Pulse: Chatter: Real Estate: Identity Crisis

Somewhere over the railroad, ­Ardmore tried to reinvent itself with a bold new vision — until the national credit crunch intervened

If all had gone according to plan, downtown Ardmore could have been what industry insiders call “a destination.” Maybe.

It’s a complex backstory: For years, Ardmore’s tony Suburban Square shopping center has thrived, while across the train tracks, stores along Lancaster Avenue sit sucking wind. But when, in 2004, the township board sanctioned an eminent domain takeover that would have demolished several of Lancaster’s mom-and-pop shops, locals rallied against the seizure. After much highly public hand-wringing — and the ousting of pro-takeover township commissioners — a surprising hero emerged: Underdog architect Ed Lipkin lobbied hard and won a revitalization bid with an über-ambitious $300 million proposal, to the chagrin of higher profile developers vying for the project — including heavyweight Carl Dranoff.

Lipkin promised to “knit old and new” into an “urban oasis” via a six-story behemoth housing the revamped train station plus a hotel, office and retail space, and a condo building. The structure would straddle the tracks, providing what township board president Bruce Reed called “a continuous retail environment” from Suburban Square to Lancaster Avenue. It was, says commissioner Cheryl Gelber, a “cutting-edge” plan that, once completed, would have put Ardmore on the map. But come voting time, Gelber was nevertheless among the handful of board members who went with Dranoff’s proposal, deeming it “more realistic.”

Whether concerns about the viability of Lipkin’s Brave New Ardmore — a vast undertaking for anyone, by all accounts — were justified, we’ll never know: The credit market crashed, and in early March, citing financing concerns, Lipkin ruefully backed out of the project that might have been his legacy.
Now pressure was on the township board to find a new white knight before the project’s $5.8 million federal grant expired in September. In a second-shot call for proposals just two weeks after Lipkin’s withdrawal, Dranoff — riding in on a bulging portfolio and enough cash to build his kingdom up front — handily won the bid he’d previously lost.

Though disappointment still rumbles through much of the township, Lipkin skeptics have embraced with relief Dranoff’s smaller-scale and drastically smaller-dollar ($150 million) plan, which will feature a skywalk over the tracks and a stand-alone train station with a clock tower — a Frank Furness-esque nod to the “Victorian village” dream that many locals had originally clamored for. That Ardmore wasn’t ever really a “village” so much as a factory town (a pesky detail brought to the board’s attention by a local historian, and a ding in the “realistic” appeal of the Dranoff plan) is apparently not a deal-breaker to the powers that be, who mostly just seem glad to still be getting Ardmore its makeover … however less extreme than some might have hoped.