Proposed zoning ordinance could bring dramatic changes to Fayette Street along upper avenues in Conshohocken

During the February 7th meeting of Conshohocken’s Borough Council, members of the public expressed concerns about the proposed Main Street Overlay District that was created to expand business and residential opportunities along Fayette Street. The current status of the ordinance is that it has been advertised and that there has been a hearing. At a future meeting, the borough council could vote to adopt it or not.

The draft ordinance (view here) was crafted by a task force created by the borough council that consisted of members of the public representing residents and business owners and members of borough council and staff. The task force was assisted by a professional consultant.

The proposed ordinance would create three zones along Fayette Street, with zone 1 between Elm Street and 1st Avenue (excluding SORA West), zone 2 between 4th and 9th avenues and zone 3 between 9th and 12th avenues.

The language of the draft ordinance lays out six points that it meant to achieve:

  • Encourage economic development and redevelopment of underutilized parcels.
  • Assist in unifying Fayette Street as an attractive, vibrant mixed-use corridor.
  • Promote pedestrian orientation of streets and buildings.
  • Use scale, building orientation, and landscaping to establish community identity.
  • To incentivize lot assembly and consolidation toward the more efficient and cost-effective
    use of land.
  • Simplify and streamline the approval process.

Under the proposed ordinance, there could be changes all along Fayette Street. However, for the purposes of this article, we are going to focus on zone 3 as the members of the public who voiced concerns during the hearing, focused on that area. Their concerns involved parking, storm water, pedestrian safety, and impact on property values.

In addition, a member of the public raised concerns about the possibility that the language used to allow a grocery or farmers’ market in zone 3 is spot zoning. Spot zoning is a situation when language within zoning code impacts only a single property.

So for example, can you have a grocery or farmers’ market anywhere above 9th Avenue in a location other than the former Moore Chevrolet property? If you can’t, its spot zoning. If you can, its not.

The answer is that spot zoning isn’t an issue, because the proposed ordinance would allow the wholesale by-right demolition of any structure other than one that is currently a detached single family home and used for that purpose.

We reviewed property records and visuals of the buildings on the three blocks between 9th and 12th avenues along Fayette Street and found that there are only six single family detached homes that are currently used for that purpose.

Almost every structure above 9th Avenue along Fayette Street could be knocked down if the proposed ordinance is adopted.

Every twin.

Every building that is currently used for a business.

Every building that was once a single family home, but has been converted into apartments.

Every building that was once a single family home that is now used for a business on the ground floor and apartments above.

Every building on the 900 block could be knocked down under the proposed ordinance. All but three buildings along the 1000 block could be knocked down. Three buildings along the 1100 block couldn’t be knocked down.

So why are some protected and not others? Currently, all of the facades and porches of the buildings are protected under the Residential-Office Zoning District (referred to as R-O), no matter how the building is used. When this zoning district was created in 2001 (and amended in 2005), the intent was stated as follows:

In the expansion of the declaration of legislative intent contained in Part 1, the intent of the Residential Office District is to encourage the retention and preservation of existing Victorian and early 20th Century residences by permitting residential uses and conditionally allowing limited office conversions. Furthermore, it is the intent of this Part to maintain the existing residential streetscape of upper Fayette Street through regulations that allow these conversions only when front facades and porches are preserved and if building additions and parking areas are not constructed in the front yards.

Further, in 2018, the borough council adopted the Historical Residential Conversation Overlay District that created a layer of protection for single family homes across all zoning districts. The intent was stated as follows:

It shall be the purpose of the HRC [Historic Residential Conservation] Overlay District to protect and preserve the Borough’s stock of existing historic single-family detached dwellings by limiting the demolition and/or conversion of such structures within the Borough’s residential zoning districts, including, but not limited to, the BR-1, BR-2, and R-O Districts, and to preserve the character of the Borough’s existing residential neighborhoods by ensuring that these areas maintain established densities and development patterns; in keeping with the objectives of Chapter 5 of the Borough of Conshohocken Comprehensive Plan Update, adopted June 20, 2018.

Under the proposed ordinance for the Main Street Overlay District, while the Residential Office District would continue to exist, the owner of a property that does not fall under the protection of the Historic Residential Conservation Overlay District, could utilize the Main Street Overlay District to bypass the Residential Office District protections and knock down the building.

The property owner could then purchase adjacent properties and combine them and build a grocery or farmers’ market (among other uses like smaller retailer with apartments or offices above, etc.).

Don’t believe us? Above is a video of a discussion from the November 15, 2023 meeting of Conshohocken’s borough council. During a previous meeting, members of borough council raised questions about what buildings would continue to be protected. During the November 15th meeting, Borough Manager Stephanie Cecco clarified what the intent was from the task force to not offer any protection except if it was protected under the historic conservation overlay.

You can watch the entire hearing here (it starts at the 11:15 mark). You can find the draft ordinance here.

Let us know what you think in the comments.