No Planning Commission Approval for $40 Million Conestoga High School Expansion Project … Proposed Parking Lot Major Stumbling Block … Residents Voice Objections

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lot, whether for staff or students; (4) opposing traffic study information between District and residents; and (5) outdated CHS expansion plans on District website.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?

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12 Comments

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  1. Important updates for the community, Pattye and Neal, very many thanks for continuing to observe, analyze and report.

    Some thoughts in support of a couple of your comments:

    1. We keep hearing of Township zoning and planning notification failures. Our Supervisors should require a thorough review and process improvements.
    2. I’m not sure why it took three hours last night to get to the crux of the parking lot problem: that the TESD plan required a variance to take down more trees than allowed. And why did the district not present an adjusted, compliant plan from the outset, knowing stormwater problems and resident concerns?
    3. Neal’s expertise and benchmarks raise important questions. Perhaps the actual bids will be lower cost, and yes this is subject to public project bidding rules. but surely taxpayers deserve a sanity check when the costs seem so out of line.

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  2. There can be no ‘apples to apples’ comparison between Woodlynde School and TESD construction costs. The Woodlynde project is not subject to PA’s prevailing wage requirements and the Federal Davis Bacon Act so the work done at Woodlynde uses competitive, market rates for labor. In Pennsylvania, a public school district (TESD) is required to pay ‘prevailing’ wages (union wages and benefits) in construction contracts. This ‘prevailing’ wage premium is significant and requires a wage and fringe benefit total of $70 to $80+/- per hour to be paid, which is generally twice the competitive, market rates for non-prevailing rate projects. Neal – for the Conshohocken project, was that completed open shop or closed shop (union)?

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  3. Right…I know a little about Davis Bacon but I’m no expert (and I don’t want to besmirch Union Labor). Assume the Conshy project is open shop….don’t think they require Union in that town. Still…even at 2X the costs; what we’re getting for +/-$40 MM doesn’t seem to represent value. My point here is “can we get the same functionality for $35 MM or $30 MM”. The point still stands….who is looking to get the taxpayer the best deliverable for the price?

    I sent the above to the SB as they should see it directly. This is an excerpt so here’s a piece not included above:

    “We should understand what we’re building. To put it the metaphor of buying a new car: we’re driving right by the Toyota/Honda dealers, not stopping at Ford or Chevy, passing the Cadillac place and pulling onto the Mercedes dealer (and we may be at Lamborghini). But we don’t want a car on the lot…we’re special ordering that high-end vehicle that they only sell once-in-a-while. Maybe that’s what we want but we should realize what we’re buying here and have that discussion as a community.”

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    Easttowner Reply:

    Neal, this is good stuff – thank you.

    I’ll use another analogy: When people go shopping, do they look to pay the highest price for groceries, shoes or clothing?

    Of course not.

    It’s the school board once again playing with other people’s money – and it’s akin to the unnecessary tax increase they irresponsibly just shoved down the taxpayers’ throats.

    Another thing I find disturbing is the district’s enthusiasm to cut down so many trees for more parking spaces, and why those spaces are even needed. Are they going to hire 128 new teachers – or is it for student parking?

    With climate change being on everyone’s mind, it seems to me this school district should be a leader in this area as opposed to a contributor. Trees are the best natural carbon capture method on the planet:

    https://www.nationalgeographic.com/environent/2019/07/how-to-erase-100-years-carbon-emissions-plant-trees/

    http://www.sicirec.org/definitions/carbon-capture

    https://learn.eartheasy.com/articles/10-carbon-storing-trees-and-how-to-plant-them/

    Yes, the school district – where climate change is taught – proposes to cut down 200 of them so students can drive to school and contribute more to the problem?

    If the planet really is in danger, shouldn’t we all be looking at everything we do? Shouldn’t students who are so concerned about climate change WANT to take the bus to school?

    Or, is our community populated with people who believe in “climate change for thee but not for me”?

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  4. Just out of curiosity, how many people who are opposed to the parking lot and removal of trees are also the same people who didn’t want the school district to use eminent domain on the Doyle McDonnell property?

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  5. TESD was never going to use eminent domain. I attended the original meeting and the board had agreed to have their lawyer send a letter of interest to the owners . At the time a developer was proposing to build a gated community on that property. A reporter got to the owners before the letter . The district was enlarging Conestoga at the time and managed to do so without the property which would have been a parking lot.

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  6. Also when maintenance building was proposed on Old Lanc RD
    TESD had plans for years to build around the last remaining property .
    No eminent domain ..the owner was 96 yrs old and eventually passed.

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  7. I have been weighing in on the CHS expansion project, specifically, the Parking Lot expansion with other neighbors since we found out about in in June. We have lived on Lizbeth Lane for 32 years and have been good neighbors to the HS and various growth initiatives throughout. My big take away from the meeting on Thursday, and I’m NOT an engineer, storm water or traffic expert, but it appears the parking lot expansion is needed primarily for a staging area for the classroom expansion, etc. I can’t help but believe the School Board did not do their diligence if that part of the project was rejected. We found this out for the first time on Thurs night! Apparently they, school board/contractors have been working on this project for 1 1/2 years, but why wasn’t the Daylesford Village homeowners/tax payers brought in earlier in the discussion and planning? Totally not in favor of the expense, storm water ramifications, cutting down trees and worse traffic with already unacceptable limits. John & Laurie Long

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  8. I am not aware of any neighbor in this current School Board project who was against the mentioned property.

    If you look at the School Expansion Plan on the Conestoga website, you will see right away that this current project will maximize what can be built on the Conestoga site. The next time the School Board says they need to expand, the nursery property WILL BE the subject of eminent domain. The School Board has a way of forcing big decisions on others.

    Keep in mind one thing, the Doyle and McDonnell families provided the land that Conestoga is built on back in 1954. Rather than sitting down in a civilized way, I think the Board will “bite the hand that feed them.”

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  9. One of the major issues raised was the need for more parking but the planners couldn’t explain how they arrived at the number of spaces. Regardless of if the parking goes through perhaps parking permits should be issued to carpool groups. If you require students to band together into 3-4 person carpool groups per permit, you can still have seniors parking on campus but also have a lower demand for spaces (and fewer cars commuting to campus). This solution will promote eco-friendly transportation while reducing the number of cars needing spots.

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