You can’t miss it if you frequent the Main Line’s primary east-west artery. What was once a vast parking lot on the south side of Lancaster Avenue at South Ithan Avenue is now the Commons, home to six stately residence halls. Their stone facades, period windows, cornices and walkways make the dorms appear as if they’ve been there since the university was founded in 1842.
But this is 2019, and these dorms have two fitness centers and a host of other modern amenities to accommodate 1,135 upperclassmen. And there’s more to come at the complex in 2020, including the debut of the Parliament Espresso & Coffee Bar and the Refectory, a restaurant run by Zavino Hospitality Group, which owns the Tredici restaurants in Bryn Mawr, Philadelphia and Washington, D.C. Other new buildings on the way include a performing arts center and a five-level parking garage with 1,300 spaces.
The $300 million project is an undeniable coup for Villanova, transforming its once-modest Lancaster Avenue entryway into more of an upscale collegiate gateway. But not everyone is thrilled—namely those who live in neighborhoods adjacent to campus. Inadequate visitor parking and noise and light pollution from the football stadium are a few of the concerns expressed by some homeowners and several members of Radnor Township’s board of commissioners. Conducted in person and on social media, the debates have amounted to an at times uncivil discourse between university representatives, Ward 2 Republican commissioner Richard Booker and his Democratic counterpart, Ward 7’s Sean Farhy. Other commissioners have weighed in with concerns, though none with the ferocity and consistency of Farhy and Booker.
“It’s a challenge, and there are times that I wish meetings were more civil,” concedes Lisa Borowski, president of the board of commissioners.
Since 2017, Borowski has represented Ward 4, which includes communities that neighbor Villanova’s campus. She conducts meetings with as much efficiency as her colleagues allow, ending their soliloquies with a terse bang of her gavel. “We have to collaborate to coexist,” she says. “We need to find common ground and negotiate. Creating adversarial relationships isn’t the way to do that.”
As for Booker and Farhy, they don’t trust the university to negotiate in good faith. They point to a string of broken—or altered—promises. To them, this is a classic David-and-Goliath tale, with Villanova University infringing on homeowners’ quality of life. “Villanova says, ‘We can’t deliver quality education unless we do this and this and that,’” says Farhy. “But you can’t keep growing at the expense of the neighbors and taxpayers.”
One could easily surmise that all of this is emblematic of the nationwide polarization of politics and the heated rhetoric that surrounds it. Issues playing out here are part of a much wider debate involving taxes, property rights, big government and the skyrocketing cost of higher education. In this small township, as in America at large, it’s not so much about who’s right and wrong as it is about the way decisions are made and how they shape the fabric of society.
Radnor Township’s picturesque, tree-lined neighborhoods are home to about 31,531 residents. Its seven wards are each represented by one commissioner. Board meetings are typically filled with the minutia of township management—zoning restrictions, budget items, storm water management, etc.—and homeowners expressing their opinions.
It’s hard to say exactly how many homeowners are bothered by the changes at Villanova University. “There’s always going to be a vocal minority that will speak out against anything the university does,” says Chris Kovolski, Villanova’s assistant vice president for government relations and external affairs. “They have been very effective in getting their position represented as the majority opinion.”
Kovolski, a Villanova alum and 19-year employee of the university, was tasked with shepherding the Lancaster Avenue redevelopment through zoning meetings and Radnor Township’s other legal processes. That’s put him at loggerheads with Booker and Farhy, and by all accounts, Kovolski has kept his cool. But he does bristle over how Villanova’s zoning battles have been portrayed in the local media. “The way that conversation can be portrayed in the press is rarely objective these days,” Kovolski says. “I’m not looking for a one-sided representation of things. What I’m looking for is balance.”
Laura Wagoner concurs. “It’s frustrating to read in the media about Villanova getting hit over the head repeatedly,” she says. “The truth is that we have great collaborations with officials and residents in Radnor Township.”
Radnor’s ward 7 Democratic commissioner, Sean Farhy, has been fielding critical emails from residents frustrated with the school.
Named assistant director of government and community relations in April 2018, Wagoner works on “town and gown” projects with Radnor Township officials. She identifies the key players as a small group of homeowners. “Laura Wagoner is wrong in that regard,” says Farhy. Farhy’s ward includes Old Oaks, Garrett Hill, Conestoga Village and part of Beaupre, an area filled with modest single-family homes and twins. Farhy says he’s fielded plenty of emails and other messages from residents critical of Villanova’s impact on their neighborhoods. “Wagoner has been there for just over a year,” he says. “I think I have a better feel for my neighbors of 18 years.”
Borowski comes down in the middle of the debate. “Commissioners are advocating for their residents,” she says. “A lot of times, we’re responding to people who are most vocal because they’re impacted the most. Villanova is an important part of our township, but there are residents who have voiced concerns about traffic, stadium lights and other issues. It’s a balancing act between homeowners and an institution.”
When it opens sometime next year, the Commons’ culinary showpiece will have room for 200 diners and an 18-seat bar. This version of the Refectory is quite different from the one described in an initial plan that also said the “bistro” would be operated by the university’s dining services. Farhy has documents that show a plan for an 85-seat bistro. “When they found out about the change, the neighbors were absolutely furious,” he says. “Villanova should’ve informed the community about that.”
