None of this is Angela Murray’s fault. Not the giant crane that hovers over the Cricket Avenue parking lot, its American flag billowing in the breeze. Not the 110 apartments rising from a giant hole in the ground. Not the upheaval for residents and business owners alike. Not the possible traffic congestion. None of it.
“People have blamed me,” says Murray, who’s been Lower Merion Township’s assistant director of building and planning for 16 years. “But I think it meets a need that was pressing.”
In the spring of 2019, a new Ardmore is slated to debut. It will realize the dreams of those who, more than a decade ago, began the process of transforming a unique and somewhat stale “census-designated place” that covers just two square—but choice—Main Line miles into a 21st-century symbol of commercial and residential progress. From the turmoil of lawsuits and protests and an angry back-and-forth rises a new look for a 165-year-old Main Line stalwart—one that supporters hope will spur modernization and commerce. Detractors, meanwhile, assail it as an unnecessary infringement on their way of life.
It’s a classic confrontation that’s played out in towns across the country, pitting traditionalists against those fighting to prevent the ravages of commercial complacency. Thanks, in large part, to the eight-story mixed-use One Ardmore Place, the result will be a new look that should be a catalyst for continued growth. The dream is to have millennials and empty nesters walking around town, shopping and frequenting restaurants. When they want to head into Philadelphia or New York, they’ll just hop on the train. There will be more people but less congestion—and with that, high-end stores, great eateries and rising property values.
“I find it odd that any businesses in the area would object to having 150-200 more people living next door,” says Murray. “How can a business say it doesn’t want more potential customers?”
But there’s also the perceived upending of an area that has grown quite accustomed to its small-town feel. Many in Ardmore and its surrounding hamlets worry that this new personality will do nothing more than clutter the roads and raise taxes. They howl at the $10.5 million in state money that went to developer Carl Dranoff, and they hope the future doesn’t include a spate of projects that renders their town unrecognizable.
“[One Ardmore Place] will be eight stories, and that makes it the tallest building in Ardmore,” says Philip Browndeis, past president of the Save Ardmore Coalition. “It will increase traffic and continue the urbanization of Ardmore and Lower Merion Township. This development is a monument to that.”
An interior rendering of a One Ardmore Place Unit.
Carl Dranoff doesn’t traffic in understatement. So when asked to predict the impact of his One Ardmore Place, he won’t demur. “I think we’re going to be an overnight sensation … after 10 years,” he says.
As someone who has undergone three career iterations and had to work with a variety of government officials to navigate myriad legislative hurdles and opportunities, Dranoff doesn’t run from problems or potential fights. And he sure knows how to be patient.
One Ardmore Place is something of a departure for Dranoff. The vast majority of his local projects have been in Philadelphia proper or Camden, N.J. But being the most visible symbol of the new Ardmore was something he deemed worthy of the headaches it took to reach the point where he could begin to build. “We had potholes and speed bumps along the way, but the passion never wavered, and our tenacity and persistence saw us through,” he says. “When this is complete, anybody who had any doubts will see how transformative it will be.”
In some ways, Dranoff is the perfect person to affect the Ardmore transformation. He was at the forefront of the historic buildings restoration movement in 1980s Philadelphia. He’s profited nicely from renovating residential buildings and, most recently, betting on underdog locations like South Broad Street. Dranoff can’t be considered a traditional developer, although he has been a successful one.
When it opens in spring 2019, One Ardmore Place will feature 110 apartments, mostly of the luxury variety in both style and price. There will also be 8,400 square feet of retail space and 210 public parking spots (with 127 others set aside for residents). Rising eight stories from the old Cricket Avenue parking lot, One Ardmore Place will span 282,000 total square feet.
One Ardmore Place will be located near 41 Cricket Ave. in Ardmore.
The finished product will have similar amenities to other Dranoff properties. Among them: 24-hour concierge service, a large boardroom, a fitness center, and a rooftop garden that includes a TV, a fire pit and an outdoor kitchen. “People will not be disappointed when they see One Ardmore Place,” Dranoff says. “We’re raising the standard.”
It’s important to note that Dranoff has not incited a coup here, swooping in to plop down a high-rise despite the protests of all constituencies. He has plenty of partners and cheerleaders, including Lower Merion Township, which has long backed the idea of increased development.
Another supporter is the Ardmore Initiative, a 30-year-old organization chartered to promote business growth. Its board includes members of the commercial community, along with some Lower Merion commissioners. Executive director Christine Vilardo has been with the Initiative since 2007. She’s been a vocal champion of the project, which she believes will aid the overall goal of making “Ardmore a destination.”
“We already see a new energy and enthusiasm among business and property owners in town,” Vilardo says of the project.
Getting to this point was quite a slog. The first vision of the project involved three steps and was to begin with Dranoff completing a mixed-use property surrounding a new Ardmore train station. The allocated state money was supposed to go for the station, but when Amtrak balked at allowing apartments so close to its tracks, the plan—which included replacing some buildings along Lancaster Avenue south of the station—lost momentum. Meanwhile, the Save Ardmore folks filed lawsuits and protested the idea mightily. “Amtrak didn’t want people living so close to the rail line because it didn’t think it would be safe,” Lower Merion’s Murray says. “They were concerned about people throwing things out of windows onto the track.”
