Inside the Effort to Redevelop Bala Plaza in Lower Merion

Courtesy Tessa Marie Images

It could take 20 years, but plans are afoot to transform the tired Bala Plaza office park into a live-work-play complex.

A professor of real estate at the University of Pennsylvania’s Wharton School for 25 years, Todd Sinai is uniquely qualified to determine whether the ambitious plan to redevelop, reconfigure and rejuvenate the three Bala Plaza properties is a good idea—even if it could take 20 years. “It delivers a win-win for Lower Merion Township and the developer,” says Sinai, who also happens to be the president of the township’s board of commissioners. “It works toward what we’re trying to accomplish, which is to make a place where people want to be, whether they’re residents or corporations.”

The mammoth project was approved by the township this past October. It aims to utterly transform Lower Merion’s largest commercial property and its biggest tax contributor. Built between 1967 and 1972, the 56-acre complex is currently devoted mostly to business and corporate interests. The new plan involves retail, residences, offices and 12 acres of public space—and an amphitheater and a skate park haven’t been ruled out.

A rendering of the proposed changes to Bala Plaza.
A rendering of the proposed changes to Bala Plaza. Courtesy of Tishman Speyer.

“What would commercial tenants want from an office space in this climate? They want green space and a chance to walk out the door and see people. We need that social aspect.”
—Lower Merion Township Commissioner Todd Sinai

There was some dissension as the 13-structure project made its way through the approval process, though it mostly involved the timetable. Developer Tishman Speyer, which purchased the property in 2006, was able to convince commissioners that the deal was sound and beneficial to the area. The idea is to replicate the success of projects like King of Prussia Town Center and similar developments in Plymouth Meeting and at the former Granite Run Mall. “This is what tenants want,” Sinai says. “They want a nice place to live, not just a place to scoot in from work, go to sleep and get up the next day.”

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It all sounds great, provided Tishman makes it happen. Earlier this year, reports surfaced that the company was looking to sell the Bala Plaza parcel—and with it, the agreement reached last year with the township. There were even rumors a deal had been struck, though that was flatly denied in May by Phil Rosenzweig, counsel for Tishman. “As of now, there is no transaction and no sale of the property,” says Rosenzweig, cofounder of the King of Prussia-based firm Silverang, Rosenzweig and Haltzman LLC.

“A buyer would be purchasing one million square feet of office space and the opportunity that comes with it. They’d be out of their mind not to pursue the development rights we have.”
—Phil Rosenzweig, counsel for Tishman Speyer

Still, the rumors certainly can’t be reassuring to those who fought for the development. “Whoever gets this can always tear up the contract,” Sinai notes.

Lower Merion Township Commissioner Dan Bernheim has expressed concerns about the duration of plans to renovate Bala Plaza.
Lower Merion Township Commissioner Dan Bernheim has expressed concerns about the duration of plans to renovate Bala Plaza. Courtesy Tessa Marie Images.

But that’s not likely to happen. In today’s commercial real estate environment, occupancy rates are plummeting as employees continue to work remotely. So the status quo isn’t likely to work at Bala Plaza. A property on the decline is more difficult to sell, adding substantial dollars to any renovation plan. “What would commercial tenants want from an office space in this climate?” poses Sinai. “They want green space and a chance to walk out the door and see people. We need that social aspect.”

As efforts continue to sell the Bala Plaza property, no one from Tishman Speyer would comment on the project. The current plan calls for 757 multifamily residential units, a 168-room hotel, about 700,000 square feet of office space and 200,000 square feet of retail space. Open space will transform the property from a dated office park into something more in line with what developers are favoring now.

Today’s Bala Plaza offers little of interest. There are a few small indoor restaurants and markets, but anyone looking to take a lunchtime stroll had better enjoy asphalt lots and sidewalks. It’s a big reason why the board fought to make green space an early priority for the project. “We wanted the removal of acres of concrete and parking to create a sense of place,” Sinai says.

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All of this is possible thanks to zoning changes made in 2012 to promote a mixed-use district. As it stands, Bala Cynwyd Shopping Center is also getting $30 million in improvements, and a new apartment building is going up on Presidential Boulevard.

As for Bala Plaza, at least one township commissioner has some concerns about the project’s proposed duration. The original agreement called for a 30-year window, but that’s been narrowed by 10 years. “I wasn’t in support of the length of the plan,” says Dan Bernheim, who’d prefer a more modest five-year window.

At the same time, it’s unlikely that anyone who acquired Bala Plaza would choose to preserve its current state. “A buyer would be purchasing one million square feet of office space and the opportunity that comes with it,” says Rosenzweig. “They’d be out of their mind not to pursue the development rights we have.”

For now, it’s Tishman Speyer’s opportunity—and they have 20 years to act on it.

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