Kovolski admits that the restaurant concept changed. The university’s dining services didn’t want to operate the space, so campus officials partnered with an outside restaurateur. Kovolski notes that the Refectory still complies with zoning laws, which capped the total amount of retail space at 25,000 square feet. Even when you throw in the Commons’ Parliament coffee shop, the space is less than 10,000 square feet. “Have the restaurant’s seats changed? Yes,” Kovolski says. “But we’re at less than half of the retail space allowed.”
But Booker says Kovolski is missing the point. “Villanova sells it as one thing and then it becomes a different thing,” he says. “How are we supposed to trust what they say?”
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When it comes to the Commons’ new dorms, the concerns center on the likelihood of Villanova increasing student enrollment, which could strain township resources and lead to more friction with homeowners living near campus. “The new dorms are bringing in some students who were living in off-campus apartments, but they’ll be supplanted by others,” says Booker.
It’s worth noting that Villanova did increase its enrollment in the late 1980s. “[But] in the ’90s, we right-sized the enrollment to 6,400-6,500 for full-time undergraduates,” Kovolski says. “Since then, our enrollment has stayed steady at an incoming freshman class of roughly 1,670.”
Numbers obtained from Villanova confirm that the incoming class of 2023 has 1,675 full-time undergraduate students, and Kovolski says there are no plans to increase enrollment. “For the kind of education that Villanova offers, our student-to-faculty ratio has to be small and our classroom size is small,” he says. “We want to provide the kind of experience people are looking for, and you can’t do that if you are jamming students into classrooms and dorms.”
Though Kovolski describes the university as “landlocked,” Villanova sits on nearly 250 acres, so there’s room to build. Zoning restrictions would likely have to change, but Villanova accomplished that before ground was broken on the Commons. That 2014 zoning relief was granted by the Radnor Township board prior to the arrival of Farhy, Booker or Borowski. Booker decries “the uneven application of the rules to favor Villanova.”
Booker also came out against the sale of Ardrossan Farms, the 800-acre estate once owned by descendants of the Montgomery Scott family. For the 2013 deal, Radnor Township made zoning changes and paid $11.6 million to purchase of 71 acres of Ardrossan land. “As a government, we can’t do giveaways, and that was a giveaway for Ardrossan and Eddie Scott,” Booker says. “The open space there is not for the public—it’s for the people who own those million-dollar houses. We need to negotiate better.”
He also fought Penn Medicine’s plans to move its Radnor medical facility to a bigger space on King of Prussia Road. Booker lost the battle, as construction is underway on the Penn Medicine complex, which will include office space, an ambulatory care facility, a hotel and two parking garages. “That development is detrimental to the safety, health and general welfare of my constituents,” says Booker.
Few subjects get Richard Booker and Sean Farhy as riled up as Villanova University’s status as a nonprofit entity. They point to high tuition, the executive-level incomes of administrators and Villanova’s for-profit restaurant as evidence of its deep pockets. For the 2019-20 academic year, the average tuition at Villanova is $55,550, on par with Georgetown and Notre Dame universities. Still, the university reports that 82 percent of last year’s freshman class received need-based assistance, for a total of $22.3 million.
Booker, a tax attorney with an encyclopedic knowledge of the subject, states his opinion simply: “Villanova is a big, sophisticated business and I don’t begrudge them that. But why am I subsidizing that with my tax dollars?”
According to CPA Robert Tate Jr., Villanova University is the largest property owner in Radnor Township. “[It owns] just over $200 million in assessed valuation of property,” said Tate, Radnor Township’s assistant finance director, in a written statement. “Historically, Villanova has paid real estate tax on one parcel. In 2017
and 2018, that parcel had an assessed valuation of $11,574,500. As of January 2019, that taxable parcel was valued at $15 million.”
Radnor’s Ward 2 Republican Comissioner, Richard Booker, says that he does not trust that the school will keep its promises to the town.
Without question, though, Villanova plays by the rules. Radnor’s top cop and its chief administrator confirm that the school has complied with every zoning restriction. University officials, they say, work with the township to control traffic during big events and they’ve taken steps to minimize the inconvenience to residents during the construction of the Commons.
Township manager Robert Zienkowski lives in Farhy’s Ward 7, where he’s witnessed a few isolated incidents involving nuisance lighting from Villanova’s football stadium. The university was cited, Zienkowski says, and those situations were quickly rectified.
Zienkowski has experienced “zero inconvenience during the construction” of the Commons. He’s also not concerned about potential overflow-parking issues in nearby neighborhoods with the openings of the Refectory and the performing arts center. “I don’t see people walking that far to park,” he says.
Police superintendent Christopher Flanagan has his own take on issues that may or may not arise due to inadequate parking at the Commons. “If you only focus on the garage, there aren’t enough spots,” he says. “But our highway patrol unit and independent traffic engineer spent hundreds of hours working with Villanova officials on ways to reduce traffic during major events. Villanova has also increased the amount of police officers on the perimeter to control traffic—which I commend them for, quite frankly.”
Flanagan has worked in Radnor Township for 21 years, and he says Villanova’s situation is hardly unique. “Every institution has done additions and renovations in the past 10 years to remain competitive,” he says. “It’s their right. Our job is to help them, as long as they are within the township’s codes. If there are violations and enforcement issues, we’ll take on that mission.”
One thing is certain: Supporters and opponents alike can expect more interesting things to come. Villanova and the township are currently working on a deal to install new stadium lights, a proposed dome for the football stadium is awaiting judgment from a Delaware County court, and Farhy is up for reelection in November. Change is never easy, but it’s also inevitable.