Crosstown Traffic: Plans for Willow Grove Base will affect nearby towns

JACK FIRNENO / WIRE PHOTO    The Horsham Land Redevelopment Association board of directors voted to submit its plans for redeveloping the former Naval Air Station Joint Reserve Base. If approved, it will take more than 20 years and will have far-reaching effects on nearby towns including Warminster.

By Jack Firneno
Wire Staff Writer

The Horsham Land Redevelopment Association (HLRA) board of directors voted to submit its plans for redeveloping the land currently housing the former Naval Air Station Joint Reserve Base in Willow Grove last week.

The plan calls for multi-use development, with different areas of the 861-acre property being used for residential and commercial development, a new school, and recreational, community and open-space areas.

If approved, it will take more than 20 years to fully realize and will have far-reaching effects on nearby towns including Warminster and Hatboro.

“Everything went as we hoped,” said Tom Ames, deputy director of the HLRA. “It’s a long process and there are many steps along the path, and we are finally taking those steps.”

The design is far from complete — the HLRA’s plans are much more a visioning than a blueprint at this stage — but the submission is an important step in the complex process necessary for the federal government to relinquish the land for private development.

Those steps included a lengthy environmental assessment from the Navy, which also included noise and traffic studies — a sticking point as the HLRA developed its plans.

“It’s a fact of Horsham that there are challenges with traffic,” admitted Ames, pointing to regular congestion surrounding the Pennsylvania Turnpike entrance on Easton Road and the potential for other backups into neighboring towns on major thoroughfares like County Line Road.

“We’re hoping our plan will help alleviate traffic while it also adds to it,” he said.

The plan, referred to as the “Preferred Alternative” in relation to the HLRA’s requirements to develop multiple ideas on how to use the land, was presented along with other options to the public at two meetings last week at the Horsham Community Center.

Representatives from the HLRA and Navy were available to field comments and answer questions as residents viewed displays of the options for land reuse. Other ideas included increased residential development, the renovation of the airfield for private or commercial use, or a “No Action” plan, where the land would be reduced to an open field.

The Preferred Alternative plan, however, represents the most potential for the area, according to Ames. It offers relatively few, and small, retail spaces in response to plans already in motion to install big box stores like a new Wal-Mart nearby on County Line Road.

Instead, the commercial space in the plan is geared more toward office space the HLRA hopes will attract firms from places like Princeton, N.J. or New York. “We want businesses to come and relocate people who will become new residents and taxpayers,” said Ames.

While the preferred plan was crafted based on public input, residents still have the opportunity to comment on the plans. And, some residents took the opportunity to voice concerns surrounding the developments.

“My biggest concern was to remain committed to not having an airfield,” said Horsham resident Joyce Brown. “I didn’t mind it being [a military installation], but to be commercial is not an option.”

Like many others in attendance, Brown was happy to hear the plans for an airfield were not a popular one. However, she still has many questions regarding how the plan for mixed development will play out.

“Horsham has a tendency to build mini-mansions … that start at $800,000. That’s not a normal person’s house, in my opinion.”

Brown, a stay-at-home mother with two children in middle school, wants the neighborhood to stay affordable so that it attracts more single-income families.

“When Mom and Dad have high-stress jobs, you wind up with the kids spending all their time with other people,” she said. Brown recalls the years she spent living in Atlanta before moving to Horsham 14 years ago. “[Nearby] Alpharetta got known as drug-filled because these parents just threw money at their kids and let them waste it.”

And, like Ames, she was concerned about traffic: “I don’t think the roads [in the design] are going to accommodate the congestion. [It] goes from here all the way down to the turnpike.”

Overall, however, Brown is satisfied that voices like hers are being heard by the HLRA and Navy during the planning process: “Planning a project this size is massive… I do think the people planning it are doing the best they are capable of doing. I think they’re listening to the people.”

Ames said the HLRA will continue to accept and incorporate public input into their plans, and stressed that the design is still just a draft. Along with submitting the plan, the group is now authorized to request statements of qualifications for developing firms that will begin to form more concrete designs. In the meantime, anyone can provide comments through Feb. 10.

“This is just a draft,” he said. “Every comment will be discussed.”