The Jenkintown of Tomorrow

The future is coming to Jenkintown, but in some ways it’s already here                                                                                                    

As 2015 draws to a close, so do months of work by local officials, residents, businesses and county planners to kick off a new vision for the borough. The result is “Jenkintown 2035,” a comprehensive plan for the town that incorporates some of the organic growth that’s already taken place in the last few years, particularly around the main street area on Old York Road, and expands it into a larger, townwide effort.

“There have been projects on specific neighborhoods or topics, but this is the borough as a whole,” explained Marley Bice, a senior planner for Montgomery County. “It’s a greater understanding of how everything interacts: all the roadways, land uses, the tree canopy, how that all works together.”

Bice came aboard when borough officials saw it was time to involve the county to execute a large-scale vision. On the ground is a steering committee  comprised of elected officials, school board members and other public figures along with residents and members of the business community.
Together, they are working on the first plan of this size and scope for Jenkintown in more than  50 years.

And, the timing couldn’t be better. The past few years have seen a boom on Old York Road around West Street, with new shops and restaurants opening up, and events like the annual Jenkintown Festival of the Arts drawing thousands of visitors every fall with live music, craft beer, artists,
food trucks and more.

It also comes at a time when small towns and main streets are making a comeback, both nationally and nearby. Towns like Ambler have reinvented themselves over the years as a suburban destination with culture and vibrancy rather than tracts of subdivisions. With careful planning and community involvement, they’re attracting new restaurants, retail, commercial businesses and artists to reinvigorate small towns.

Photo by Jack Firneno
Photo by Jack Firneno

As a result, these places are also drawing in young families who, in previous generations, largely believed that these kinds of cultural touchstones could be found only in larger cities rather than a quaint suburban small town. That’s what Jenkintown wants to be, according to its own citizens.

“We’re learning from the community, and identifying themes and ideas,” explained Bice. “We’ve also heard what they see as examples of main street towns they’d like to be like: Chestnut Hill, Narberth, Doylestown, places like those.”

That feedback has come from months of surveys, public outreach and workshops that the borough and county have performed to determine what Jenkintown should look like in a few decades. Bice said they heard mostly from people in the borough, but also residents and businesses in
nearby Abington and Cheltenham, as well as people who grew up in the region.

The most important aspect, said Bice, was the neighborhood character people want to preserve and enhance. “This is a small -town feel, a community but with urban amenities,” she explained. “It’s very walkable with restaurants and shops and quaint tree-lined streets.”

That also dovetails with the need to work largely with existing structures and properties. “We’ve heard that there isn’t much open space or large parks, and that’s understandable for a small borough that’s been built out for decades,” said Bice. “That means we have to be creative.”

Photo by Jack Firneno
Photo by Jack Firneno

But there’s already a template for that: the relatively new town square: a small open space with a gazebo behind the shops on Old York Road near West Street. “We’ll look at more ideas like that, a piece of land that can be used for multiple activities or even just people gathering on the benches.”

Those ideas are being coalesced into their vision statement, which will be introduced early next year. It’s still a work-in-progress, as Bice and the steering committee are welcoming feedback through December. The plan is to present a statement and plan that will be evaluated and updated each year. And, that starts in 2016, when the committee will begin holding more specific, topic-based meetings.

“We’re learning a lot from the community,” she said.

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