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Planning Commission

This is the official blog of the Montgomery County Planning Commission.

Nov 25

The Ever Changing World of Food Retail

Posted on November 25, 2016 at 6:44 PM by Michael Stokes

Thanksgiving is always a great time to think about food.  Not just the food that is on your plate, but how we feed ourselves here in Montgomery County and throughout the Nation.   If you haven’t noticed it, things are changing in the way we keep our selves filled.  March 2015 was the first year in history that sales at restaurants and bars overtook spending at grocery stores, according to Commerce Department.  This is due to a number of factors including Millennials who view dining out as a social event and seek out diversity and interest in the restaurants that they choose.

Yet even with the competition from restaurants, our grocery stores keep growing.  But with this competition, expect changes. 

Like most types of retail, nothing stays the same.  Consider the changes over the last few years when we watched Genuardi’s and Clemens disappear after dominating much of the county’s grocery business for several decades.   Some of the other Philadelphia stalwarts such as A&P, Super Fresh, Acme and Pathmark have continued to shrink.  Food Lion’s Bottom Dollar brand which burst onto the market with smaller stores about 10 years ago is gone and forgotten. 

In the past decade, Walmart one of the nation’s largest grocery retailers, has supersized their Montgomery County stores to include a full line of groceries.  Other large buyers’ club stores such as Costco and BJs have opened several large stores in the county.  Likewise other retail stores such as Target have expanded their grocery retail presence.  Giant and Weis have grown largely through acquisition of former Genuardi and Clemens stores to own a large share of our grocery business in the county. But they face new competition.  Whole Foods continues to grow with new stores under construction in Lower Merion and Lower Gwynedd Townships.  Wegmen’s has opened three very large (over 200,000 square foot) grocery stores in the county in the past 10 years.  Niche grocery retailers such as Aldi continue to grow throughout the county.  Lidl, a European style grocery plans to open several stores in the county in the next few years.  And just when you think our food sales will be dominated by large corporations, we have also seen a rise in new independent food stores and coops. Don’t forget about the farmers market and farm to table businesses that are also growing.

The bottom line is that food will always be in demand, so expect it to be sold in creative ways in the future. 

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Enjoying a farmers market in Lansdale 

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Whole Foods in Plymouth Meeting
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Wegmens in King of Prussia

Aug 11

Active Transportation

Posted on August 11, 2016 at 9:55 AM by Michael Stokes

Active transportation is a way to get around when the traveler is actually putting a little bit of sweat into the effort.  As opposed to punching the pedal and flying down the highway, the active traveler puts some shoe leather to the sidewalk or pedals along a trail or bike lane to get to their destination.   Over a century ago, active transportation was the only way to get around.  With the dawn of the automobile in the early part of the twentieth century, we conveniently forgot about active transportation.  Yet today there seems to be growing interest in returning to active modes of travel.  Certainly there are many good reasons for this including personal health and environmental impact among others.

Today, walkability is a high priority in deciding where to live.  Communities which are walkable and bike friendly have been able to attract young knowledge-based business workers and the companies that employ them.  Walking is something that many people value making it a big part of their lives for a variety of reasons including physical and mental health benefits.   Our recent Walk Montco Plan explored strategies for transforming our county into a more hospitable place for walkers.  We are actively assisting municipalities in obtaining funding for pedestrian improvements.  Our planners also advise local planning commissions on how to make new proposed developments more pedestrian friendly. 

In the next few months, we will launch a bicycle planning initiative to make it possible for all types of bikers to safely travel through our county.  This effort will include a special look at bicycle accessibility to transit stations, parks, and large institutions such as colleges.  We will also focus on how to make biking more friendly in the communities in the county that are more heavily developed and where several residents may not have access to a vehicle to get to work or to perform errands.  We hope that you will join is in making our Bike Montco Plan a success.

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Moving about on foot or on bike can be a social experience

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People of all ages can take to the street on a bike

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Pedestrians engaged in shopping in Lansdale

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Bicycling can be great exercise

Jun 28

Fitting Garages into a Townhouse

Posted on June 28, 2016 at 5:47 PM by Michael Stokes

We are addicted to our cars.  They are convenient and often fun to drive (when we are not stuck in traffic); but they really mess up our built environment.  To store our several ton metal friends we build massive parking lots that add to our stormwater woes and blight our communities. To get to where we want to go, we build wider highways that make walking nearly impossible in many areas.  Cars even make the design of housing more challenging since we need to build garages and driveways to store them.  

Take for instance the townhouse.  As the suburbanized version of the urban row home, the townhouse provides a great housing choice that fits well into many types of properties and is popular for home buyers of all ages.   Since the 1980s, more townhouses have been developed with garages making their design more complex.  Consider the 20 to 24 foot wide townhouse with a 9 x 7 foot garage door and driveway in front of it.   It leaves little room for the front door and front yard and the design gets even worse when a second parking space or two-car garage is added to townhouse property.

Placing the garage in the rear of the house provides several benefits and greatly enhances the look and function of the front of the house.  In that type of unit you could even sit on a front porch, drink your coffee and say hello to the neighbors.   The only problem with placing the garage in the back is that now you have to share the back yard with your car and more pavement is needed to get the car into the back. 

As you can imagine, there are no easy answers for townhouse design when cars need to be accommodated.  Generally we would all agree that townhouses along developed streets in existing boroughs should not have garages in the front.  Yet in other types of townhouse developments, there may be a compelling reason to place the garage at the front of the unit.  In these cases, good architecture, limitations on the size of garages and driveways and effective landscaping are needed to minimize the impact of the garage and maintain a front façade and yard that is oriented to people, not cars.

When you think about it, the townhouse design dilemma is like the 45 records that were a big to some of us in our teenage years.   On those records, one side (the a-side) contained the hit and was fabulous; the other side was often very unmemorable.  That was until the Beatles started putting out some great 45s with two a-sides like the one that contained the upbeat Paul McCartney classic Penny Lane with the dreamy John Lennon masterpiece Strawberry Fields on the other.  Can we do the same for townhouses with two great sides that address community, aesthetic, personal and environmental needs while also taking care of our large metal beasts?   Creative juices need to flow on this one.  Certainly we could do better than we have in the past. 

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A nice local street with townhouses

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The garages for those townhouses are on an alley at the rear

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Six garage doors and five townhouse units

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One option is a side loaded garage on a townhouse

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The backs of townhouses with garages can be challenging designs

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A sea of parking and garages and no front yard is what we should avoid