The Borough Planning Commission's approval of conditional use applications for the Foundry project turned out to be a slam-dunk.

If you were to strip Thursday's Commission discussion on the Foundry of all general and polite chatter, approval took all of about eight minutes. A little surprising for a commission that has spent hours on some applications, by the working principle of chairman John Messina, "to make a good proposal better." Surprising, too, considering that Mr. Messina has warned members ahead of one or two sessions that they might become very-late-night pajama parties.

What are especially interesting are the features of the case that made a quick decision on the Foundry possible.

First, it seems that familiarity breeds cooperation. Although the precise proposal before the Commission was fresh in its detail, this was a project that, in broadest terms, has been over a decade in the making. And the entire community has been heavily invested in establishing the necessary condition for such a proposal, the renovation of the Foundry shell and its site.

The Phoenixville Area Economic Development Corporation (PAEDCO), long crucial to this community's revitalization strategies, stuck with its commitment to this anchor of a project through thick and thin, and attracted something around $5 million in private and public dollars to get the building in shape for adaptive reuse.

PAEDCO made certain that the Foundry remained a focus of public concern. What has been for some time a distinctive public landmark on the northern edge of downtown was placed squarely at the center of revitalization discussions. Doug Murray, Jim Reading and their colleagues on the PAEDCO board, and Barbara Cohen - always, the constant and consistent voice of Barbara Cohen - kept the project visible, at every turn of its story.

(That there might be too much familiarity with the project was an issue raised by Commission members who were or have been directly involved with PAEDCO: it translated as a self-imposed concern about any appearance of conflicts of interest. Mr. Messina dismissed the concern in proper perspective: "Well, after this length of time...")

All this is to say something perhaps obvious but worth stating clearly: that the Foundry project has been nothing short of essential to the way we have come to think and talk about this town and its future.

Second, throughout the years of PAEDCO's direction of the Foundry's renovations, the very uses for it proposed last Thursday - restaurant, tavern, performance space - have been, along with the visitors' center already in place, those uses most favored for the building. The purposes served by the proposal from Phoenix Foundry Partners Dick Tucker and Steven Clofine were, that is, the purposes we wanted served; the proposal was the one we wanted to see.

Two years ago, I was a participant in an open discussion of potential directions for Phoenixville's future, sponsored by the Commonwealth's Department of Community and Economic Development. In hindsight, the session was probably the very last of those multiple "visioning" exercises that, in pre-Main Street-Community Development Corporation days, lacked proper nouns. In any case, it was the sentiment of the group that evening that Phoenixville should build on the core of an arts community developing here. That observation was not terribly remarkable. What was remarkable was the stated presumption, even then, that a performance space at the Foundry would help to secure that arts community here.

Third, a procedure supported the case: Phoenix Foundry Partners' attorney Ryan Costello discussed all potentially complicating issues at the outset. The most significant matter could have been the imposition of a requirement to determine just exactly what proportion of Foundry space would be devoted to exactly what uses; the applicants wanted to preserve flexibility to expand or constrict each kind of space, depending on the requirements of changing demands and changing performances.

Mr. Costello is practiced at identifying lightning-rod issues early, so that they surprise no one later. He pursued the same procedure with the Commission for the proposals for the Byrne Building from other clients.

The result on Thursday was that discussion proceeded on the assumption that everybody's cards were on the table. Nothing up anybody's sleeve. A confidence that no consideration would be overlooked. (And the Commission agreed without difficulty to allowing the applicants to preserve their flexibility in the use of space.)

Fourth, the architectural plans drawn up by Cam Lacy, DCL Architects of Wayne, supported the applicants' case by their thorough and thoughtful treatment of the Foundry's space. No consideration in planning was overlooked.

Which leads me to a fifth and final element in this. "Thorough" and "thoughtful," in truth, do scant justice to those plans. The space is managed masterfully, certainly in relation to the uses for which it provides, but also and most importantly in relation to the Foundry itself.

In Mr. Lacy's plans, the Foundry is not a convenient historical facade behind which to do something contemporary. It is not a shell preserved just for its looks. The building itself and its appointments are constitutive elements of the design of the restaurant, the tavern, and stage. The sentiment to so approach renovations comes from an architect who regards his work on the project as "a privilege to have been able to touch this building" and from partners who, as Steven Clofine said, want to honor "what it [the building] has been and what it can become."

These are powerful sentiments to be attached to any project, but especially appropriate ones for a community that has regarded the Foundry as so central to what we have been and what we are becoming.

G.E. "Skip" Lawrence can be contacted at forskip@comcast.net.

comments powered by Disqus