Local Commentary

Guest Commentary: ‘Mason Row’ Project Must Be Done the Right Way

By Rohini Winters

Some of us grow increasingly concerned with what is not being discussed during open meetings and public hearings by the Spectrum Developer and/or City Staff regarding key elements of the proposed project dubbed “Mason Row” at N. West and W. Broad St.

I recently attended three meetings – Planning, Economic Development and Architectural Board. I was impressed with the diligence with which our City volunteers addressed these matters. I was distressed with the attitude taken by Spectrum suggesting they know what our Commissions need to hear and what is not within their purview. Spectrum’s attorney appears to be advising well on what to leave out of a given presentation. I submit that this Developer does not want decision makers or the public to take the time required to review all materials submitted, but continues to ask for approvals to keep the process moving. Members of the Architectural Board appear to be growing frustrated as they have repeatedly asked for shadow studies and more detailed plans to evaluate. The Planning Commission requested brevity, but the developer gave an hour long presentation complete with the project’s history, but failed to inform them the trash bay was back. What is even more frustrating is the sense that Council is not hearing advisor concerns either.

After the project is approved and built it’s too late to realize what we didn’t notice or pay attention to. Significant concerns remain with design and placement of anchor concepts, and it is a shame First Reading passed with N. West St trash bay in the drawings, after the City Council and public were told verbally it had been removed in response to residents. Materials continue to be added at meetings without formal submission to the City, so commissioners review different proposals. This will create confusion and complicate legal issues for the City downstream and appears to be a deliberate tactic by the Developer at a critical time to get through second Reading before summer recess and fall elections. We should not feel compelled to sell out the character of our Little City to Spectrum. We must improve the financial management of the City and Schools, to avoid falling prey to glossy numbers promised by developers. Certainly we need to raise the commercial base but we are foolish to think this project will net 5-10 times any other in the City just because Spectrum says so.

It appears to include a residence hotel (get the school count factored in on that please), a theater, plus apartments, shops, dining and services. I am not asking to cancel the project, only for visual and functional transition from residential and for proper treatment of the W&OD so loading zones and trash bays do not invite back alley activity when the sun goes down, where trucks can pull up any time and appear routine. The solution is not a well-lit trash bay or loading zone bordering R-1 zones, rather interior dock and trash bays. I have already heard the proposed pedestrian access called “the mugger’s tunnel.” Please think this through! Don’t put those living next to the trail at risk or in the awkward position of having to serve as citizen patrols. Our time to act as watchdogs is now!

The proximity of this project to neighbors must not be dismissed as peripheral to the need for commercial revenues. We object to a loading/trash bay within line of sight of residential zones. We want a beautiful transition from residential and park space to a green community plaza and outdoor dining with a view of the W&OD greenspace. Let’s work to make this a brighter, less imposing structure. A six-story building on Park and West with a tunnel to a shaded interior is not it. Interesting “rooms” within the project’s outdoor space make sense. Retail and outdoor dining that creates some courtyard effects with special lighting and an ounce of intimacy away from Broad, without being hidden from passersby, would add to what others already admire about our Little City. Siting the buildings farther east would create less mass on West and Park. Gradual transition would enhance this large development, with height limited to 55 feet in commercial zones, higher on W. Broad for a hotel; save taller structures for newly acquired water sale land that promises to save us all from property tax ruin if done wisely!

Create this on the right scale, with the right purpose in mind: not to make Spectrum rich, but to set our City up for the long term. Traffic and parking need to work for visitors but the success of this project will depend on the Citizens embracing it, otherwise everyone will avoid the West End. We must get this right and make it an attractive project that makes us all proud. If City Council listens, creative minds can contribute constructively to make it 10x better than plans submitted to date. Make Spectrum build something we will love as much as we love our schools, Cherry Hill, the Memorial Day parade – one that everyone will flock to. Let’s do it right for the people who live and work here as well as those who visit.