Suburbia: We Can’t Work It Out

A dispute about eminent domain? Well, maybe. But the battle over Ardmore’s downtown is also the weirdest not-in-my-backyard story ever

Sharon Eckstein was curious, and concerned. The semi-retired attorney and mother of two had read in the local papers about Lower Merion Township’s plan to redevelop Ardmore’s historic main street, Lancaster Avenue, and the notion didn’t sit well with her, right off the bat. To her thinking, the street and its shops were fine just the way they were. Besides, why should a bunch of government officials get involved in reshuffling private businesses and cutting the deck of commerce and redefining what little, laid-back Ardmore should be? And so she went to Lower Merion High School in spring 2004 to see the presentation by the township’s newly hired architectural firm.

It only made her feel worse. The architects offered various plans, but all the renderings showed something big and ambitious — a rebuilt train station, a parking garage, expensive apartments. On the walk home, Eckstein and a couple of neighbors who’d attended the meeting stood in the middle of Simpson Road, one of those small Ardmore streets with Craftsman-style homes owned by lawyers and professors and a few
hanging-on artists. We have to do something, someone said. What is the township thinking, taking over operable businesses and handing them to a developer? It was, Eckstein says, not unlike one of those musicals where the kids decide they have to put on a show: We need to hold a meeting.

And with that resounding chorus began what must be one of the strangest, fiercest not-in-my-backyard battles in these parts. On the one side: township officials who insist the only way to revitalize Ardmore is to knock down 10 worn buildings and replace them with more fabulous stores and restaurants. On the other: residents like Eckstein who are aghast at the township’s plan and who’ve dubbed themselves the “Save Ardmore Coalition.”

It’s a battle that’s been borne aloft and carried, headline to headline, because it coincides with a national debate over local governments’ use of eminent domain. The national argument kicked off with the recent Supreme Court case of Kelo v. New London, which pitted an economically distressed town against a bunch of feisty homeowners who’d rather chain themselves to their porches than lose their beloved waterside homes. Ardmore, by contrast, features one of the wealthiest townships in the country battling a cadre of baby-boomer activists who don’t necessarily patronize the stores and restaurants they’ve vowed to save. In New London, an evil pharmaceutical company lurks in the background, whispering in the city’s ear that the sacrifice of a little more private property could be just the trigger for the city’s turnaround. In Ardmore, the man behind the plan is a would-be environmentalist with a yearning to reduce fossil fuel consumption and increase our use of mass transit.

Yes, there are ironies everywhere. Oh, and somewhere in here there are also the business owners themselves, and their livelihoods and the futures of their families and whatnot. Although somehow they seem to have gotten lost in the din.