LM riverside hotels plan moves forward

By Richard Ilgenfritz
@rpilgenfritz on Twitter

The revamping of Lower Merion’s last major industrial center passed a couple of hurdles this week as two township boards recommended approval of a plan to construct two hotels and other amenities on a portion of the former Pencoyd Iron Works site in Bala Cynwyd.

The plan would also give the public access to a public gathering space that will be called Pencoyd Square as well as a cafe and trail that officials hope one day will reach to the Falls Bridge in Philadelphia.

The site is to be developed by Penn Real Estate Group with a plan is to construct one hotel with 124 rooms and the second one with 138 rooms. The site is located between the new Royal Athena apartments and the Aquatic Fitness Center at the foot of Righters Ferry Road.

“As you know, this project has been a labor of love for us,” Sean McCloskey, of Penn Real Estate Group told the Building and Planning Committee Wednesday night after having made similar comments at Monday night’s Lower Merion Planning Committee meeting. “We’ve been involved with this project for 17 years.”

Penn Real Estate Group also uses the former Pencoyd Iron Works main office that is located adjacent to the hotel project.

Under the plan outlined at both meetings this week, the two existing 20th-century manufacturing buildings would mostly be demolished with portions like the steel beams incorporated into the new design.

“The plan is to take that [corrugated metal] skin off … and utilize the portion of this steel structure [to] preserve the industrial heritage of the site and to welcome you in with a view toward the river,” McCloskey said.

Along with the hotels, there will also be 282 parking spaces for them.

“You’ll be driving into this [steel structure] when you enter the site,” McCloskey said. “It’s very unique not just in Lower Merion but in the whole region with the cafe and the Pencoyd Square down by the river.”

Along with the portion of the skeletal frame of the existing industrial building, they are also planning to incorporate other original details into the designs. “The idea is to preserve the industrial heritage [and] keep this site very interesting,” McCloskey said.

Chris Leswing, assistant director for Planning in Lower Merion, said under the township’s zoning codes if the developer were constructing residential units such as apartments they would have to include public access to the river. However, as hotels, they are not required to do so.

But under an agreement, Penn Real Estate Group is willing to grant that public access in exchange for Lower Merion turning over a 2,000 square foot site that was once used as a sewer pump station. When the new Royal Athena apartments were constructed, the pump station was relocated next to it so Lower Merion no longer needs the property. Last week, the Building and Planning Committee approved the land swap [see related story on A1] and, on Monday, the Lower Merion Planning Commission also gave its support to the idea.

The trail would connect to the Pencoyd Bridge but then end at the property of the Aquatic Fitness Center. Although they hope to have the trail extend through the fitness center property, they cannot at this time. According to information provided by McCloskey at the Planning Commission, they own the Aquatic Fitness Center site but there is a 99-year lease for the property so they can’t do anything without permission.

As part of the land swap, they will also include six trailhead parking spaces on the site for use by the general public using the trail.

“We are hoping to attract people [to the cafe], but we are also recognizing the fact that this location [would be on] a recreational trail and we expect a substantial number of the visitors to use this [cafe] to be trail users …,” McCloskey said.

They are also planning other renovations that will be in neighboring areas.

McCloskey said in the spring they purchased the movie theater on the Manayunk side of the river that can be accessed by way of the Pencoyd Bridge. That theater, he said is now undergoing a $1 million renovation that will include luxury seating.

With both the Planning Commission and the Building and Planning Committee approval, the Board of Commissioners could vote on the project at its next meeting July 19.