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Can a New Train Station Transform Paoli?

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A rendering of the new Paoli Intermodal Transportation Center//Photo courtesy of Sowinski Sullivan Architects.

When interviewed on Comcast Newsmakers a few years back, Ed Auble was asked what image provided the most fitting depiction of Paoli. His answer? The dilapidated ’50s-era train station—and how it isn’t reflective of what the town has been, or could be.

Even now that planning and design are well underway for the impressively named Paoli Intermodal Transportation Center, it still may not be enough to keep Paoli from remaining the Main Line’s redheaded stepchild. It’s not an unfair metaphor, sources agree.

“You drive through Paoli, and we’re a community of concrete, brick and asphalt,” says Auble. “We’re Route 30—a racetrack, except during rush hour. The transportation center is wonderful. We’ve been asking for it for years.”

An insurance-agency owner in town since the mid-1980s, Auble is a past two-time president of the Paoli Business and Professional Association. “By 2021-22, we’ll have a nice transportation center, but what are we doing for the community around it?” he poses. “There’s no village green or town center. No one is walking in Paoli; it doesn’t happen. We need more restaurants, some bigger draw. I don’t want Paoli to be known only as the place where people can get on the train.”

The reality is that many people board in Paoli. The Amtrak-owned station serves about 1,300 passengers daily. Dating back to 1893, its Victorian-style depot was replaced in 60 years later—and hasn’t been significantly altered since. In 2013, Paoli served 175,300 Amtrak riders and 738,000 SEPTA passengers—the most riders in any station in the western suburbs. It’s also one of the busiest in the metropolitan area and in the state. It’s so bustling that the building and parking facilities can no longer accommodate the volume. Paoli merchants remain frustrated by commuters consuming the limited downtown spaces, while buses and shuttles squeeze into cramped parking lots adjacent to the station.

Three distinct construction phases are planned for the existing station at the corner of Lancaster Avenue and North Valley Road. Beginning this year, accessibility improvements will bring the station into compliance with 2006 Department of Transportation Accessibility standards and the provisions of the Americans with Disabilities Act. The project will include a new high-level center platform, elevators and ramps, a pedestrian overpass, parking lot improvements, ADA improvements to the existing building, and upgraded rail infrastructure. 

Slated to begin in 2019, the second phase will replace the existing bridge on North Valley Road over the rail lines with a new one that redirects the road to the intersection of Route 30 and Darby Road. This will finally combine all the parking areas and jitney operations on the north side of the tracks.

The final phase involves a new, expanded transportation center, an additional high-level platform on the outbound side, a waiting area, ticket offices and passenger amenities, enhanced bus facilities, and a 600-plus-space commuter-parking garage. Plans may also incorporate retail storefronts. Completion is expected sometime in 2022.

“But we can be better than a new train-station stop,” says Auble. “There’s a great sense of pride here.”

Paoli will never be Ardmore or Wayne—Auble knows this. But it is a good community, with good bones and good people, and the 85-member business association is a major leadership group. Currently, it’s exploring a Business Improvement District and funding a Paoli 2025 vision plan. “People want to come back into Paoli, to live in a condo, apartment or maybe a home here,” says Auble, who chaired Paoli’s 250th birthday celebration a decade ago. “One of two partners wants to walk to a train station and not need a car.”

Tredyffrin Township Planning and Zoning Coordinator Zach Barner

A new Paoli master plan could evolve. But there are roadblocks, says Zach Barner, planning and zoning coordinator for Tredyffrin Township—namely odd-angled major intersections. Plus, the north side of Lancaster Avenue is confined by the railroad tracks. “Wayne can be more creative, and West Chester has more of a grid to work with,” Barner says. “Transit is something we can bank on if Paoli is to become more important and keep growing. But we can’t keep adding cars to the system. Getting people in and out of Paoli—transportation—is a big part of that.”

In 1984, SEPTA, Amtrak, the Delaware Valley Regional Planning Commission, Chester County, and Tredyffrin and Willistown townships first explored alternative sites for a relocation and upgrade of the Paoli station. It resulted in 1996’s Paoli Rail Yard and Transportation Center Plan, and then the Paoli Community Master Plan in 2001. Both had the new station on the other side of North Valley Road, across from the existing site.

In the end, SEPTA, Amtrak and PennDOT decided to stick with the current site. Meanwhile, Tredyffrin and other stakeholders have undertaken a study to outline various intersection, pedestrian and streetscape improvements aimed at creating a “sense of place in Paoli,” Barner says, plus increasing pedestrian safety and traffic circulation. The group’s Paoli Road Improvement Feasibility Study & Public Participation Project won a 2015 award from the state chapter of the American Planning Association. “It will be our best chance in at least a generation to deal with station accessibility, parking, and traffic issues that have grown commensurately with our township, county and region,” says Stephen Aichele, who chairs the Paoli Task Force, an aforementioned stakeholder.

An eighth-generation resident and a longtime area realtor, Andy Wilson sees other hurdles for Paoli. “The big problem is that the [residential] development on Valley Road curtails business expansion, and now Darby Road is the only area that can be expanded in the business district. From Plank Avenue to Del Chevrolet, you’re looking at a city, but it’s not breathing, and so no one is motivated to come into Paoli to shop. It’s still a bedroom community with train access to Philadelphia, and not a business community. The biggest problem with Paoli is that we’re at the tail end [of the traditional Main Line], and also the butt end of the township.”

