One story too high: don’t approve Berwyn Square

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I joined the Facebook group Main Line Memories last August. It has over 10,000 members, all connected to the Main Line in some way. Most graduated from a Main Line high school — Conestoga, Lower Merion, Radnor — in the ’60s, ’70s or ’80s. (You can see where I fit in, right?)

Group members often post pictures of the Main Line from decades ago, and I get to see glimpses of the past. It’s clear that the Main Line’s changed — fewer trees and fewer family businesses, sadly enough — but most of the buildings actually look very similar. Short, simple, often brick. 

The Main Line has kept its friendly suburban feel in large part due to those buildings. While we don’t need to keep every old building from decades ago, the Easttown township shouldn’t approve the new proposal to build a four-story apartment complex in the heart of Berwyn.

Two local developers recently proposed building such a complex between Lancaster and Berwyn Avenue, on the 2.5-acre block where Handel’s and a scattering of other buildings sit. Handel’s would stay, incorporated into the building’s ground floor along with one or two more retail stores. The remaining space would include indoor parking, a green roof complete with lounge and plunge pool, and 120 luxury apartments.

David Della Porta, one of the developers, told the Philadelphia Inquirer that he’d call the site “the gateway to the village.” But I don’t want the gateway to Berwyn to be a four-story apartment building. It looks nice, it really does — especially if the outdoor plaza makes it into the final plan — but it’s too tall to maintain the same suburban feel that’s characteristic of the Main Line. 

Under current zoning, a four-story building isn’t even allowed. The developers are seeking a zoning variance to bypass the limit of three stories because contamination from old gas stations makes it difficult to build underground.

The developers also face resistance from Easttown residents, who have voiced concerns over the size of the building, increased traffic, and safety for kids walking to TEMS and ’Stoga. Some are criticizing the proposal on the website SaveEasttown.com, now with over 3,000 likes; other residents have grouped together with a lawyer to complain to Easttown’s Zoning Hearing Board, which will ultimately decide whether the plans get passed.

Most concerns, including mine, revolve around the building’s size. So make the plan smaller. Get rid of a floor. Sacrifice 40 apartments. There would be less traffic, more visible sky and preservation of the Main Line feel we’ve had for decades. Do the developers really need to squeeze 120 apartments onto a 2.5-acre block?

Admittedly, what sits on that block now isn’t pretty. Aside from the familiar blue awnings and benches of Handel’s, the rest of the block features nondescript and worn-down buildings. Berwyn could use a development proposal that reequips the area with possible community hotspots, like new restaurants or revamped versions of the businesses that are already there. Maybe a few townhomes.

In short, Berwyn is ready for a change. Just not one that’s four stories high.