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The Swarthmore Inn Project

By
February 20, 2008

This Friday, Associate Vice President of Facilities and Services Stu Hain will be presenting a plan for the Swarthmore Inn to four members of the Board of Managers.

Two architectural groups presented their plans to a committee of senior staff, faculty, students, and town leaders on February 7th. “They had an idea, they presented consultants and numbers, and they thought their ideas would work. They were both excited about the project and we were excited to go on,” said Hain.

The Goldenberg Group’s proposal was selected by the committee. The plan includes a collection of condos, hotel rooms, and retail — including a cinema and 15,000 square-foot bookstore, which would be as large as the nearby Borders.

The inn would be located between the train station and facilities building. You can see a rough map based off of hand sketches further down in this article. The plans call for completely changing traffic patterns around 320 in an effort to encourage pedestrian traffic into the commercial center of Swarthmore. The compound would be four stories tall, and the buildings would mirror Swarthmore’s main line.

Hain stressed that this plan is very tentative, however. Even if the Board of Managers gives the project the thumbs up, it will take six months or more of constant debate and discussion to finalize plans.

“The hard part about being specific,” admitted Hain, “is that people get latched on to an idea. You have to know we are really flexible right now.”

“If we do move forward,” he continued, “I think breaking ground in 2011 or 2012 is realistic.”

Professer Tim Burke, one of the faculty members on the committee, saw the plan as attempting to create “what the urbanists call a Great Good Place,” or a central location for the community to gather. Hain imagined the large bookstore as being central for book signings, readings, and performances. “Personally,” said Burke, “I would love a restaurant and/or a bar. I’d love a place for my academic guests — for my mother! But the scale of this thing is big.”

inn-project.jpg

Burke’s concern about the scale of the project encompasses many concerns about the project. Hain estimated the cost at between thirty and fifty million, and it would require the College to offer the developers a land-lease of at least sixty years (Swarthmore is not prepared to sell the land). The proposed bookstore is enormous, five times the size of the current bookstore in Tarble. The developers tentatively proposed it be run by Barnes & Noble. Hain pointed out that Barnes & Noble runs many college book stores, including Yale’s, where their involvement is never explicitly advertised.

The buildings would cut across the current softball field, and require a new road connecting the athletic facilities to town. Professor William Turpin was one of the few professors to speak out in opposition to the plan at a faculty meeting last Friday. “I’m not an architect,” he said, “and maybe there are some enormously compelling things going for this project….But it seems to me that the biggest thing Swarthmore has going for it is its open space.”

“It will change the look of 320,” said Burke. “You won’t have an open view all the way down to the field house.”

One of the central arguments for advancing the inn project now is making the town more economically viable — and most small business owners appear in favor of the plan, agreed Burke and Turpin. “The College has this study that maintained Delaware County, as a whole, has economic issues in the long term,” explained Burke. “It suggests that if you don’t invest in the livability and quality of your community, you end up with a serious problem.”

Turpin isn’t convinced by this argument, however. “I’ve never understood revivifying the down town. It seems to me odd. They worry Swarthmore is going to go the way of Landsdowne and become a slum. And if you look at house prices–they aren’t going down. We are not going to become Landsdowne.” Instead, he advocates looking into existing properties within the Ville. “Why don’t we take over existing buildings or sites that are not exactly satisfactory and do something else with them?”

The College also needs to figure out the details of how condominiums could exist on leased land. Normally, those who purchase condominiums would own the rights to the land underneath them. With leased land, however, when the lease is up the land would revert to the College and—in theory—the College might be able to take back the condominiums. “Eventually some buyer will get close enough to the end of the lease and the market value of the place could depreciate considerably,” said Burke. “Worst case: we couldn’t even sell them.”

“Everyone needs to understand that there is one proposal on the table,” said Burke. “And it is anything but finished. Anything is up for discussion.” Turpin stressed that the Board of Managers “was willing to walk away from this, if they saw reason to.”

For students, this means that if you have input, get your voice heard. Once the Board of Managers meeting has finished, and if Facilities is given a green light, Student Council and Hain will start to prepare a presentation for the student body.

