If at First You Don't Develop, Try, Try, Try Again
Lansdale Historical Society presented "Revitalization Through the Years" last week, which looked at development projects then and now
"Revitalization" is a term that has been associated with Lansdale’s shopping district since the days of Elvis, poodle skirts and tail fins.
But the idea of improving the center of town goes back far beyond that — all the way to the Victorian Age.
The Lansdale Historical Society addressed this controversial topic at a program entitled "Revitalization Down Through the Years" Tuesday night at the Lansdale Parks and Recreation Building.
"Almost from the beginning Lansdale was a town waiting to be rebuilt," said society President Dick Shearer, one of the narrators of the program. "The town’s original buildings were mostly frame structures designed to provide shelter for the construction workers who built the North Pen n Railroad in 1855."
"Once they moved west, the permanent residents who remained wanted more substantial housing and a business district that exuded permanency. That led to buildings that are still standing today: the Music Hall block (Koffee Korner today), the Geller building (Wilson’s Hardware) and the Moyer building (Chantilly Floral)."
As early as 1913, the downtown merchants had formed a board of trade to promote their businesses. They even did their own primitive branding (as it’s called today) by conducting a contest for a town slogan, “Lansdale: Look-Linger-Locate." The winner received a $5 gold piece.
Lansdale quickly emerged as the commercial hub of the North Penn area, thanks to the dozens of trains and trolleys that moved through the town during the pre-World War II era. However, it was slowly becoming evident that its supremacy would be challenged by the automobile.
"As early as 1930, merchants were concerned about what would happen when their customers would use their cars to drive elsewhere for their shopping needs," Shearer said. "In 1930, Strawbridge & Clothier became the first Philadelphia department store to explore the suburbs with a store in Ardmore. A year later, they built another in Jenkintown, which was even closer to home."
The Great Depression and World War II slowed this trend, as auto production was curtailed and gas rationing was imposed. When peacetime returned after 1945, cars dominated, trolleys faded and trains lost ridership.
"Lansdale really wasn’t prepared for this," according to society Vice President Steve Moyer. "Everyone had a car and there simply wasn’t enough parking to suit Main Street shoppers. The fix was to tear down the old A.C. Godshall mill, behind the north-side stores, and build the Madison Parking Lot in 1953. It was filled from the day it opened."
Still, change was in the air.
In 1954, Clemens Markets, a downtown grocery store, built a supermarket on North Broad Street with a parking lot surrounding the store. Another merchant, Ralph Hedrick, did the same, putting up a new store at Main Street and Mitchell Avenue. A&P, which had been housed in what is now the North Penn Boys and Girls Club, headed for the new South Broad Street shopping center.
And if that wasn’t enough, things were also happening in Montgomery Township in 1954. Harry Kahn opened a contemporary furniture store — Jonn’s — in what had once been rural countryside, and the Montgomeryville Mart came on the scene to attract customers from all over the region.
As the 1950s waned, Lansdale’s leaders — both elected and private sector — worried about what to do next. They had plenty of company. Towns across the nation were struggling to save their downtown districts.
Out of this came the Lansdale Community Improvement Association, a private sector organization comprised of influential community leaders and businessmen that could fund-raise for revitalization in ways government bodies, like borough council, could not.
The LCIA seized upon a government program that would provide $7 for every $1 dollar raised privately for Urban Renewal, a program championed by the Eisenhower and Kennedy administrations. The goal in Lansdale was to raise $100,000 to qualify for a $700,000 match from the government.
Heading the LCIA was Frank Martin, one of the owners of Martin Century Farms, now Lehigh Valley Dairies. Martin had been a community activist for years and played a hand in the Madison Parking Lot project.
"The original goal of the LCIA was to target the Longaker Hotel block — for years an eyesore — buy it, demolish it and resell it for redevelopment," Shearer said. "The deal was sealed in 1963, but it would take until 1965 when the hotel and surrounding buildings were razed. In the end, more than 60 downtown buildings fell to the wrecking ball as a result of the LCIA, including two complete blocks between Main Street and Vine Street along the railroad."
The LICA hired Lansdale’s community planning consultants, Walker-Murray Associates, to create a vision of the new downtown, but in the end few buyers were found to erect new, modern buildings.
In fact, the lone exception was the Century Plaza mid-rise (now 100 West Main) at Main Street and Railroad Avenue, site of the old hotel. It was supposed to be the first of many mid-rises that would transform downtown Lansdale. Much of the remaining open land eventually became parking lots that still exist today.
The LCIA faded out in the mid-1970s just as the Montgomery Mall was preparing to open. When it did, many long-established downtown retailers closed their doors as shoppers headed to the great indoors.
By the early 1980s, the full effect of the mall had taken its toll on the downtown shopping district. No longer the region’s commercial hub, Lansdale Borough Council in 1984 looked to the nationally-recognized American City Group, a Willard Rouse subsidiary, to develop a radical redevelopment plan.
The plan was bold and expensive, but it clearly charted a path to a new downtown. Some of the recommendations have since been implemented; others may still become reality.
- Locating a centralized park/meeting place near the railroad with a fountain (Railroad Plaza today).
- Erecting a marketplace retail building on the Madison Parking Lot site, with a parking garage behind it near the railroad (A similar plan is in the works now).
- Purchasing what was then the post office at Broad and Vine streets. And transforming it into a public meeting facility (now Borough Hall)
- Transforming the railroad station into an upscale restaurant with glass seating areas along the tracks.
- Lining Richardson Avenue from Main Street to the railroad with condominiums.
- Transforming the Moyer building (Chantilly Floral) and the Nolan Cigar Factory (Junction House tavern) into a 60-room hotel with a glass atrium connecting the buildings.
Also included was a diversion plan to reroute some Main Street traffic onto Richardson Avenue, Derstine Avenue and Vine Street (a variation of this plan is under way now).
But like so many other proposals, the American City plan was stymied by its projected cost: The price tag in 1985 dollars was about $29 million.
"Back as far as the LCIA days, there was talk of tunneling the railroad below Main and Broad Streets to ease traffic congestion, turning Main Street into a pedestrian mall, and devising alternate traffic patterns to make shopping downtown more desirable," Moyer said.
"Even now, after more than a century, we can’t say with any certainty that downtown Lansdale has found the key to reinventing itself as the vibrant district it once was," he said. "But it hasn’t been a case of not trying."