The latest tempest to thunder into our fair borough comes on the back of a chihuahua, that despite our laws against it, sports a drive-through window.

Taco Bell tolls for Jenkintown’s fiscal mismanagement

Is Council about to sell us out to cover for an impending financial crisis?

We seem to have a Borough Council that relishes controversy — or is perhaps clueless about how they cause it. The latest tempest to thunder into our fair borough comes on the back of a chihuahua, that despite our laws against it, sports a drive-through window.

My experience has taken me down dozens and dozens of main streets across this country. I’ve sat down and spoken with many from those communities and discussed the challenges that they’ve faced. Towns go into decline and stay there because of gutless or ignorant leadership eager to make any deal, no matter how Faustian.

When I lived in Worcester, Massachusetts, the city had just completed a magnificent $60 million restoration of its Union Station. Eager to spark more development around it, the city almost offered up a lot across the square to Days Inn for one dollar! This signaled to the business community and to the community at large how little City Hall actually valued the city it governed.

Jenkintown today finds itself at a similar crossroads. Old York Road, which traditionally served as our borough’s commercial heart and soul, has become blighted thanks both to PennDOT’s intransigence and the Borough’s inability to challenge it.

We’ve run out of band-aids.

I’ve lived here now for 15 years, and I’ve long heard all the heartfelt and colorful stories about how vibrant Jenkintown used to be. Like many traditional towns that could not adapt to the automobile age, it lost its way. It has since applied many band-aid fixes with mixed results at best.

People like to point to our Town Square and all the new restaurants, but the restaurants are here because of our demographics and improving economy, not because of any Borough policy. The Town Square, though not without its charms, is really a poor excuse for a public space. Frankly, it’s a back-alley consolation prize given to Jenkintown by the county and really provides little to no tangible benefit to the community or the businesses around it, as evidenced by how our school taxes keep going up to compensate for the declining assessments.

Doylestown, Hatboro, Manayunk, Chestnut Hill, Media, and West Chester have no such town square, and yet you would never mistake their economy with Jenkintown’s. What they do have are pedestrian-friendly thoroughfares — streets that they can actually close off when necessary and have a parade. Thanks to Jenkintown’s failure to convey to PennDOT or our governor that Route 611 is killing this town, we must funnel our festivals and parades onto side streets. In 1974, Jenkintown staged its centennial parade on Old York Road.

No standards. Lax enforcement. And soon, no plan.

So, yes, let’s bring a Taco Bell here and grant them a variance for their drive-through window. Then we can finally state the obvious and just declare that we’ve given up. We have no standards, and we need the cash. Sorry for the time you wasted helping us develop the Jenkintown 2035 plan.

The Borough needs the money to pay for a parking lot that doesn’t pay for itself, for leaves they have to pick up from private property, for a theater and library and other community programs that are not fully supported by the residents who use them, for the maintenance of six police vehicles, and for a pocket park that looks more and more like a holding yard for borough trucks and less like a bird sanctuary with every month.

Why should the Borough care about its own building codes and zoning? It has for years ignored ADA laws by willfully allowing cars to park on Walnut Street sidewalks, by failing to cite crumbling properties for health code violations, by ignoring pedestrian safety on disintegrating slate and brick sidewalks, and by gathering revenue from illegal stop signs placed throughout the borough.

When you remember that Council granted George Locke a 23% pay raise without a performance review, it recalls George W. Bush commending his FEMA director after Katrina destroyed New Orleans.

For the record, I have no issue with any business setting up shop providing that they adhere to our established rules. However, this Taco Bell idea smacks of desperation, especially when Michael Golden puts lipstick on this pig by saying “At least we’ll get a traffic light out of it.”

And that there strikes to the heart of exactly the problem with this proposal. Old York Road makes it impossible to develop foot-traffic and the types of businesses that would cater to it. Instead, we get more sprawl, with Taco Bell planting that flag. Before long, we will become another traffic-choked Willow Grove instead of another New Hope, or any town with a business district we can point to with pride.

