Swarthmore College’s long-planned inn project, formally known as Town Center West, has been on the minds of students for over a decade, with little to show for the waiting besides a new but unused softball field. The general outline of the plan, which today includes a 40-room hotel, a restaurant, and a new campus store, has been around so long that members of Swarthmore’s football team might even remember it.
But despite a lengthy Borough approval process and what will be a complicated construction schedule, it is finally possible to imagine a rough timeline for completion. According to Director of Planning and Construction Jan Semler, the inn will have its ribbon cutting in spring or summer 2016. In the best-case scenario, it’ll open in time for Commencement.
2016 is still a long way off, but pieces of the puzzle have fallen into place over the last year such that elements of the timeline for completion finally seem all but set. The next three years, then, constitute TCW’s extended home stretch.
TCW, which will be financed with revenue from bond sales, has changed little since preliminary sketches were unveiled in the spring of 2012. The building will occupy the wedge of college land immediately south of the SEPTA station. The Chester Road underpass will be immediately to its east, and a roundabout will be created at the underpass’s south end. Field House Lane will be shifted to intersect with the roundabout, and a new parking lot will be built over the current softball field.
Perspective renderings released last spring showed a three-story, largely white building, much longer than any individual building on the Ville side of Chester Road. Despite a contemporary flair, the inn’s closest architectural relative in Swarthmore is the Mary Lyon dormitory.
In some ways, TCW represents a bridge to the Ville. With its commercial orientation and easy access to transportation, the project can be seen as an effort by the College to engage with life outside the bubble. But in a nod to the rest of campus, one of TCW’s entrances will line up exactly with Magill Walk, so that a person standing on Parrish Porch could theoretically look straight ahead and spot it.
On its website, Swarthmore College explains that TCW will “support the mission” of the College in the following ways:
TCW will serve as a hub of intellectual energy and a gathering place for faculty, students, and staff; for visiting scholars and speakers; for alumni, parents, prospective students and families, and friends of the College; and visiting friends and family members of local residents. The development will also provide a closer, stronger connection between Borough residents and College community members.
In addition, many alumni, faculty members, staff, and students voice a long-held desire that the College play a more active, and more visible, role regionally, nationally, and internationally in order to contribute in a more meaningful way to the conversations about the future of the liberal arts. An inn could provide space for conferences and workshops on topics relevant to the future of liberal arts and higher education.
The above, in addition to urban planning and economics, aren’t the only ways TCW links Swarthmore College to the town. The Borough government’s methodical land development and conditional use processes, which began months ago and will continue into 2014, are the top reasons the College didn’t put shovels into dirt months ago. However, the plan’s progress through the Borough can be marked by regular, if infrequent, milestones.
On September 17, the Swarthmore Borough Planning Commission voted to recommend, with added conditions, the preliminary plan for TCW, which the College submitted during the summer. But this recommendation isn’t binding. Actual approval requires action by Borough Council, the elected body with legislative power to approve the plan. They’ll meet for a vote on October 15.
Each step in the process comes with discussion, conditions, and revisions that keep Swarthmore’s planning team on their toes. To date that team has included an architecture firm, a civil engineering firm, a traffic engineering firm, and a parking planning firm, among others. Representatives from several of these firms joined the College at the September 17 meeting to hash out details about issues such as handicapped parking spaces, sidewalk width, and even the placement of individual trees in an element of the roundabout.
The Planning Commission’s recommendation came with stipulations about these issues and more. But in an interview, Elisabeth Knapp, a Council member and Chair of the Borough Planning and Zoning Committee, said the Commission’s recommendation makes Council approval extremely likely.
TCW will be the largest development in the Ville since the new Co-op building opened in 2004. The numerous conditions are therefore par for the course, according to Knapp. “It’s not at all unusual or difficult for the College,” she said. “This is a very common kind of ruling that basically is feedback.”
Feedback is also coming in from the Pennsylvania Department of Transportation, which has jurisdiction over Chester Road, and SEPTA, which oversees the Regional Rail station and a pair of bus shelters, according to Commission officials speaking at the September 17 meeting. Knapp said that other entities required to weigh in on TCW plans include the Tree Committee and Environmental Advisory Council at the Borough level, as well as the Planning Department and Conservation District at the (Delaware) County level.
Incorporating each suggested revision into the final plans may take the planning team into early 2014, according to Semler. “It won’t be a month,” she said. “It’ll take us some time to respond to all the conditions.”
When that work is finished, the College will submit its final plan through the same Borough process: first to the Planning Commission and then to Borough Council. Council has a 90-day window in which to approve the final plan, so approval would likely come several months into 2014.
