Impressions from the Planning Commission Meeting Involving the Proposed Wawa

Last night the The Planning Commission held the first public meeting where the proposed Wawa was discussed.  Please note that I am going to use the term “Wawa” to generally refer to the lawyers and other consultants that were there representing the proposal.

Also, please take into consideration that the format from last night allowed for Wawa’s to make its’ proposal, followed by questions from the staff and members of the Planning Commission. Wawa took this opportunity to answer some of these questions, but it is also able to  answer the unanswered questions at a future meeting.

This was followed by public comment, which was not completed by the scheduled end time.  This public comment session will be reopened at the next Planning Commission meeting on January 22nd. Wawa did not have the opportunity to address questions and concerns made during this period. So it may seem like I am critiquing the proposal, but I am just bringing up questions made by others, or popped into my head, that still need to be answered.

You are also going to see R-O District used a few times.  What does that mean?  It stands for Residential-Office and is a zoning district created by the Borough to preserve the Victorian homes along Fayette.  For example, you can have certain types of businesses inside one of the houses, but you can’t make any changes to the facade, etc.  Certain types of businesses are also excluded within the R-O including gas stations.  It is basically meant to offer small businesses a location along Fayette, while keeping the character of the town intact.  The R-O District is between 8th and the Whitemarsh border along Fayette.

A Few General Impressions/Facts:

  • There were about 150 people there at the peak.
  • The people in attendance were vastly opposed.
  • The lawyers and consultants there on behalf of Wawa cumulatively represented at least $3,000 an hour and the meeting lasted over three hours.
  • One of Wawa’s lawyers was Marcel Groen, the chairman of the Democratic Party of Montgomery County.  He sat in the back and took notes.  He didn’t say anything.
  • Two members of the Planning Commission, Joseph Dougherty Jr. and Aaron Weems, had to recuse themselves due to connections with the developer and/or the law firms involved.  The Planning Commissions recommendation will now be determined by the three remaining members.
  • Borough Council members in attendance were Anita Barton, Paul McConnell, Eddie Phipps and Matt Ryan.  Mayor Frost was also there.
  • Bruce Goodman, the developer, was in the back and stayed about an hour.
  • About 30 people left prior to public comments.

Points Made by Wawa:

  • The site presents a certain set of challenges (due to its former use) and the developer has successfully worked with these types of sites before.
  • While the site does sit within a R-O District, the property has been a car dealership for 100 years and never included a Victorian home that the R-O District was created to protect.  It is basically a unique property that shouldn’t be constrained by R-O.
  • The site sits next to a cemetery, offices and the ball fields and is across from another commercial use (the dry cleaner) and wouldn’t impact a residential community.
  • Other municipalities have expressed the positive nature of working with Wawa and Wawa used an example from Upper Moreland Township.
  • A majority of a Wawa’s business is “pass through” traffic, which means someone is already driving by and stops, thus only a limited amount of new traffic is created.
  • Exiting the Wawa from Harry and onto 11th and making a left hand turn onto Fayette (without benefit of a light) is not an unusual situation along Fayette.
  • Wawa is a great member of the community and supports the various organizations and events.
  • Since the property sits on the border, they would like to add a “Welcome to Conshohocken” sign.

Questions Asked/Concerns Made by Planning Commission Members:

  • Can the site be designed to put all of the gas pumps (a phrase Wawa avoided using for the most part) at the rear of the property? A representative of Wawa stated that the way the sale of gas is regulated by various agencies is that there are standards that have to be met such as the person selling the gas (the person inside the store) needing to have a clear line of sight of the pumps.
  • Can the signage (gas prices) be positioned in a way to not be as prominent?  A representative of Wawa stated that gas price signage is placed in a way so that people can read the sign from a distance that will allow them to safely navigate across lanes if needed and make the appropriate turn.  So making the signs less visible is a safety hazard.
  • Can deliveries, especially gas, be scheduled at a time that best meets the needs of the Borough?  The answer was yes.
  • What amount of noise is created by a Wawa?  The representative said that a Wawa would not create any more noise than the previous car dealership.

