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Planning Commission

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Mar 17

Creatively Managing Evolving Institutional Properties

Posted on March 17, 2016 at 10:40 AM by Rita McKelvey

Our communities all contain various institutions that support our social structure.  Among the various institutions that we depend upon, places of worship provide for our spiritual needs, schools educate our children, fire stations help keep us safe, hospitals keep us healthy, and assisted living facilities provide for our needs as we age.  Yet as our communities change, the need for institutions and the way they function also changes.   In some cases these changes may require new types of institutional activities within traditional institutional facilities.  Continuing use of institutional facilities may require some changes in the facilities or alterations to them, but largely the institution could remain on site and continue to function.   In other situations, new institutional facilities are needed that are very different from institutional facilities developed in the past.   Additionally, due to demographic trends and declining membership or consolidation with other institutions, some institutional facilities will cease to serve the community as they have in the past.  In these cases, the institutional property may be offered for sale.  Some new owners may acquire the property to continue to use it as it had been used.   Examples of this include a new church congregation acquiring a closed church or a private school taking over a closed public school building.  In these cases, the use will likely be similar to the past.  Though in other cases,   the institutional property may not attract a similar institutional user and will instead be purchased by a developer seeking to establish a new use at the site. 

When dramatic changes are proposed to older institutional properties, things may get complicated.  Certainly the new uses would probably not fit under the institutional zoning requirements associated with the property.  New uses may also require architectural changes to the venerable institutional buildings or even demolition.  When an institutional property is large, the renovation of an institutional building and the construction of other new buildings on site may even be proposed.   The impacts associated with new uses may involve traffic, parking on local streets, architectural changes, increased density, loss of open space and vegetation, increases in impervious surfaces, and the intensification of activity on site, to name a few.  Yet, a new use may provide new life for an older vacant institutional building and perhaps save an important historic or cultural edifice.  Reuse could also provide other economic benefits to the community

In the past we have experienced the transformation of institutional facilities throughout the county.  For example, six of the 62 municipal government offices are now located in former school buildings.  There are other examples of schools converted for use as professional offices, housing, and assisted living facilities.  Churches and other places of worship have been converted into various types of housing, day care facilities, assisted living, and offices.  Former hospitals have become professional offices and assisted living facilities.  Even firehouses have been proposed for housing, retail, and restaurant uses. 

Over the next few months our staff will be studying institutional trends in the county and exploring strategies for the successful transformation of obsolete institutional facilities into new uses that will fit into the surrounding community.  This work will involve the careful examination of successful institutional transformations in the county and throughout the region.  Guidelines and sample policies to be developed will address the impacts of potential uses on a community and offer design approaches to mitigate them.  Our staff will present creative approaches in managing the changing institutional landscape during a workshop on October 26.   Appropriately this workshop will take place at the Ambler Borough Hall, a former school.

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Old school house reused as professional offices in Sumneytown

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Moulton Builders office in a former church in Lansdale

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Narberth Place involves several new residential units in the church, parsonage, and in a new structure on site.

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The former St Margret's School being transformed into several residential units.

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The Rittenhouse School in Norristown is used as an assisted living facility.


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