I attended the Planning Commission meeting last night specifically for high school expansion plan — T/E School District was seeking preliminary/final land development approval for the project. The District tried to sell their proposed high school expansion plan, which includes the removal of 200 trees from a wooded lot for a 128 space parking lot on Irish Road. The District came armed with their experts – consultant, architect, stormwater, traffic, attorney and the business manager Art McDonnell.
The neighbors to the proposed project did their homework were organized and prepared to battle back – including two transportation engineers from the neighborhood! The majority of the residents supported the high school expansion project itself; it was the proposed parking lot that was their focus – and the associated stormwater, traffic, safety, environmental, etc. issues. Once again, I was impressed by our community members!
Throughout the to and fro of the three hours of debate, certain facts became clear – (1) the lack of notification to the neighbors of meetings, specifically the Zoning Hearing Board meeting; (2) unclear information about the retaining wall, no specifics and height range of 3 ft. to 10 ft.; (3) a debate of actual need/use of parking lot, whether for staff or students; (4) opposing traffic study information between District and residents; and (5) outdated CHS expansion plans on District website. Many residents complained bitterly that the District and School Board had rushed to approve the expansion plan without adequate input from the community.
I stayed until 10 PM but the discussion continued until 11 PM. I have since learned that the Planning Commission did NOT grant preliminary/final land development approval on the project; several of the planning commissioners voicing personal concern about the parking lot, associated issues and unanswered questions. As I understand it the upshot was that the District needed to re-design the parking lot, specifically reducing the number of parking spaces and perhaps moving the lot closer to the school – this would lessen the number of trees to be removed.
The change to the number of parking spaces will require the District to go back to the Zoning Hearing Board (Wednesday, Nov. 20) and back to the Planning Commission (Thursday, Nov. 21). For those who attended the Planning Commission last night, I encourage you to add to the commentary.
Although the vast majority of residents in attendance at the Planning Commission meeting support the high school expansion project (just not the parking lot), as I mentioned there are some in the community who feel that proposed plan was push through too quickly and without sufficient community input.
One community member who feels the value (and associated costs) of the high school project needs scrutiny is Neal Colligan, a resident and commercial real estate expert. Neal attended the District’s Facility meeting earlier this week and offers the following op-ed:
I was at the Facilities Committee the other night and wanted to share some of my thoughts on the proposed budget for the High School expansion renovation. As a “real estate” guy; I’m trying to put this into the context of commercial real estate costs/values. We’re lucky to have something to compare this to in the local community as the Woodlynde School is doing a similar expansion at this time and they’ve shared some information on their website. Let’s look at these two projects:
Woodlynde – Their expansion project will deliver: a new glass-enclosed atrium; a dining hall/program/performance space (168 people expandable to 256); 6 classrooms; a music studio; an emerging technology space; 4 new flex offices; 3 learning centers; a faculty lounge and 70 new parking spots with re-designed traffic flows. That’s 17 new spaces for learning and that project is underway today. Total costs $10.8 MM.
Conestoga – This expansion includes a glass-enclosed atrium; 11 new classrooms; 3 Special Education classrooms; 4 science labs; 1 FCS room; 1 art room; 7 flex rooms and 128 parking spaces. That’s 27 new learning spaces. The cost for this project is $39.6 MM.
While never truly “Apples to Apples”-this is pretty close as both projects are being built in Tredyffrin on land already owned by the institution. To be fair in comparison, the Conestoga project includes $6 MM in upgrades to other parts of the High School so we should look at total costs of $33.6 MM. I don’t know how many square feet Woodlynde is adding so I can’t really compare on a SF basis. We can compare in other ways. Per learning space: Woodlynde – $635,294/space; Conestoga – $1,244,444/space. On an absolute cost basis, the Conestoga project is 3X the cost of the Woodlynde project. Conestoga will end up with 1.6 X new learning spaces and 1.8 X the number of parking spaces.
The question is: are we getting VALUE? At a cost of $33.6 MM for 64,446 SF of new space: the per SF cost is $521/SF. This is an eye-catching number in commercial real estate. A project at 7 Tower Bridge was recently announced in Conshohocken. At $112 MM for 260,000 SF of Class A office or $431/SF- this will be one of (if not THE) most expensive projects in the Philadelphia suburbs ever. But, there’s good reason, the largest Philadelphia investment bank has agreed to lease half of the building at, likely, the highest rental rate in the region. That’s economics driving the cost of the project.
What’s driving the costs of the Conestoga High School project and IS this the right amount to spend? It’s easy to get numb to the numbers … $30 million, $35 million, $40 million … they’re just numbers BUT they’re BIG numbers. Who’s in charge of being the governor on these costs? The architect/engineer is normally paid on a percentage of total cost … they’re not the governor. The Administration? What’s their responsibility to control costs; they want NICE stuff? The Board? Their conversations have focused on needs and design and additions to the plan. So … who’s looking at the all-in costs? Who’s comparing this to what “Real Estate” should cost?