Big Brother Code Enforcement

Jenkintown makes code enforcement double-plus good.

Big Brother peers in on the Jenkintown Community Facebook page

A few weeks ago, I made the mistake of recommending to a fellow resident seeking a contractor for a furnace replacement that he might do the work himself.

Facing a similar project, I consulted a friend and fellow DIYer, who told me that the job no more requires a contractor than does the replacement of a washing machine. My friend and I plan to convert my system from oil to gas. I look forward to the savings in energy, money, and space.

Full letter from Jenkintown BoroughAbout a week and a half after I posted my intentions on the Jenkintown Community Group page on Facebook, I received an official letter from the borough signed by Kevin Lynch that due to my “posting on social media,” he felt it necessary to remind me of my obligations to the Borough, namely the permits I need to file and pay for.

Yet again, the Borough provides another revealing window on their operation. I never stated an intention to “stick it to the man”, so it makes one wonder that in a town riddled with ongoing, unaddressed code violations, the Borough would take the time to single out someone discussing a furnace upgrade on Facebook. I wish my description of Jenkintown as “small town politics at its smallest” didn’t have such a ring of truth, but rarely does a month pass by when it lives up to that reputation.

Should we add permit fees to the whole “death and taxes” thing? We seem to have come to an understanding as a society that whenever we want to do something to our property, we probably need a permit. Government and apologists for statism will snap back that the permitting process is for our own safety and the good of the community, but is it really?

When I filed a Right to Know request to for copies of all the sidewalk permits, I first asked if the Borough could provide me with the grand total of contractor estimates for the work performed. They said they did not compile that information, and that some of those permits didn’t have that line item. Considering the incredulity of this, I pressed on with my request, only to find that the Borough did indeed distribute no fewer than four versions of the permit, two of which did not ask for the contractor’s estimate, a line item it said it didn’t require in any case. The form didn’t provide such a disclaimer, which meant that a healthy percentage of people did thankfully provide it.

So, if the Borough does not compile any of the information in a database, does not provide a uniform application process, and doesn’t care what you and I spend on our sidewalks, why do they charge for these permits? To offset the cost of having George Locke walk, excuse me, drive out to the worksite, look at the work, and say, “Looks good to me”, all the while he’s on the Borough clock anyway? To whom does this make sense?

Incidentally, they honored my request before they realized they could charge me to redact the names and phone numbers on the permits. All I sought was the total cost, which they could have easily provided had they took the $25 and paid a temp to enter the information into a spreadsheet.

Not to worry, Mr. Ryan. If I do the work, the Borough will get its money. I don’t have an issue with having a third party inspecting the work, but if I’m already paying that third party’s salary, how is that not a cash grab, plain and simple? Money for nothing, indeed, and yet another example how our government nickels and dimes us out of the rewards of our hard work.

Roizman Proposal for Jenkintown

Roizman is not building a skyscraper

Roizman’s five-floor proposal for Jenkintown isn’t perfect, but it will enhance our downtown in a way that a drive-through window never could.

Among the lesser controversies swirling about the Borough Hall of Fun is the five-story apartment building for seniors proposed by Roizman Development to replace the Salem Baptist Church. This project also requires (and got) zoning code variances for height and parking. As expected, some in town and especially those that live near the project aren’t happy.

Opposition to the variances sought by Summerwood and their Taco Bell proposal has merit, because the project would conspicuously degrade the surrounding environs and contradict the established desire of the community to preserve and extend the traditional design of the Borough’s central business district. A variance for Summerwood effectively plants the stake for sprawl north of Cherry Street and probably further into the core. Instead of multi-story mixed use, Jenkintown will get parking moats engulfing tiny buildings.

Roizman’s project, though hardly an ideal concept for that location, would enhance the urban nature of Jenkintown’s center — mainly because it will bring more residents into it. With that in mind, discarding parking minimums (which shouldn’t exist in any case) and height requirements make sense. Both factors which are conducive to a thriving walkable in the central core should be determined by the market, not by fiat. If people want to come live here, we should encourage that.

