Editorial -- Bad sports Philadelphia Inquirer
Many homeowners would be ecstatic to be surrounded by 38 acres of mostly open space containing athletic fields, tennis courts, and a handful of beautiful buildings used as centers for higher learning. But not in Merion Station, a community that's tough to please.
Neighbors there have raised objections to a plan by Saint Joseph's University to refurbish sports fields that were part of Episcopal Academy's former campus.
When St. Joe's struck a deal to purchase the Episcopal site a few years back, it seemed like a win all around. Episcopal was moving to a bigger site in Delaware County and had found a single buyer for its campus. St. Joe's needed the classroom space and athletic fields for its men's baseball and women's softball teams, which now play in Norristown, and its women's field hockey team, which travels to Drexel University to practice each day.
Best of all - it would seem - the surrounding homeowners in the upscale, leafy neighborhood would be relieved that St. Joe's had no plans to substantially change the property.
Usually when such a prime piece of real estate becomes available, a developer comes along and jams as many houses as possible on the site.
Or something much worse.
But all St. Joe's wants to do is renovate the handful of existing buildings and upgrade the athletic fields by adding some bleachers, dugouts, and a sound system designed to minimize the voices of announcers. That, apparently, was too much for some residents, whose frequent complaints suggest they have too much time - and money - on their hands.
The Merion Community Coalition gathered 275 names on a petition, launched a Web site, hired a lawyer, a public relations flack, and a sound engineer, who claimed the proposed audio system on the athletic fields would be heard a half-mile away.
Keep in mind that many of these complaining residents are the same ones who made life miserable for the Barnes Foundation, which only houses one of the greatest art collections in the world. Now, many of those same residents are upset that the Barnes is moving to Philadelphia.
These people don't like having the Barnes, and don't want it to leave. That mentality helps explain why they oppose plans that would keep the former Episcopal campus essentially the same.
St. Joe's has bent over backward to appease nearby residents, holding more than 20 community meetings, and making a number of concessions in response to residents' concerns. Even still, the Lower Merion Township zoning board rejected St. Joe's plans last month, saying the athletic-field upgrades were substantially different from what the university told the board in 2005, when it agreed not to do any new construction on the site.
St. Joe's must now go back to the zoning board for special exceptions before eventually seeking final approval from the township Board of Commissioners. While taking those steps, the university also plans to appeal the recent zoning decision in Montgomery County Court.
All of these added steps will cost St. Joe's time and money, while it is enduring shabby treatment from persnickety residents who seem impossible to please. That's so unnecessary.
...and my letter to the editor in response to Karen Heller: Perfectly level, this playing field Philadelphia Inquirer 03/28/2009
I was disappointed in reading Karen Heller's article on Saturday concerning Lower Merion's opposition to St. Joseph's University use of the Maquire Campus: disappointed because after reading the article I for one remain confused as to what is really the center of the controversy.
Episcopal Academy moved to City Avenue in 1921 and St. Joseph's College separated from St. Joseph's Prep and moved there in 1927. Merion resident and self described "snob" Irene Glickman mentions that she is "still adjusting to St. Joe's." Unless she purchased her house prior to 1927 the schools have been there longer. Why the recent hostility towards this Jesuit institution recently ranked by US News and World report as the 8th best of the 173 colleges in the Northeast? Most communities would be honored to have such a prestigious neighbor, particularly one operated by the Jesuits whose motto is "Ad majorem Dei gloriam". Sadly Lower Merion does not seem to be one of them.
Since St. Joseph's is not allowed any "new building or construction"... I'm wondering how the existing buildings on the former Episcopal Academy campus came to be in the first place. Were there different rules in place when the property had a different owner? Why were they allowed to construct buildings and ball fields, and St. Joe's is not? If the former Akiba Hebrew bought the property would they too be allowed to build as EA was? How does installing astro-turf and dugouts constitute new construction? Seems to be a glaring non-sequitur, and I'm sorry to say one that appears to have a decidedly anti-Catholic bent. It would be a shame if this opposition had to do with bigotry. So many attorneys are now involved with this -- might this be worth looking into?
How I wish that St. Joseph's and Lower Merion could just sit down and talk things over without lawyers on both sides getting rich. A lunch between Fr. Lannon and Ms. Glickman might do the trick -- does she realize that college baseball games are not very well attended and really doesn't have anything to fear? Otherwise I'm afraid my alma mater did not make a very good investment for their 97 million if the Maquire campus cannot make any improvements without lawsuits. I'm not surprised that Ms. Glickman is unfamiliar with the 450 year history of Jesuit pedagogy. As witnessed by their Nativity and Cristo Rey Schools they have a "preferential option for the poor". Since the Lower Merion residents seem bothered that a Catholic college may want to actually use the land they purchased, I wonder how they would feel if the school partnered with the Jesuit Refugee Service to build low income housing on that land for those souls less fortunate in life? As long as they didn't play baseball -- would that assuage their collective fears? It is apparent that they do not desire a Catholic college as a neighbor. Perhaps they seek diversity instead?
St. Joseph's has strived to be a good neighbor for 88 years. It might be time for Lower Merion to return the favor.
Thomas F. Brzozowski, SJU '95