Opinion | Part 1 | Why the Borough of Conshohocken should not eminent domain the Outbound Station

In recent years, the Borough of Conshohocken has owned historic properties and sold them to private companies and developers. This is a fact.

The borough-owned Leeland Mansion at West 8th Avenue and Fayette Street. It was utilized as the borough hall for several decades. It fell into disrepair and sat mostly unused (except for public meetings and an occassional event) for years.

In 2016 a study was commissioned on what to do with the building. A museum was floated as a possibility but did not make it into the actual published study (read here) which focused on converting the building into a borough-owned bed & breakfast, office space, or an event space.

In 2017, the borough council sold Leeland Mansion to a private company that utilizes it for its office and a venue for events.

In 2012, a lawsuit was settled that gave the Borough of Conshohocken and the Montgomery County Redevelopment Authority control of the historic Washington Hose and Steam Fire Engine Company, No. 1 and an adjacent undeveloped property (open space) right at the corner of West Elm Street and Fayette Street. The fire house is the only property in the Borough of Conshohocken with the National Register of Historic Places designation.

In 2019, Conshohocken’s Borough Council/Montgomery County Redevelopment Authority sold the firehouse and the open space to Keystone Properties through an RFP process. Today the historic firehouse is being renovated into two restaurants and a hotel is underconstruction in the open space.

The only reason the SORA West redevelopment was able to take place was due to the borough council selling open space, selling a historic building, and then rezoning the area to allow the large-scale redevelopment to go forward.

Which current members of the borough council voted for these sales? The answer is Colleen Leonard (ward 7), Tina Sokolowski (ward 3), Karen Tutino (ward 1), and Anita Barton (ward 4). The other three are new to the council within the last year. Leonard and Sokolowski are the current president and vice-president of the council.

So we find it curious that the borough council is now moving to eminent domain the Outbound Station.

Let’s look at the proposed eminent domain ordinance.

In the text of the ordinance, the potential uses of the Outbound Station property are described as follows:

The property interest condemned herein shall be for public purpose only,
including, but not necessarily limited to, public open space, parks,
recreation, and public parking.

So the same core group of people on the council who sold Leeland Mansion, open space, and the historic firehouse want to eminent domain a resident’s property for those reasons?

The Outbound Station is owned by Joe and Barbara Collins. They own two properties in Conshohocken. They live in the oldest house left standing in the borough and the Outbound Station, which is a former train station.

They have owned Outbound Station since 1978. It has been maintained and they have operated an antique shop there and more recently leased it to a series of cafes. They currently have an 18-year lease with The Couch Tomato, which is set to open early this year.

In addition, Joe Collins is a former mayor and has served as the president of the Conshohocken Historical Society (he may still serve in this position).

Joe and Barbara Collins have a stellar record preserving and not selling properties in Conshohocken. The borough, not so much.

So why after 30 years of redevelopment and allowing large office and residential buildings along the riverfront, are they trying to take the one small piece of property owned by an actual resident?

Is this property the lynchpin to the entire riverfront?

The parcel involved is just under 5,000 square feet. It really just consists of the building, the outdoor seating area, and the three parking spaces. There is another parcel between the Outbound Station building and East Elm Street, along with a parcel between the building and the bridge. It does not include the 30+ space parking lot. The surrounding parcels are owned by the estate of Ray Weinmann.

It is important to understand the proposed ordinance for eminent domain only involves the Outbound Station property.

You could not create a parking lot on this property without knocking the building down (which we do not think anyone wants to do).

You could not create a park.

It is not open space.

The recreation department could hold a yoga class inside. There are plenty of other places for that.

Strangely, the one thing the text of the ordinance doesn’t mention is a museum, which was the only specific use mentioned during the discussion in the February 2nd meeting.

Do you know who you would go to discuss a museum if you were planning one? The answer would be Joe Collins, due to his role with the historical society.

The uses outlined in the ordinance are completely bogus in relation to the Outbound Station property.

Based on the outlined uses, are they really focused on the neighboring parcels, which include a parking lot and some green space?

In our opinion, the borough has a larger plan for those parcels and the Collins are a victim of this plan. If the borough has no intent to knock down the building (which we do not believe they intend) the Couch Tomato could exist in harmony with a parking lot, outdoor recreational use, or open space.

There is absolutely no reason to eminent domain the Outbound Station property.

You can find how to contact your representative on the borough council here. Let them know you feel (either way).


Post Script

While their actions do not appear to have violated the Sunshine Act, not allowing Joe Collins to speak prior to the vote as stated was the procedure on the agenda was wrong.

Not a single member of the borough council, nor the mayor, spoke up and advocated to allow Collins to speak. It was a shameful display.

Collins deserves an apology.