Editor’s note: This article was initially published in The Daily Gazette, Swarthmore’s online, daily newspaper founded in Fall 1996. As of Fall 2018, the DG has merged with The Phoenix. See the about page to read more about the DG.
This Friday, Associate Vice President of Facilities and Services Stu Hain will be presenting a plan for the Swarthmore Inn to four members of the Board of Managers.
Two architectural groups presented their plans to a committee of senior staff, faculty, students, and town leaders on February 7th. “They had an idea, they presented consultants and numbers, and they thought their ideas would work. They were both excited about the project and we were excited to go on,” said Hain.
The Goldenberg Group’s proposal was selected by the committee. The plan includes a collection of condos, hotel rooms, and retail — including a cinema and 15,000 square-foot bookstore, which would be as large as the nearby Borders.
The inn would be located between the train station and facilities building. You can see a rough map based off of hand sketches further down in this article. The plans call for completely changing traffic patterns around 320 in an effort to encourage pedestrian traffic into the commercial center of Swarthmore. The compound would be four stories tall, and the buildings would mirror Swarthmore’s main line.
Hain stressed that this plan is very tentative, however. Even if the Board of Managers gives the project the thumbs up, it will take six months or more of constant debate and discussion to finalize plans.
“The hard part about being specific,” admitted Hain, “is that people get latched on to an idea. You have to know we are really flexible right now.”
“If we do move forward,” he continued, “I think breaking ground in 2011 or 2012 is realistic.”
Professer Tim Burke, one of the faculty members on the committee, saw the plan as attempting to create “what the urbanists call a Great Good Place,” or a central location for the community to gather. Hain imagined the large bookstore as being central for book signings, readings, and performances. “Personally,” said Burke, “I would love a restaurant and/or a bar. I’d love a place for my academic guests — for my mother! But the scale of this thing is big.”
Burke’s concern about the scale of the project encompasses many concerns about the project. Hain estimated the cost at between thirty and fifty million, and it would require the College to offer the developers a land-lease of at least sixty years (Swarthmore is not prepared to sell the land). The proposed bookstore is enormous, five times the size of the current bookstore in Tarble. The developers tentatively proposed it be run by Barnes & Noble. Hain pointed out that Barnes & Noble runs many college book stores, including Yale’s, where their involvement is never explicitly advertised.
The buildings would cut across the current softball field, and require a new road connecting the athletic facilities to town. Professor William Turpin was one of the few professors to speak out in opposition to the plan at a faculty meeting last Friday. “I’m not an architect,” he said, “and maybe there are some enormously compelling things going for this project….But it seems to me that the biggest thing Swarthmore has going for it is its open space.”
“It will change the look of 320,” said Burke. “You won’t have an open view all the way down to the field house.”
One of the central arguments for advancing the inn project now is making the town more economically viable — and most small business owners appear in favor of the plan, agreed Burke and Turpin. “The College has this study that maintained Delaware County, as a whole, has economic issues in the long term,” explained Burke. “It suggests that if you don’t invest in the livability and quality of your community, you end up with a serious problem.”
Turpin isn’t convinced by this argument, however. “I’ve never understood revivifying the down town. It seems to me odd. They worry Swarthmore is going to go the way of Landsdowne and become a slum. And if you look at house prices–they aren’t going down. We are not going to become Landsdowne.” Instead, he advocates looking into existing properties within the Ville. “Why don’t we take over existing buildings or sites that are not exactly satisfactory and do something else with them?”
The College also needs to figure out the details of how condominiums could exist on leased land. Normally, those who purchase condominiums would own the rights to the land underneath them. With leased land, however, when the lease is up the land would revert to the College and—in theory—the College might be able to take back the condominiums. “Eventually some buyer will get close enough to the end of the lease and the market value of the place could depreciate considerably,” said Burke. “Worst case: we couldn’t even sell them.”
“Everyone needs to understand that there is one proposal on the table,” said Burke. “And it is anything but finished. Anything is up for discussion.” Turpin stressed that the Board of Managers “was willing to walk away from this, if they saw reason to.”
For students, this means that if you have input, get your voice heard. Once the Board of Managers meeting has finished, and if Facilities is given a green light, Student Council and Hain will start to prepare a presentation for the student body.