“You’re looking at a city, but it’s not breathing, and so no one is motivated to come into Paoli to shop. It’s still a bedroom community with train access to Philadelphia, and not a business community.”—Paoli realtor Andy Wilson

Planner Zach Barner has only been with the township for two years, but he grasps the intensity of the longtime public support for a new train station in Paoli, a hub with subpar facilities.

After 30 years, a court mandate finally prompted action, following lawsuits filed against Amtrak for not having fully compliant stations to serve those with disabilities. After a 20-year grace period designated by federal ADA legislation in 1990, Amtrak now has to address these access issues, agreeing to complete upgrades in Paoli by the end of 2018. It’s splitting the $36 million expense with SEPTA and PennDOT—a new frontier of collaboration, and a costly one. 

Requests for proposals for the Darby Road bridge portion of the project went out in November 2015. Intermodal Transportation Center costs are cited in SEPTA’s long-range capital budget as some $100 million. “Every time they looked at it, they said, ‘It will cost too much, so let it ride for now,’” Wilson says. “Now, it’s still going to cost money.” 

Station plans are already having a positive impact. The Tudor building at 2 W. Lancaster Ave., catty-corner to the existing station, is being restored and redeveloped by KingsHaven Property Development as Bennington Apartments and Commercial Properties, with luxury residential units and commercial storefronts. The plan includes a flagship retail space for KingsHaven Design, a resource for architects and the public, with high-end home accessories, furniture and antiques. “The Main Line has continued to extend westward over the last 40 years, and we believe it’s time for Paoli to come into its own as a real destination town,” says KingsHaven Design’s CEO, Lauren Wylonis. 

There are also plans for the 30-townhome Village Square on South Valley Road and rumblings about other projects, including meetings with a company interested in Station Square redevelopment. “It seems like there’s renewed interest in Paoli, and the train station only makes the area more desirable,” Barner says. “Now that there’s finally movement, it’s a high-priority project for the region, as well.”

Current Paoli Business and Professional Association President Brad Zerr (left) with former two-time president Ed Auble.

That’s where P. Timothy Phelps comes in. Phelps is the executive director of the Malvern-based Transportation Management Association of Chester County, an advocacy bridge between private and public sectors that focuses on congestion mitigation and air quality with a goal of getting commuters out of cars and into alternative modes. He sees the new transportation center as an opportunity for the whole county. “It’s not only about getting people into Center City, but how we can get them from the western part of the county into Great Valley,” he says. “It’s not a one-way, inbound discussion; it’s about broadening people’s perspectives on how a station can serve the county.”

Three years ago, a TMACC study found that a third of Vanguard’s employees were commuting from areas west of Exton. The transportation center represents an opportunity to improve workforce development for the Great Valley region, not to mention a convenience for those who live in, say, Parkesburg, Coatesville and Downingtown. Because of its location, Paoli is also a user-friendly station for Delaware County residents.

There’s been public outreach to help ease worries of traffic disruptions during construction and what will surely be property acquisitions along East and West Central avenues, especially as part of the second phase. Tredyffrin Township has studied roads that feed into the station area to look at realigning intersections for flow. “We have to work together, so it’s a fair vision that incorporates the public’s wish list,” Barner says.

Brad Zerr remembers exactly the same station as a kid. “It hasn’t changed in all these years,” says the lifelong Paoli resident, who works in community health services at Paoli Hospital and is the current president of the business association. 

Zerr wouldn’t say much, because the project has to unfold. Even so, like others, he’s concerned about traffic flow and parking, green space, new businesses, and safe walkways. Nor would he say if it would have any effect on Paoli Hospital. “Some of the beauty is that no one really knows what it will look like,” says Zerr.

Paoli Station as it once looked in the early 20th century, and how it might look in the future//Photo courtesy of Tredyffrin Township.

Greg Prichard grew up in Wayne, within walking distance of its station. After studying industrial design at Carnegie Mellon University and historic preservation planning at Cornell, he joined the board of the Radnor Historical Society. 

Prichard focused on Main Line train stations for his Cornell master’s thesis. Fittingly, he’s been a guest of Tredyffrin Historic Preservation Trust. His presentation there and elsewhere detailed local station architecture and history, and it concludes with Paoli.

Historically the end of the line, its large rail yard once housed and repaired cars. In modern times, it became a superfund site better known for environmental contamination. Initially, it was considered as a site for the new station. “In Merion, Wynnewood and Wayne, communities added window boxes, planted flowers, replaced roofs, and redid shelters,” says Prichard, who’s now involved with a group trying to save the Devon station. “In Paoli, I’m not sure there’s the same community spirit.”

Until now, Paoli has been like a railcar stuck in a repair yard. It’s been sleeping, but it’s still very much a part of a system that defines the Main Line, where the towns grew around their stations. “Now, it’s up to communities to define how they want their gateway buildings to be maintained,” Prichard says.    

“When you see a rundown station, you may think a certain way. The stations inform impressions, yet they are no longer maintained by the world’s largest corporation (the Pennsylvania Railroad) like they were years ago.”

Main Line stations were once so well-maintained because the railroad executives lived around them into the 1950s. But even by then, at least one executive living in Ardmore preferred to be chauffeured to work rather than take the rails.

“There was a change in attitude,” Prichard says. “For those of us who can still walk to a station, it should be beneficial to take ownership. In a way, they’re owned by everybody. Shops change owners, uses are modified, but the stations remain the same. They’re that single entity that controls something in each town. Each town can sculpt and mold the way it wants to be presented by beginning with its station.”