Knapp says the Borough is likely to use the full 90-day period, and it can ask the College to extend it. “The Planning Commission meets once a month,” she pointed out. “They hear a presentation at the first session, they need time to absorb it, make sure that they don’t have any questions…”
According to Semler, “If all goes well we would be breaking ground in the summer.” One of the first things to break ground on is the new Field House Lane, which will snake around the inn site to intersect with Chester Road directly across from Rutgers Avenue. At that intersection, the College is building a roundabout, which will thread traffic from all four directions into a clockwise flow around a landscaped center island.
For many reasons, the roundabout is the most delicate element of the whole project. “The roundabout is definitely a complex issue,” Knapp said. “It’s being located in what is a very difficult intersection right now. For instance right now no pedestrian in their right mind would cross there.”
Semler said the roundabout has received “a lot of very positive, almost enthusiastic support” from the Planning and Zoning Committee “as a traffic-calming device, as improving the sense of entrance to both the Borough and the campus, and as solving an unsafe condition in terms of the pedestrian crossing.”
College and Borough officials claim the roundabout will improve conditions by slowing traffic on Chester Road, significantly easing flow onto the intersecting streets, and facilitating pedestrian crossings.
In doing so, the roundabout will necessarily make trips ever so slightly longer for commuters passing through on Chester Road, which is a designated state highway. Knapp and Semler said they believe this is a small price to pay for what they see as a necessary safety improvement. Knapp said outright that she thought slowing down traffic on Chester Road would be a good thing.
But Dr. Peter Bloom, a longtime Swarthmore resident, showed up at the September 19 meeting to voice the diametrically opposite argument. In an interview, Bloom expanded on his opposition to the unanimous recommendation of the Planning Commission. “I didn’t believe the Borough should create such a traffic slowdown in a road that’s affecting so many thousands of cars from other towns and other routes,” he said.
Quoting the College’s traffic engineer, Bloom said 14,000 cars travel daily past the location of the planned roundabout on Chester Road. “That 14,000 has to be compared with the east-west direction, one coming from the College and the other from Rutgers Avenue, and no one had a figure for that. And I said, ‘Can it be more than 500? Can it be more than 1000?’ So I was pointing out that there was a huge inequity.”
“I think the inn can stand without this elaborate traffic flow alternate change,” Bloom said.
Semler said that the TCW roundabout “actually was originally suggested by PennDot, and our traffic engineer looked at two scenarios: a traffic signal and a roundabout. And PennDot supports the idea of a roundabout, and that’s borne out by the traffic study.”
Bloom said he knew he was unlikely to be satisfied by the final decision on the roundabout. “It’s a difference of opinion strongly felt,” he said. “I love the process of being able to stand up in public and say that. That was an exercise that I thought was important and enjoyed.”
Little other public sentiment against the inn project seems to remain at this point. At the Commission meeting, only one other resident spoke, and her comments matched Bloom’s. Even Bloom said he was looking forward to completion of the project as a whole, especially the bookstore, where he said he hoped to go often.
At meetings over the past couple of years, some residents have complained about various other impacts of TCW, including what has been called an ugly sea of parking and the restriction of sightlines across College property. Those commenters no longer speak up.
Knapp, now in her second term on Borough Council, said she had been elected on a pro-TCW platform. “I think you can say that historically the majority of Swarthmore residents have been in favor of this type of project,” she said. “I think that that does not dismiss the concerns that people who are not in favor of it have. There’s been a lot of dialogue.”
Individual concerns aside, the project fits with a longer-term history of developing the Ville that Knapp described. “The history of the whole project started over a decade ago when the town did a large sort of revitalization strategy plan,” said Knapp. (That plan is available here.)
One direct outcome of that push was the new Co-Op building. The Borough also implemented aesthetic touch-ups, such as “streetscaping.” An indirect outcome is the inn, which after years of waiting and planning is finally coming to fruition.
Correction: An earlier version of this article inaccurately stated that the Borough has the “power to extend” the 90-day review period on the final TCW plan. In reality, the Borough may request that the College grant an extension.
Correction: An earlier version of this article said that according to Council member Elisabeth Knapp, “Council approval is all but certain.” The sentence has been changed to read “Council approval is extremely likely.”
Correction: An earlier version of this article cited a 2007 report by the Delaware Valley Regional Planning Commission (Regional Roundabout Analysis: Phase I), claiming the article recommended five roundabouts in the vicinity of Swarthmore Borough while not recommending a roundabout on Chester Road near the Ville. In fact, as Director of Planning and Construction Jan Semler pointed out to us after publication, that report intentionally did not make a judgment on Chester Road. Instead, it focused only on rural minor arterials, rural major collectors, rural minor collectors, and urban minor collectors. This invalidates the argument, as presented in the article, that DVRPC does not believe a roundabout would be appropriate on Chester Road. The Daily Gazette apologizes for presenting this misleading argument. It remains uncertain to us whether DVRPC, whose power is largely restricted to making recommendations, would recommend a roundabout on Chester Road.