We can and should do better, but we won’t if we continue to be led by the same tone-deaf Council and the machine that puts it there.

Examples of poor sidewalk construction on Greenwood Ave, Jenkintown

Poor construction on Jenkintown’s Greenwood Ave

We missed a few examples on Greenwood that show Jenkintown needs a more pedestrian-first policy.

greenwoodsidewalks-006
And the point of this is? Yes, as we have already established, the Borough gives slate curbs a pass, but apparently the original developers of this street lined the entire road with slate. We still have a few quaint remnants of that construction, but a wholesale approach would have removed this once and for all, allowing for unified curbs designed to last at least a generation or more. This just looks sloppy.
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Just six feet away, weeds have taken up residence in the cracks in that slate. More Jenkintown sloppiness. We deserve better.
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It didn’t take long for that new sidewalk block to crack, and the patch has already crumbled away. Water will seep in, turn to ice, and destroy that block in short order. If the Borough itself contracted to do the entire street at the same time it paved it, everything you see here would look nice and clean, and last much, much longer.
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Another shoddy, apathetic example of Jenkintown borough’s inspection process. Who cares if the sidewalks look like a stretch in North Philadelphia? The street is nice and smooth. Don’t blame the abutting property owner: They only need do what the Borough requires.

 

Paying for steak but getting McNuggets

Paying for steak, getting McNuggets

According to George Locke, Jenkintown residents pay double what it would cost the borough to repair our sidewalks and curbs on a wholesale basis.

Despite the hardship to our family, we have applied for our permit to repair our sidewalk. The borough marked off four blocks, but we will do six in order to have a more uniform look to our walkway. That leaves three blocks and our driveway apron for the next resident who decides to live in our bucolic community to fix. We could not have done this without the generous cooperation of our contractor.

In our discussions with this contractor, we learned about an elderly couple in their 90s on Rodman facing an $11,000 bill thanks to Jenkintown’s arbitrary and capricious pedestrian infrastructure  policy. I don’t know about you, but if I live that long and keep my wits, I’d tell the borough what they could do with their sidewalks.

For those who don’t live here, you might be wondering why more people don’t speak up about this issue. I can report that there is no shortage of outrage, and that Borough Council President Deborra Sines-Pancoe and Vice-President Rick Bunker lie through their teeth when they claim that no one has complained about this process. To a person, everyone I spoke with directly finds this system outrageous.

George Locke proves our point

Sidewalk estimates
Numbers provided by the borough to show their cost of sidewalk and curb repair. Click to enlarge.

Which brings us back to Borough Manager George Locke’s estimate for repairing all of Jenkintown’s sidewalks and curbs. Last September, in response to our published research on the topic, Mr. Locke told Council that it would cost the borough $7,656,510 to do most of the borough-owned streets. He based his estimate on PennDOT’s “bid history list”. Mr. Lock neglected to remind Council that any sensible maintenance program would spread the work out over 30 to 40 years. The sidewalk blocks marked for repair in front of our house were poured in 1938, almost 80 years ago.

We had one contractor estimate $3800 to rebuild 30 linear feet of curb and 64 square yards of sidewalk. Using PennDOT’s “going rate”, the borough would pay $1690, or nearly half our cost for the same job

See how much your project would cost the borough by using our new calculator at right. Compare that number with what you have to pay. 

Spreading the $7.6 million cost out over 40 years adds $191,412 to the annual borough budget, or 3%. Do we have that money? According to Jenkintown’s 2015 budget:

  • The debt service on the parking lot alone has averaged about $100,000. After enforcement, maintenance, and debt service, the Borough’s parking program actually loses money.
  • The borough also spends over $1000 per officer on uniforms for its 13 officers.
  • We have five police vehicles, which is more per capita than New York City.
  • The Borough budgets $40,000 to purchase new police vehicles about every three years, up from $30,000. At this rate by 2031, the borough will have spent well over $200,000 for five SUV police specials, not including maintenance.
  • In 2014, the Borough spent 1,000 on computer software and increased it to $22,750 the following year.
  • For the past  four years, the Borough has given the Hiway Theater $26,363. I love the Hiway, but I don’t think local government should be in the entertainment business.
  • In 2015, the Borough gave $5,000 to the Jenkintown Community Alliance.
  • In 2015, Borough Manager George Locke received a 5.7% raise from $85,000 to $90,000. Last year, the rate of inflation was well under 2%.