Areas of Concern Posed by the Borough Planner:

The Borough Planner produced a document (click to download) which included how the proposed Wawa does not conform with sections of the Borough’s Comprehensive Plan and the Revitalization Plan.  A couple points of note are:

  • Demolition of a non-conforming auto-oriented use in the RO district represents a rare large-lot redevelopment opportunity in the borough, in this district, and on Fayette Street. Instead of trading one auto-oriented use (a car dealership) for another auto-oriented use of greater intensity (a convenience store/gas station), this site could host a variety of retail uses that animate the sidewalks with people moving comfortably among the office and retail businesses that line the corridor. A convenience store without fuel sales could be a component of this mixed-use scenario. (Page 12)
  • One of the goals listed in the Transportation and Infrastructure section of the Revitalization Plan Update (p. 45, Goal 10.3) recommends continuing “…the broad strategy of traffic calming throughout the borough by further enhancing  Fayette Street….” This would include completing the streetscape improvements to 12th Avenue, such as the corner bump outs, to help ensure pedestrian safety. Amending the R-O district to allow for an intense auto-oriented use does not help to meet this goal. (Page 12)
  • The Traffic Impact Study for the Proposed Wawa Development (McMahon, 2012), reports that the development would generate approximately 44 “new” trips during weekday morning peak hours, and 60 “new” trips during weekday afternoon peak hours, referencing two Institute of Transportation Engineers’ publications, one of which applies only to convenience stores. The Study notes that the “…proposed land use largely draws upon ‘pass-by’ traffic, which is already on the road heading to another primary destination (p. 1).” Two issues are raised by this. First, are the 44 morning and 60 afternoon “new” trips only to the convenience store? How many trips are made for the gas station?  And second, while some of this traffic volume has a primary destination in
    Conshohocken, certainly others do not. If the Borough is trying to encourage independent, home-grown uses that cause people to spend more time and money in the borough, such as at specialty goods stores and restaurants, allowing a use that encourages “pass-thru” traffic does not help these long-term economic development goals. (Page 12-13)

The Review of the Proposal from the Montgomery County Planning Commission:

This document is available for download with the document produced by the Borough Planner (downloadable above).  It is the last few pages of that pdf.

Advantages are:

  • The redevelopment of an underutilized site in the borough that is currently not in scale or character with the surrounding uses or the intent of the R-O- District
  • Useful convenience retail business that provides jobs and tax revenue.
  • Offers improved streetscape improvements and parking for the recreational use.

Disadvantages are:

  • The Wawa is a 24 hour 7 days a week operation that will impact the surrounding neighborhood with additional traffic, noise, and lighting.
  • This proposal as submitted differs in character than the surrounding properties and existing uses permitted in the R-O District.

Public Comments and Observations/Questions:

  • As we mentioned, during the presentation representatives for Wawa stated several times that the new Wawa was not being built in a residential area.  This generated a response from the residents in attendance who live on East 11th and Harry Street, who feel traffic will increase on their streets if the proposal is approved.
  • Regarding Harry Street, there was no mention of the potential impact on Conshohocken Elementary.  If traffic increases on Harry Street, especially during the morning rush, how will this affect the safety of kids going to school?
  • Wawa used the example of stores/gas stations they built in Cherry Hill and Roxborough as examples of successful projects they built within a residential area.  The lawyer representing the Conshohocken Revitalization Alliance, Darwin Beauvais, responded to this during public comments with, “Conshohocken is not Cherry Hill or Roxborough.”
  • Former Borough Council President Gerry McTamney warned about the money being thrown around by the developer.  He also said that approving the proposal would be a detriment to the work that has been done to revitalize Conshy.
  • Shawn Rairigh, who use to work for the company that created the Revitalization Plan, was stunned that the proposal was even being considered due to its not conforming to numerous facets of the plan.
  • A resident brought up the fact that the Revitalization Plan was approved by Borough Council in 2011, which was after the initial public meeting held about the Wawa in October of 2010 at the Fellowship House.  The resident basically asked that if a Wawa type business was not given consideration as part of the Revitalization Plan, when everyone knew it was a possible proposal, how could it be considered now.
  • Mo Chaker, the owner of the 7-11, challenged all of the traffic numbers presented by Wawa based on his experience owning a convenience store on Fayette.
  • Brian Peiri, a resident and the owner of The StoneRose, stressed that the borough is at a crossroads with a handful of properties that are up for development.  He is concerned that if they are not properly developed, the revitalization of Conshy would be hurt.
  • Four residents spoke in support of Wawa.  Two spoke of their love of Wawa, one seemed to be a close friend of the Moore’s and one just seemed angry that people were complaining about traffic now, when he witnesses people speeding down Fayette everyday from his porch.

Best Lines of the Night:

  • Gerry McTamney basically said if you need some money, “see these guys.” (gesturing towards the Wawa people)
  • Gerry McTamney saying, “Ask West Conshohocken how they feel about their Wawa.”
  • Mo Chaker saying, “I am not your normal 7-11 owner, I have a degree from Carnegie Mellon, with honors!”  (emphasis on honors)

So that was basically what I observed.  You can also read a story from the Times Herald.  Feel free to comment here or on Facebook if you feel I missed or overlooked something.  Comments are open.