Main Line Times Column, Places We Love – William Penn Inn
This past Monday night two development projects were reviewed by the Lower Merion Township Planning Commission. One, the William Penn Inn in Wynnewood and the other, a home in Bryn Mawr on Pennswood Road. At the end of the night each project took a very different track, and now it’s up to Lower Merion’s Board of Commissioners to make the final decisions. This week’s Places We Love explores what to do when a community’s regulations might not protect a resource worth preserving.
Lower Merion is a wonderful place to live in part because of the unique nature of our community. It’s full of trees, beautiful streams and incredibly lovely and historic architecture. The churches and homes were built for captains of industry, mill workers, artists, writers and railroad businessmen. Our development was heavily influenced by the railroad, the Main Line, and the presence of the Lancaster Pike. Our built environment reflects a rich history and contributes to why it is such a special place to live.
Changes to our built environment are absolutely certain. Managing the change is critical. In a perfect world a community could agree on a specific vision and set of values and create municipal regulation that manages change for you. The reality is that regulation doesn’t address everything we value and managing change depends on creative solutions and collaboration.
The project on Pennswood Road proposed to subdivide a lot into three parcels and build two new homes, with the original home remaining. Community members were concerned about the impact of density on their neighborhood as well as the impact of new houses on the existing historic home. The architecture of this home is such that it appears as a ship with a curved bow sailing on a sea of grass. While the owners are allowed to place two new houses on the property, neighbors were concerned that blocking the house’s “prow” would change the character of the neighborhood. The ultimate solution is to adjust the position and size of the new houses and preserve that corner view. The result is a project that is more in keeping with the neighborhood character and preserves the view of the façade of the historic home. It requires some waivers, a lot of conversations with all parties, the proposal of creative solutions and a willing owner.
When it came time for the Planning Commission to discuss the William Penn Inn on Monday night, they found themselves wringing their hands. The plan before them was a nearly compliant plan with a few routine deficiencies. However, they could not bring themselves to approve the proposed development. They ultimately voted to deny the application on the grounds of the minor deficiencies. However, they did this to send a message. The message was that they do not wish to lose this important historic resource. Now it’s up to the Lower Merion Commissioners to influence the future of the William Penn Inn. They could take the recommendations of the Planning Commission, their advisory committee, or they could approve the plan with several conditions that give some opportunity to find a preservation solution.
This is the critical moment in these kinds of situations. On one hand you have a developer who is proposing a project that they are allowed to do according to our current regulations. One the other hand, you also have a community desire to preserve a building that defines our community as well as the immediate neighbors who will feel the impact of changing density. All of these perspectives matter but how do we come to resolution?
One of our strongest options is to find a market-based solution. This requires a vision of the endpoint, a creative solution and an alignment with community values and needs. We already know this community values historic resources, so why not build on that to create a product that markets to such an audience.
In the absence a market-based solution, we must work closely with the owner to find out what they might be willing to do voluntarily. In this approach, clear communication and creativity can go a long way. Those hoping for alternative outcomes must also go the extra mile to facilitate the change they wish to see. This might mean actively seeking a preservation-minded buyer or even bringing in design professionals that might offer solutions that haven’t been considered.
For Pennswood, many discussions of various design iterations helped lead to a final creative solution. For the William Penn Inn, the only thing that might lead to a creative solution right now is more time to talk and a willingness of the developer to work closely with community members to work towards a community-minded solution for the site. In both cases, a market-based or voluntary approach could lead to solutions that meet the needs of the community and the owners.
Moving forward, we have an opportunity to improve our regulations to reflect what we value most as a community. Specifically, we could actively improve our historic resources inventory by adding buildings, and ensuring information is up-to-date. Perhaps the Class I / Class II system needs another look. Perhaps most importantly, we should evaluate our criteria for designating Class I properties. Currently we apply Federal guidelines, the National Register criteria. However, these guidelines are based on values to apply nationally. Is it appropriate to evaluate the William Penn Inn, clearly a locally significant resource, against national standards for determining value as a historic resource? These are important questions that we need to wrestle with to ensure that our regulations protect what we value as a community.
Managing change cannot be wholly accomplished with regulation. We must continue to seek market-based and voluntary preservation solutions. We must also create a culture of creative and open discussion among a variety of perspectives in order to get the best solution we can at the end of the day. Through a combination of improved regulation, creative solutions and meaningful communication we can actively manage change and put our values as a community first.
At the writing of this article, the Board of Commissioners has not yet voted on either of these projects.
Patty Thompson is the Executive Director of the Lower Merion Conservancy. JulieAnn Murphy, the Conservancy’s Historic Preservation Coordinator, contributed content to this column as well. We can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.