This doesn’t even touch upon the cost and the wisdom of the Borough’s current pavement program and its current scope. Did they need to pave so much so fast? Highly debatable.

If you accept as I do that much of these funds are discretionary (i.e. better spent elsewhere), then you have a total of about $220,000 per year to put into a sensible 40-year sidewalk maintenance program without raising taxes a dime.

Granted, the Borough has already committed much of this money, but without public pressure, they will continue to allow this folly to continue, and you and I will continue to be played for chumps, shelling out thousands of dollars more than we should every year and getting a garbage streetscape.

Jenkintown Borough

Walking Away

We have made our case. Either the citizens of Jenkintown will accept and embrace the concept of public responsibility for public assets, or it will continue to allow the status quo to molder on and degrade our walkable environment.

The facts are these:

  1. The public financing of roads but not of sidewalks amounts to a subsidy for automobile usage. In an age of climate change and an obesity epidemic, it shows a misguided priority for machines over man.
  2. The borough claims facetiously that it cannot afford to take on this responsibility. Actually, it has the money, but it chooses to spend it elsewhere, and often on things where it should not. (For instance, we have more police cars per capita than New York City.)
  3. The borough does not choose to lead the way. It can if it wants, but an element on the Council sees no reason to change its ways or to even discuss it. Such attitudes speaks not only of ignorance, but it leads to dangerous long-term consequences for the viability of the community.
  4. The current sidewalk policy has resulted in an unsightly hodge-podge of substandard construction that will degrade far faster and cost more than a unified, single-payer approach. The process has proven arbitrary and subject to political manipulation. In other words, it helps to know someone.
  5. The current process currently does not accommodate hardship. You either pay up or you will go to court, face a fine, and ultimately find a lien slapped on your house. The borough shows no interest whatsoever in working with families that for reasons beyond their control cannot afford to maintain what is public space.

This situation will not change without public pressure. I have done my best to enlist the help of my neighbors, some of whom have urged me to draft a petition to get this changed. In fact, most of the people I’ve spoken with about this issue tend to agree with me, but what they will do to further this remains an open question.  I would happily help in this effort, but I cannot and should not do it by myself.

I stand ready to press on, but I will need your help. If you would like to meet to discuss what more we can do, let me know. Velvet Sky makes for a perfect meeting spot, and its one of those places that I’ll miss when my family and I can finally move away — which we will if this borough — and commonwealth — continues its oppressive policies against working class homeowners.

Jenkintown Borough

Jenkintown 2035: Wishing and hoping and planning

The Jenkintown 2035 Visioning Workshop turned out an impressive attendance last Thursday night, which included several Borough Council members, Mayor Ed Foley, and Jenkintown Borough Manager George Locke. The overall group seemed to represent a cross-section of Jenkintown society that didn’t have to commute long distances to and from work.

For anyone who’s never attended these exercises, think of it as a big brainstorming session. Organizers distribute the attendees into groups of four to eight seated at their own tables with a leader who takes notes and guides the discussion. The county officials running the show assemble all the notes, listen to all the visions, and then return to Norristown to process it all into a coherent plan.

At the end of workshop, hopefully everyone leaves feeling like they’ve contributed to their community. Only time — twenty years, to be exact — will tell.  Whether or not that plan sits on the shelf and collects dust for the next twenty years depends on the priorities of our representatives, political opportunities, and fate.

Screenshot 2015-11-01 19.27.50
Click on the plan to download.

For anyone who thinks that these plans amount to nothing, keep in mind that the 1962 plan for Jenkintown called for the removal of Old York Road’s on-street parking in order to make it a four lane “modern” highway. Be careful what you wish for.