While the residents on Cedar Street have understandable concerns about elderly apartment dwellers peering down into their back yards, a code-compliant four-story building would make them just as uneasy. The four-story office buildings behind our house provide a great view of our bathroom, especially in the winter when the leaves are off the trees. We just pull the shades.

The space between the houses flanking our property measures only about 20 feet. If we valued privacy over community, we would have moved to a subdivision north of Horsham.

We suspect, however, that the parking issue will get most residents in a snit because parking always gets people in a snit. I once attended a hearing where a resident stood up and said, “We have to preserve that parking space, because we may need it in twenty years.” This was 15 years ago, and despite the lack of parking, rents, commercial activity, and property values in that Boston-area community have skyrocketed.

The communities and downtowns that Jenkintonians most often point to as models for our own future have a serious shortage of public parking. Despite this, those places have high occupancy rates and busy sidewalks.

Conversely, towns with an abundance of parking have… lots of parking, and little else to show for it. The expense of providing all that public parking or allowing too much private parking typically produces deficits, as it does in Jenkintown.

We guardedly welcome Roizman’s development into the community. We would rather see more space devoted to commercial activity than currently proposed, but the building design does fit in with Jenkintown’s small-town, urbanist character.

Hatboro Dish, Hatboro, Pennsylvania

Who will steward the Jenkintown2035 plan into reality?

Making the case to hire a Main Street manager for Jenkintown

Central to the discussion of Jenkintown’s revival is the Jenkintown2035 plan. Two years ago, through the input of Jenkintown residents, we drafted our vision for the town’s future. You can read all about it on the Borough’s website.

As plans go, it is pretty comprehensive, and it does have plenty of fine ideas. Its contents lay out a fairly predictable but solid vision for an older, inner-ring suburb such as Jenkintown: An emphasis on “walkability”, architectural preservation, good connections to transit, etc.

However, we’ve heard repeatedly that the number one concern of residents is the revival of the commercial district. In the section covering economic development which includes the commercial district, the plan lays out these three guiding principles:

Continue to support the growth of Jenkintown’s Town Center district as a destination for arts, entertainment, dining, and music while maintaining its distinctive identity and sense of place.

Build upon the established scale and historic character of Jenkintown’s commercial areas while improving the downtown experience by enhancing the public realm, creating a pleasant strolling environment, and establishing a cohesive identity for the Borough’s commercial areas.

Encourage new development that grows the Borough’s business and property tax base and creates new and diverse employment opportunities within the Borough.

Not meaning to beat a dead chihuahua, but how does a Taco Bell advance any of those three principles? How does a million-dollar pocket park?

How Hatboro manages

We have frequently cited Hatboro as an example to follow. It has not only kept its on-street parking, it today finds itself in the midst of a real revival. It has many things in common with Jenkintown. It has transit, a traditional downtown district, walkable neighborhoods, and ready access to transit.

Hatboro also has a plan for its future development, but unlike Jenkintown, it hired a steward for that plan in 2011 — a professional consultant named Stephen Barth of Barth Consulting Group. Since Mr. Barth became Hatboro’s Main Street Manager in 2011, he has overseen the rehabilitation of its downtown as well as more than $45 million in residential and commercial development throughout the borough.

Hatboro’s council and manager delegated that authority to Barth, and the results speak for themselves. As Barth describes it, he serves as the point man for any new project in Hatboro. He takes the plan, and as he describes it, works backward from the outline, always asking the question, how does that help us achieve our goals, and if it doesn’t how can we steer it in that direction?

We sat down for lunch with Barth at Bernie’s in the heart of Hatboro to chat about his role in the budding revival. This Bernie’s he pointed out, represents a true $2 million investment in the town’s commercial district. It has preserved the streetscape, and gives both residents and visitors yet another contemporary dining option.

