tenant mentality, with amenities like concierge service. Leswing expects the retail portion to include a supermarket and a restaurant, attracting smaller businesses eager to capitalize on increased foot traffic. “It all helps with the vibrancy of the town,” Scarlato says.

The Piazza Project could well be the last project of its kind in Ardmore, since it snuck in before new zoning laws were approved to reduce building density throughout the township.

Residents have concerns that go beyond traffic. One is Lower Merion’s school system, which some fear will become overcrowded as new high-rises are filled. Bernheim contends that any increase in student numbers has less to do with residents in new apartments than the turnover of single-family homes throughout the township. But it is true that the number of students is rising. After hitting a low point of about 6,000 in the 1980s, pre-K-12 enrollment has swollen to about 8,700. The township believes it will hit 9,300 within the next 10 years. The boom has led to the construction of Black Rock Middle School, scheduled to open this year in Villanova. “We are a victim of our own success,” Bernheim says. “Lower Merion is a wonderful place to live.”

Soon, Lower Merion will begin a master plan for Ardmore, with a focus on open space. The new zoning regulations may limit how high any new project can rise, but that shouldn’t inhibit continued development. “We’re trying to create an attractive streetscape where people feel safe about walking around,” says Scarlato. “The businesses that have come here appreciate that.”

Related: What to Do in Ardmore: Spend a Day in This Bustling Town