The second iteration involved the Cricket Avenue lot, which was owned by the township. It held 175 parking spaces and served the businesses along Lancaster near the old movie theater, as well as shops along Cricket. Dranoff received township approval for his project there in April 2014. By the following summer, Lower Merion had settled disputes with concerned business owners. Finally, last spring the project moved forward. When Dranoff references “potholes and speed bumps,” he’s really understating the issue. Between lawsuits, protests and general furor, he’s had to navigate some pretty unruly seas. “When the litigation was over and we were able to begin, it opened the floodgate of investments involving residential sites, restaurants and other shops,” says Dranoff. “Over time, Ardmore lost some of its fizz. What was missing to restore its vitality were people.”
Dranoff has plenty of allies in the business community. Mike Silver has been supportive of Dranoff’s vision from the beginning. He’s had his law firm in Ardmore since 1992, and he fully expects other businesses to land in the town as young people eschew the lure of Philadelphia to take advantage of its more upscale climate.
At least that’s the plan. “This is how we can get millennials to come out of the city,” Silver says.
Nancy Gold is a custom shirtmaker whose store is near the construction site. Despite some inconvenience caused by the upheaval, she applauds the One Ardmore Place concept. “There’s clearly a benefit,” she says. “There will be more feet on the street because of this. It’s been a very slow-moving train that’s gotten us here.”
An exterior rendering of One Ardmore Place.
Phil Browndeis didn’t grow up in Ardmore, but his wife, Lee Quillen, has family roots that go back four generations. As president of the Save Ardmore Coalition, Browndeis did everything he could to prevent One Ardmore Place from becoming a reality. He railed against the gift to Dranoff of $10.5 million in state funding originally set aside for the train station renovation. “It’s the only development in Lower Merion financed by taxpayer dollars,” he says.
He tried to convince township commissioners that adding the retail space and apartments would choke Lancaster Avenue and surrounding streets. He also has fears that new residents in the apartments will be sending their kids to Lower Merion schools without paying property taxes to help fund their education.
Browndeis doesn’t come across as angry, but he’s still convinced that the project is a bad idea. And he hopes that residents who remain opposed to it will show their displeasure in the 2018 elections. This past November, Democratic challenger Andy Gavrin defeated Republican incumbent Phil Rosenzweig. The latter had been a vocal proponent of One Ardmore Place, though he blamed his defeat on Trumpian backlash. Gavrin ran partly on the issue of development in Lower Merion Township, and won’t be as eager to loosen regulations in the coming year as it updates its zoning code.
“People are motivated,” says Browndeis. “I think they understand what’s at stake with the zoning coming up. If [commissioners] aren’t going to listen, we’re going to elect new people.”
As voters gear up for 2018, One Ardmore Place continues to rise. The parking garage—which extends a few levels below ground to accommodate future residents—is just about completed, and the steel girders were to be installed at the end of 2017. A few parking spaces remain from the original lot, but they’re now of the 15-minutes-only variety and not abundant.
Proprietors of stores like the Party Place have soldiered on with a mammoth construction project in their backyards. Katrina Conway grew up in Ardmore and has been managing the Party Place for 19 years. Conway says the disruption has been minimal, and she expects the new garage to be beneficial. She also hasn’t heard much carping from neighboring business owners and managers. “For us, it hasn’t been nearly half as bad as we thought it would be,” Conway says. “We definitely expected it to be a lot worse.”
It isn’t impossible to conjure a vibrant, cutting-edge image of Ardmore, with upscale restaurants, expanded living opportunities for millennials and empty nesters, and a swarm of happy pedestrians ambling around town. This 21st-century vision is a new normal where funky-chic retail abounds and a mixed-use harmony prevails. Ardmore’s increasingly vibrant restaurant climate already includes new French bistro the Bercy, Latin seafood purveyor Pala’a and a variety of other culinary debuts. In the eyes of some, Ardmore will out-Wayne Wayne and even take a run at West Chester. This is how the dream begins.
“It’s a pedestrian-friendly new town with new life,” Dranoff says. “Imagine a Friday night where people are walking down the street having fun, going out.”
In Browndeis’ version of the scenario, honking horns and cursing drivers interrupt the Dranoff-inspired reverie. People don’t walk—they get into their cars and choke already congested streets. Parking is hard to come by, and new projects like the mini Target scheduled for the corner of Ardmore and Lancaster avenues turn the town’s main drag into an automotive Thunderdome. Property taxes rise as apartment residents dispatch their young darlings to Lower Merion schools, and a historic slice of the Main Line sells its soul to profit-hungry developers. “What some people call progress, others think will permanently alter a place they moved into and like as is,” Browndeis says.
It’s Ardmore 2018 and beyond—and it certainly won’t be boring.