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Early Task Force Opinions Go Against Recommendation of Consultant

The 311 W. Main St. Task Force discussed their opinions on phasing or not phasing the future renovations of the former arts center in the heart of the downtown. Hired arts consultant AMS Planning recommends phasing the project in its draft business plan

A majority of the 11-member 311 W. Main Task Force expressed opinions at its last meeting to not phase the renovation of the former arts center and rather rehabilitate the entire building at once.

Those opinions, however, go against the draft business plan recommendation of the consultant on the project, AMS Planning & Research, a Connecticut firm hired at around $48,000 to guide the task force toward advising council on what to do with the building.

The opinions also go against that of architect firm Spiezle Group, which has been brought on as the architectural consultant on the project.

"Just because the opinions — and I stress opinions — of the task force members disagree with certain aspects of the AMS Group's recommendations does not mean their work and the fee we paid them was for naught," said 311 W. Main Task Force Chairman Mike Sobel. 

Of the 11 members on the advisory task force, only one — Dawn Harvey — expressed her opinion to phase the project. Ex-officio member Brian O'Leary, of the Montgomery County Planning Commission, also recommended phasing the project.

Other task force members either expressed interest in completing renovations all at once, or had no opinon at all, or — in the case of Bob Willi, Lindsay Schweriner and new task force member Elizabeth House — were absent from the meeting.

Task force members Sobel, Vice Chairman Charles Booz, Doug Pett, councilwoman Mary Fuller, and borough Manager Timi Kirchner stated their opinion on completing the project all at once. Parks and Recreation Director Carl Saldutti, who sits on the task force in a non-voting role, also expressed his opinion on completing all renovations at once.

Task force members James Collins Jr., councilman Denton Burnell, and ex-officio member Nancy DeLucia, regional director of the Greater Philadelphia Cultural Alliance did not specifically express their opinions one way or another on phasing or completing all renovations at once.

The 311 W. Main Task Force will be voting on a final recommendation to council at its October meeting.

"AMS did their job," Sobel said. "They came up with a suggested course of action for the task force to take. It is up to the members of the task force to decide how to proceed and use some or all of AMS's suggestions for us."

In the draft business plan, available on Lansdale Borough's website at this link and available as a PDF in our gallery on this story, AMS Planning and Research's Michele Walter and Lynette Turner wrote that a phased approach is recommended.

The recommendation was made after touring the facility, gaining a thorough understanding of the previous renovation activity and completing tasks of the feasibility study.

"This approach is in line with the recommendations of ... Spiezle Group. Currently, the building has several code violations, which do need to be addressed as a priority," AMS states in the draft plan.

The spaces on the lower level of the building are in good condition, but the first floor on the Main Street side does need renovation to "provide an ideal area for community gathering activities and add appeal to the streetscape as well as add to the functionality of the facility as a whole."

The phase one construction, as recommended by Spiezle, is this first floor area and estimates the cost at $2,435,012, according to the business plan.

A second phase is recommended for the second floor of the building, which once served as the meeting space for the Shiloh Lodge No. 558 Free & Accepted Masons. 

According to the plan, this space could provide for additional programming, thereby providing additional revenue for the center.

"Careful planning and staged construction would allow the facility to continue to operate while Phase II is implemented," said the business plan.

"AMS's work and report were an invaluable tool for the task force to use as a guide. It will be, and always has been, the decision of the task force alone to make a recommendation to council," Sobel said. "Also, without the valuable input from a professional consulting firm like AMS, the task force will not be able to make a sound, educated and informed decision about 311 West Main St."

Those task force members who are leaning toward full renovations stated two main reasons for their choice: money and choice of future council members.

Most said the renovations are needed 100 percent in order to revitalize Lansdale. Members like Pett and Kirchner said the building remains to cost the borough money by sitting there, doing nothing.

"If you phase it, you will never finish it," said Pett at the Sept. 6 meeting. "Do it once or not at all."

Fuller said the borough is fortunate now to take a big bite and do it all at once.

"I feel the same as Doug. On the inside of government, things work slowly. There could be a change of council and costs can increase the longer you wait. It's smart to do it all at once," Fuller said.

Booz called the center "the cancer of the borough."

"I'm looking at 100 years down the road. At this point, because of economic slowness, the money is cheap. Let's do it once. We won't get finished if we don't," Booz said.

Kirchner said $4 million has already been put into the building. She said take advantage of it and build on it.

Kirchner told the task force Sept. 6 that the county years ago awarded a $1 million grant to Lansdale for the previous renovation of the arts center, the state awarded $500,000 in grant money and the borough put in $2 million of its own money.

"While it might feel better to phase it, as long as it sits in terrible condition, it costs you money," she said. "I say go for it and do the entire building."

Sobel said last week the center can be a cornerstone of revitalization in Lansdale.

In November 2011, Scott Malin of Spiezle Architects estimated the 

That price tag includes $2.8 million for new construction and improvements, $250,000 for façade improvements, $300,000 for contingencies and $450,000 for soft costs.

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C. Smith September 11, 2012 at 01:37 PM
I think the Task Force members are right on this one. Skimming the proposal, it feels like the consultant is just being cautious because of the big $$ involved. They even make it clear in the report that "funding" appeared as a major concern in their research, so their suggestion of phasing is not surprising. However, those of us who've been here know that the "phased" approach to construction and implementation was tried and failed. Sounds like the Task Force members are recognizing the politics of the issue and know that they might only get one shot at getting this done right.
Robert Willi September 11, 2012 at 08:01 PM
I was not able to attend the meeting do to work issue, but if I had I would have stated that we need to do a full renovation. The phasing in bit did not work before, hence the 311 Task Force. We have I feel only one opportunity to get this done and done right.

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