15 Responses to The Swarthmore Inn Project

  1. AQ

    February 20, 2008 at 8:35 am

    It’s Lansdowne.

    Is the horizontal line in the diagram the train tracks? Is the almost-vertical line route 320?

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  2. Miles Skorpen

    February 20, 2008 at 1:43 pm

    Andrew: I’ve added labels to the map. Your intuition was correct.

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  3. Concerned Student

    February 20, 2008 at 4:43 pm

    Upon first hearing of this project last year or so, I was quite excited. Finally, a fun, easily accessible place for us college students to hang out! But now that I have read about the actual plans (4 stories, sprawling, occupying the field, changing roads around), forgive me, but it seems a bit absurd.

    As a student who lived in the Ville for some time, I became better acquainted with the area’s people, businesses, and ideals. It seems that no one has questioned the impact that this megaplex would have on local businesses. To have this quaint little Ville next to a large megaplex seems an anachronism. Therefore, I agree with Prof. Turpin’s perspective. It would seem more beneficial to the Swarthmore College and Swarthmore (town) community to use already available resources to fulfill this goal. Many of the buildings in the business district of the Ville are vacant, as well as quite old, so it would appear prudent to capitalize on this space (with the cooperation of the Ville residents, of course).

    Therefore, I urge the Swarthmore Inn Project leaders to seriously reconsider these plans.

    What are your thoughts?

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  4. M

    February 20, 2008 at 7:07 pm

    Gross! It would change the whole feel of the area. I really don’t like the idea. And I’d be worried for the campus bookstore.

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  5. J

    February 20, 2008 at 11:21 pm

    Four stories seems like it would absolutely dwarf the little two story buildings in the ville… but the idea of making that business district a larger more pedestrian-friendly outdoor space sounds really great.

    But part of what makes Swat so special is that it isn’t like Yale…in my opinion, that Barnes and Noble runs the Yale bookstore is as good a reason as any to keep our bookstore dogs and quirky merchadise as they are.

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  6. Miles Skorpen

    February 20, 2008 at 11:24 pm

    Surprisingly enough, the buildings in the Ville are (according to Stu Hain) also four stories tall. The inn would have a roof similar to Dunkin Donut’s, which would make the building appear to be smaller than it actually is.

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  7. B

    February 21, 2008 at 12:13 am

    Hello!
    Is Swarthmore running the hotel?
    and what is happening to the softball field? Are they building another one?

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  8. Miles Skorpen

    February 21, 2008 at 1:09 am

    My understanding is that the hotel would be operated by the developer. The softball field would be moved such that home plate is over by PPR.

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  9. Mark Kharas

    February 21, 2008 at 12:32 pm

    I’m skeptical of the entire idea, but I must say that I was excited about a big bookstore – until they said it’d be operated by Barnes and Noble. I can’t imagine that Swarthmore would want a horrible corporate bookstore to come in and possibly replace the Swarthmore college bookstore. The new bookstore should be operated by the College, or at least by an independent store.

    I’ve come to realize over the past year that the Swat bookstore is one of our treasures. I love browsing through bookstores but can’t stand Barnes and Noble or Borders now because the selection of their stores are all identical and incredibly lame. For example, I’m a Religion major, so I often like to browse through the religion sections. At chain bookstores all that’s present there are crazy evangelical self help books, countless Bibles (but no useful commentaries), the Left Behind series, and very basic, poorly written introductions to Church history or other non-Western religions. About as academically advanced that you get are books by Karen Armstrong. The Swat bookstore is tiny, and their religion section in general books part of the library is only one small bookshelf. But nearly every book there is on an interesting topic, written by a respectable scholar, and published by a university press. If I had the money I’d buy almost every book in the section.

    I’m still skeptical about the entire idea of the inn complex, but the idea of bringing in Corporate America to build on our campus is just scary, and to have a Barnes and Noble is especially frightening.

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  10. swatmom

    February 21, 2008 at 5:52 pm

    I’m not from the area, what is Landsdowne?