Bernie’s also features outdoor seating, something that Fontana’s Restaurant, its predecessor, did not have. Though still open when he became the Main Street manager, Barth stepped into the very tired space and found it completely empty at lunchtime on a beautiful day. So, he proposed to the owner to conduct a little experiment.

“I said if he would let me set up tables on the sidewalk, I would buy lunch for anyone who sat there.”

Then as now Hatboro had no ordinance prohibiting sidewalk cafes as long as it didn’t block pedestrian traffic.

“Just my putting tables outside started to attract attention, drawing people into the restaurant.”

The experiment proved a rousing success, although one that took more than a few dollars out of Barth’s wallet. “I didn’t consider that people would start ordering the most expensive items on the menu,” he smiled, “or bottles of wine!”

Nevertheless, he proved his point. At a certain point, foot traffic attracts more foot traffic — something that a traditional downtown like ours is designed to accommodate.

Cloudy with a chance of 8 balls

Borough Council member Kieran Farrell reminds residents at every opportunity to read and comment on the Jenkintown2035 plan. While laudable, Council’s recent actions show the futility of further public involvement.

We strongly recommend that if the Borough truly believes in this plan that we helped to draft, then it must allocate funds for a trained professional to turn it into reality. No one in Borough Hall currently has the qualifications for that role, least of all our current Borough Manager who spent most of his time during the “Conversation” in the corner of the cafeteria.

Do we seriously believe that current Council leadership will delegate that authority? Let’s ask the Magic 8 Ball.

Uh oh.

Jenkintown's assessed value

Council Meeting Roundup: A real debate, smokescreens, and warm turds

A packed house witnessed Jenkintown Borough Council engage in some actual debate and three presentations for developments that promise to have real impact in the community.

Here’s a quick roundup of the lengthy but lively meeting.

Proposed Taco Bell Development

Handed the chance to redeem themselves for gutlessly supporting a project that abrogates their own zoning and degrades our town, Borough Council treats it like a warm turd.

Council member Michael Golden proposed that the Borough ask Summerwood Corporation to voluntarily pay a 50% surcharge over their legal tax obligation in support of the school system. In my time covering these issues, I couldn’t think of a single instance anywhere where such a solution was ever proposed much less implemented. Golden didn’t provide any examples to show precedence either, and Solicitor Kilkenny also thought little of the idea.

In response, Golden back-pedaled and amended his motion to instead withdraw its support of the project. Mind you, Council’s vote has no real affect over the project moving forward. That lies in the hands of the Zoning Board.

However, it did provide Council a golden opportunity to express its contrition for callously dismissing not only its own zoning code, but public sentiment as well.

In the discussion, Council Vice President and Social Media Bully Rick Bunker again spouted his sky-will-fall sentiments by calling this insult to our community a “bird-in-hand” situation. One has to wonder why a person with such eagerly expressed erudition and above-average intelligence would back such an obviously terrible idea. Either he’s not so smart after all, or he’s putting his own personal interest over that of the community he represents.

The motion to withdraw support was tabled 11-1 with Golden standing alone.

Jenkintown School District Budget Presentation

Between the Jenkintown School District and, say, the Trump Administration, I’m not sure which governmental entity lays down a better smoke screen for its acolytes. The JSD claims it is in the red — at least $600,000 this year. It then showed us some very clear charts to illustrate the state of its finances over the course of the past ten years.

You might not be aware that that as it raised your property taxes over the past ten years, the JSD enjoyed some healthy surpluses — more than $2 million at one point. In fact, the JSD has run a surplus every year since 2008. In 2003, we paid a total tax bill of about $3,000 per year. Last year it was over $7,000. One can be forgiven if they think that the JSD took food off your table and kicked a few families out of their homes just so they could sock cash in their piggy bank.

The JSD blames their predicament on falling property assessments, in decline every year but one since 2008. Did it ever occur to the JSD that the more they raise our taxes, the less salable our homes become? Yes, people move here for the school district, which raises our taxes, which suppress our property values, which compels the JSD to raise our taxes again. Wash, rinse, repeat.

