MARPLE >> After months of speculation and meetings the public and township commissioners got their first official look at plans for the former Don Guanella Village, and what was presented by the developers wasn’t much different than what has already been circulating.

Hundreds of residents packed the auditorium at Marple Newtown High School for the hearing.

Sproul Road Developers, LLC showed off the mixed-use plans for their proposed Town Center at Marple Preserve, a 47-acre area of commercial and recreational use on the 213-acre plot of land off Route 320 at the former longtime home of the Archdiocese of Philadelphia’s Don Guanella School. There also was a hint at an alternative development plan that would add 232 housing units in the residential portions of the land, the so-called “by-right” plan that would not require a zoning change.

Developers’ favored plan, the one they presented Monday night, as submitted to the township for review, would build on 38 acres for commercial space, basically the imprint of the old Don Guanella School, and nine of the 175 acres of open space to create soccer fields and other active recreation.

The Marple Newtown High School auditorium was filled Monday evening with hundreds of community members, some with lawn signs protesting the plans as a way for a private developer to get big bucks while leaving them to stuck with the traffic. The signs spoke louder than the crowd, which was mostly quiet for the 70-minute presentation.

There were five presenters who discussed the plan, ranging from the site plans to traffic, the economic impact to the local governing authorities and how to finance the 166 acres of undeveloped land that will remain open space.

“We think Marple needs innovative development,” said Carlino Commercial Development Principal Peter Miller. “There has not been any creative, thoughtful, state-of-the-art development in Marple for quite a while. The feedback we’ve gotten from many of your neighbors and friends is that they’re tired of driving … outside the county to have dinner with family and friends.

“This project requires a certain level of size and scale to accomplish the objectives.”

Miller references spots like the town center complexes in King of Prussia and Exton as being go-to spots of mixed-use development that people head for when they go out.

If Sproul Road Developers gets the variance changes they need for their proposed town center, there will be more than 300,000 square feet of retail space as part of the development, including a Wegmans supermarket. A senior living center and a self-storage facility will also be on the property, which are said to be low-impact uses.

Developers tout their plan as not adding any strain to Marple Newtown Schools because there is no family residences set for the property. However, a back-up plan would add more than 200 residential homes on the back portions of the lot, which are already zoned residential. Planner Tim Cassidy said because of how that area is already zoned, there wouldn’t be a need to get variances, but, “the people who move in there will ultimately not want public access to all of the lands that aren’t developed.”

“They would more than likely end up being owned and managed by a homeowners association at primary use of a residence,” said Cassidy. With residential in the back and keeping the front area right along Sproul Road developed in its institutional-zoned area, it would be a 135-acre project, over three times the proposed mixed-use plan the town center would provide. Knowing this, it would be a blow to community members who are against development of the open space.

With new business comes traffic concerns, but a still-preliminary traffic study of 15 intersections in the area shows there would be no degradation of the level of service in any of these points on weekday mornings, weekday afternoons and Saturday mid-day, which is required for any development plans by local and PennDOT. Further input is still wanted from the community on this matter.

A long-standing issue is how to keep a big portion of the land undeveloped and used for recreational space. Without any major funding sources, developers are proposing to take the extra step to provide a bridge loan to a government agency by offering to put the money up for deed for that portion of property from the Archdiocese of Philadelphia (the present landowner) to the governmental owner of that land. A tax increment financing (TIF) plan would cover the cost of the land over 20 years. Tax revenues from the land are reported to pay off this TIF.

“We cannot be any more sincere in trying to structure a mechanism that achieves the ultimate goal of preserving this open space,” said Valley Forge Investment Corporation President Brian McElwee. He added that this will prevent any rumored “bait and switch” tactic to buy the land and plan to develop the rest of it.

In the public comment portion of the meeting, resident Frank Logan questioned this financing option because no government entity has been interested in buying the property before.

“From what I understand about the deal is ‘I will sell you, not give you the property in the back,’” said Logan. “I expect by the time you buy the bond (at a value of $16 million), sell it off in 20-30 years and go in to do whatever you need to do to that property to make it usable by people as a park, I bet that amount going to be $25 million over 20 years.”

Although he didn’t directly address financing options to keep the open space, resident Bob Burns took development of nine extra acres of the 175 acres of wooded areas as a compromise he is in favor of to protect the rest of the forest.

“Once this opportunity passes, we risk Carlino destroying a much larger portion of the woods to build houses,” he said. “And while some of my friends and neighbors in this room feel environmental protection laws will prevent this, it is a dangerous risk for us to take.” He added that the township risks a bigger project that will destroy more if Carlino’s plan falls through.

The crowd applauded Burns’ comment.

On the opposite end, having another shopping center that brings parking spaces and shops right up to the street curb would make Marple a “ghetto,” according to one resident.

“You’re going to have commercial right up front, every time you come in to Marple Township, you’re going to be passing this congested area, stuck in traffic with stores and parking spaces right up to the street,” said Anthony Carbonetti. “If you’re going to do something, why can’t we do something for an upper-middle class suburban area, which I’m sure we’d all love to make Marple, and keep Marple that way.”

Still, McElwee said the developers are excited about the opportunity they’re presenting to the township, but that it is ultimately the community’s choice.

“They will either embrace the re-zoning proposal and enable this preservation plan to take place, or remain the current zoning and require the property to be re-developed under the current zoning,” he said.

The board of commissioners yielded their time immediately after the presentation for public comment, at which point dozens of persons went to the microphone to air their voices. After a handful of speakers there were still dozens remaining to speak at 9 p.m.

No action was scheduled by commissioners at the meeting.

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