    The idea of a SMALL inn is good, there seems to be a need for available rooms for visiting scholars, family and friends during parents weekend and graduation, etc. I don’t know how the developers can manage to keep a large hotel filled year-round.

    Also I am resistant to the idea of Mall-ification; introducing a chain like B&N would be an error in design judgment. The Swat bookstore folks (and furry dogs) should be the tenant in mind for the new location. Independent bookstores, and independent small box movie houses are a refreshing alternative and would thrive in an area like Swarthmore. King of Prussia mall is close enough if anyone needs it.

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  11. Sandy Smith

    March 5, 2008 at 10:15 am

    Lansdowne is a 19th-century railroad suburb in eastern Delaware County, just south of Upper Darby and north of Yeadon. The R3 Regional Rail line that stops at Swarthmore also passes through Lansdowne, making two stops there: one at Gladstone Village, a 1930s residential development at the borough’s southwest corner, and the Lansdowne station itself, at the south edge of the town’s main shopping street, Lansdowne Avenue, just south of the main intersection with Baltimore Avenue (Pike).

    “Slum,” IMO, is a bit strong of a term to describe Lansdowne, but the community is struggling to turn itself around amid signs of decline, especially in its eastern third. West of Lansdowne Avenue is a lovely National Register historic district, Lansdowne Park, full of large turn-of-the-century homes; more modest but equally well-kept Gladstone is also on this side of the borough. You will also find large homes east of Lansdowne Avenue, but some of these have been subdivided, and in general, the housing stock in Lansdowne’s east half is more modest and not as well maintained.

    Lansdowners generally love their borough, but its long-term prospects are hampered by its being situated in one of Delaware County’s poorer school districts, the William Penn School District, which it shares with adjacent East Lansdowne, Yeadon, Colwyn and Darby boroughs and Darby Township. Personally, I see a lot of potential in its downtown, which is bigger than and as physically attractive as Swarthmore’s, if faded — but it will probably take something like the lesbian real estate agent who promoted Collingswood, NJ, as a gay-friendly town to spark a true revival.

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  12. AQ

    March 5, 2008 at 12:40 pm

    Sandy,

    Thanks a lot for your comment. It’s great to be able to learn that kind of history of the areas surrounding Swarthmore.

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  13. anon.

    March 5, 2008 at 9:36 pm

    to swatmom:

    “King of Prussia mall is close enough if anyone needs it.”

    Only kids who have their own cars can get there. It’s not feasible for the rest of us.

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  14. Kevin Lee

    March 6, 2008 at 12:44 am

    It is unfortunate that this poorly written article gave the opportunity for someone like William Turpin to express his ignorance and his ignorance about Lansdowne Borough in particular. He referred to Lansdowne as a “slum” and hoped that, “We are not going to become Landsdowne (sic).” Should he be so lucky.

    Lansdowne has a long tradition and history that rivals any other community in Pennsylvania. We are a Tree City, a certified No Place for Hate Community and have a vibrant arts community. Our property values are consistently on the rise. We are culturally diverse and pride ourselves on our Quaker beginnings. Our town has been cited in the Philadelphia Inquirer as being in the, “vanguard,” with regards to LGBT issues. Philadelphia Magazine cited Lansdowne as a community on the rise. We have served as the hometown for people as varied as anthropologist Margaret Mead and rocker Joan Jett.

    As a native of Swarthmore, I love the place. Other than some people with a haughty attitude, I can’t find anything wrong with it. I do hope that Mr. Turpin does a better job with Roman History then he does with tact.

    Kevin Lee
    Lansdowne Borough Council

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  15. Finlay Logan

    March 6, 2008 at 3:36 am

    I feel like I’ve already left this comment on other articles on the subject, but PLEASE, Swarthmore, don’t let our wonderful bookstore be taken over by a chain! I’ll come back and run it myself if it would help!

    Also, I’m on Turpin’s side here: repurposing buildings is always a good idea for reviving downtown areas, especially when the other option is building a huge, and hugely unnecessary complex that will only be used during part of the year and ignored the rest. Build what you need, and use the rest of the money for something practical.

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