What’s the solution? According to Council, Ms. Takacs, and those that regard the arguably overrated school district as untouchable, we should write our state reps. Steve McCarter, our rep, typically looks for solutions for this broken system by nibbling around the edges, tinkering with formulas, and raising taxes — all of which have proven ineffective.

The real solution calls for eliminating the school tax altogether and supporting Property Tax Independent Act. Education benefits the entire commonwealth. More members of this commonwealth should contribute — not just property owners. The current system is broken.

Assurances that the teachers pension system obligations will plateau soon — always “soon” — has not, and will likely never, come to pass. The whole pension system resembles a Ponzi scheme anyway. It’s time teachers contribute into a 401K program like the rest of the work force. I want good teachers paid well, but after they no longer work for us, their retirement becomes their responsibility.

Abington Friends School Development

The Abington Friends School plans to build a brand new, state-of-the-art athletic facility and outdoor track with lighting. Because this all lies within Abington, Jenkintown has no real standing, but because of its proximity to our border, an inter-governmental courtesy is exercised, giving our Council the opportunity to comment. A few residents expressed a concern about the lighting of the field, but it looks like construction crews will be moving in very soon.

New Apartments at 610 Summit

Roizman Development wants to tear down Salem Baptist and build 74 mostly one-bedroom apartments for the elderly. The new building, while conventionally handsome, sure does seem to loom over that location. It stands at four stories tall, and its occupants will have a commanding view of the back yards of their Cedar Street neighbors.

York Road and Noble Station Bridge

We will soon get to test drive a road diet for York Road, though not in the heart of our town. According to Council President Deborra Sines-Pancoe, PennDOT plans to begin the reconstruction of the bridge at Noble Station. The project will pinch the road down to two lanes in both directions, with lengthy merge lanes on both sides.

Remember that it took PennDOT two years to replace the bridge at the train station, so we’re going to get a good taste of what we believe should happen anyway.

Old York Road Jenkintown

The York Road Diet for saving Jenkintown FAQ

Walkable Jenkintown calls for PennDOT to put York Road in Jenkintown on what planners call a “road diet”. In order to reduce traffic, its speed, and to catalyze the revival of commerce on the York Road and the surrounding commercial district, PennDOT must reduce road capacity by removing a lane of traffic in each direction through Jenkintown between Washington Lane and Cloverly Avenue.

Your questions, please.

Q: This idea is nuts. Where’s all that traffic going to go?

A: The short answer is, “somewhere else” but that’s just me caring more about pedestrians than cars. Let’s start with some historical background first.

York Road experiences such heavy traffic volumes simply because it has the capacity for it. PennDOT expanded capacity in the 1970s to deal with a classic 1970s problem: Getting cars from the city to the outlying suburbs and to expand an existing arterial into Philadelphia to accommodate commuter traffic — despite the fact that train service existed to do exactly that. People had begun to lose interest in public transit back then and the Reading Railroad was going out of business, so PennDOT stepped up and gave us lots more roads to drive our cars.

Attitudes have changed since then. SEPTA provides pretty good service between the city and the burbs (despite the constant complaints about it), but more people work outside of the city than within it now, yet York Road remains heavily used because it’s there, not because it’s needed.

So, where will the traffic go? Some will continue to pass through Jenkintown, but almost as much traffic passes through Rockledge as it does through Jenkintown, and Rockledge doesn’t experience the car-mageddon that some Jenkintonians have predicted for here. Speaking for myself, I stay away from Rockledge at rush hour because I know how congested it can get. I suspect thousands of potential trips are canceled in this manner every day. The same will happen in Jenkintown.

Second, alternative routes do exist. Washington Lane and Easton Road are just two. Route 309 exists for exactly this. If you go to Google maps and plot routes (for sample’s sake) between the H-Mart in Cheltenham and the Home Depot in Willow Grove, you save only 1 minute traveling through Jenkintown over taking the Turnpike to 309 south.