Here it is in black and white. Be careful what you wish for.
Here it is in black and white. Be careful what you wish for.

Speaking of which, “fixing” Old York Road found support across the room. How people want to see that happen is another matter. We have said all along that making Old York Road a desirable place to walk requires not only slowing down the traffic, but also providing a safe, effective pedestrian buffer. The absolute best way to do that is to restore parallel parking on both sides of the street.

The extra parking this provides comes as an added bonus with minimal impact to the district’s current developed assets. In other words, no more demolitions and no more eminent domain seizures. People, however, have a hard time understanding the simplicity of this solution, mostly because they fear a line of traffic bottlenecked for five miles in either direction. They see current traffic and falsely assume all of it would still jam through Jenkintown.

The workshop focused on three areas: Land use, open space and parks, and transportation. Open space and parks seems hardly germain to any discussion about Jenkintown’s future since it has so little available. To provide more open space, the town would have to either accept it as a gift or to seize it via eminent domain. The former is unlikely, and the latter is unacceptable. And yes, someone suggested the latter.

We live close enough to some excellent parks in other communities. Unfortunately, we can’t use best of them, Alverthorpe Park. We support any effort to gain access for Jenkintown residents as well — within reason.

Regarding the other two:

Land Use

Jenkintown has next to no land available for development. We do, however, have a very good mix of residential and commercial. We are a classic traditional community, developed well before the post-war, sprawl-making madness that destroyed most of the rest of the region. Old York Road remains the elephant in this room. Unless the state and county can address the walkability issues of downtown, the development pressures will favor anti-pedestrian policies.

Because people cannot park on the street itself, developers will push for their own parking, often through expansive setbacks that will further decay the pedestrian experience. Looking north along the road around IHOP shows a potential future for the rest of the district. Little buildings — big parking lots. I don’t think anyone at the workshop wanted this. If the Borough does not have design standards that prevent it, I don’t know what will stop it, especially when tax receipts are involved.

Transportation

Besides its highly rated school system, Jenkintown lays claim to the busiest suburban train station on the SEPTA system. Aside from its rather inconvenient location downhill a half mile away from the business distict, it makes Jenkintown one of the best connected locations in the region. About the only thing missing from the transporation equation is more intersecting bus routes and better biking corridors.

Despite the volume of ridership that originates at Jenkintown-Wyncote, SEPTA runs only a single intersecting bus line, #77. This compels too many suburban riders to drive into the area and park on the street, something SEPTA wants to address with a new parking garage and station that hopefully it will never build. We would like to see SEPTA develop new bus routes, but given the topography and the lack of space for larger buses, this may have to wait until gasoline hits six dollars per gallon.

As expected, someone did suggest a shuttle to take passengers from the station to our downtown. Here’s the problem with shuttles: No one rides them. They only work where driving to your destination becomes impossible. That only happens in successful, densely packed, walkable districts, which we don’t have.

Bicyclists face another challenge. We have narrow roads, making bike lanes impractical. Also, because Jenkintown and its skinny streets sits on top of a hill, only the youngest and fittest of our residents will risk their lives to pedal anywhere.

I made the suggestion that SEPTA include a bike trail within its right-of-way, at least from Jenkintown all the way to Beth Ayres, where it could connect to the brand new Pennypack Trail. An extension south at least to Old York Road in Cheltenham would might present more opportunities for safe bike commuting. In most places, the right of way provides for plenty of space for a bike path.

Finally, some readers have wondered how all this concern for Old York Road relates to our sidewalk policy. The prideful mention of Jenkintown as a “walkable community” probably came up at least a few dozen times. Obviously, most residents place great value on this characteristic. It takes but a tiny leap to connect our embrace of our walkability as a community asset with making it a community responsibility. A more walkable Old York Road would therefore become the jewel in the crown that shows the world that when it comes to transportation, Jenkintown values foot traffic above all else, and as a community, makes itself available to support it.