Several other technological solutions exist to alleviate traffic flow in this corridor, including the Waze app and other live GPS tools.

In other words, yes, this will largely take care of itself.

Won’t cars just use our side streets?

Have you ever tried to do that? I have. Trying to save time between the Abington Wawa and the Fern Rock terminal, I took the Runnymede/Cheltena/Cedar/Washington Lane detour. Big mistake. I’ll never do that again.

Jenkintown streets are too choked by one-ways, stop signs, oncoming cars on narrow streets, and speed humps. Only a true masochist would attempt that twice.

Isn’t it a state road?

Which is why we have to ask the Governor. For whatever reason, our own borough council has gotten nowhere with this. They keep appealing to PennDOT. PennDOT keeps shooing us away. We think they should go over PennDOT’s head.

Do you really think this is possible?

Yes, but it’d be a long slog made longer by the fact that our borough government can’t get anywhere with PennDOT. Why, isn’t clear, but this for at least the sake of raising the profile of this issue we are petitioning the governor. Nothing good will come from doing nothing.

Didn’t Jenkintown sell off the parking spaces in the 70s?

This is a common myth. The state has always owned that road, and in fact owns it right up to the storefronts. When Jenkintown issued it’s long-range plan in 1962, it planned to expand York Road to four lanes. Since PennDOT always owned that road, stories in the Chronicle suggest it could have removed the parking spaces any time they wanted.

Why do you say Jenkintown isn’t walkable? I walk everywhere in town.

In this context, walkability doesn’t mean ability to walk around, it means desirability. You can, if you want, walk from the Willow Grove Mall to the Olive Garden, but you won’t.

Is Jenkintown the kind of place where you’d park your car and spend the day? Maybe you have an appointment at Hot Yoga or maybe your kid wants a cupcake, but is Jenkintown a destination to spend an afternoon? No. It’s not.

By contrast, in Ambler, you can shop, eat, catch a movie, grab a beer, see a play, or get a haircut. Its atmosphere is more conducive to social interaction than Jenkintown. Ambler has Deck’s Hardware, one of the most amazing independent hardware stores within 50 miles. You don’t just have one brewery, you have two — and a wine bar. You have a barbecue place, a Mexican place, an old-guy bar, ice cream shop, a Rita’s, several gift shops, upscale and downscale dining options, and sidewalks used by people who live, work, and visit there in volumes that Jenkintown can only wish for right now. It has things I don’t yet know about, because it’s changing constantly. This was not the case only ten years ago. Jenkintown has made far less progress.

You don’t want to go to Ambler? That’s your choice. Maybe you don’t appreciate downtown experiences like I do. I love them. Nothing better. In every aspect of that, Jenkintown comes up short, and as a community, we are paying dearly for that.

I feel perfectly safe walking on York Road.

That’s what men say, and men will do all kinds of nutty things with no regard for their safety. Women, and especially mothers of small children, don’t feel the same way. As far as I’m concerned, that’s the true litmus test.

What does making York Road slower do for Jenkintown?

If we can create a more pedestrian-conducive environment on York Road, we have the opportunity to make the properties there more valuable and in the process raise their tax assessments. Jenkintonians are straining under the weight of our tax burdens, made much worse by commercial district assessments declining since 2009 (the year they opened that new parking lot, by the way).

If I told you that a two-lane York Road could lower your taxes, would you support it then?

Doesn’t our Jenkintown2035 plan have the answers?

The Jenkintown2035 plan does express a very high priority on proper development of the commercial district and along York Road, but the plan is essentially useless unless the Borough actually commits to it. The Taco Bell development is a very bad sign. The Borough does not have a Main Street manager. It has George Locke, who has contributed nothing that anyone knows about to this process, and under his watch, code enforcement along York Road has gone lacking.