NORRISTOWN — Only a decade ago a major movie studio was contemplating filming here, and now its fate is up for debate.
At a little more than 198 acres holding 55 buildings, the Norristown State Hospital property is being scrutinized like never before in its 138-year history.
Signing in for the Public Meeting for the Norristown State Hospital at Norristown Municipal Hall on Tuesday, 110 people came to hear the latest findings from chief consultant Michael Baker International (MBI) on potential uses for the property and also have the chance to voice their opinions.
“What we wanted to do with the meeting was present basic information and give the public some additional opportunity to react to that information and give us additional input and comments on their overall thought on this process and the outcome of what is ultimately the best use for the Norristown State Hospital campus,” noted MBI project manager Troy Truax.
The meeting heralded the next phase of MRI’s exhaustive series of studies, which essentially examine the compelling question: should the property, owned by the state of Pennsylvania and overseen by the Department of General Services, concede to redevelopment or be left as is, preserving open space and continuing to offer social services?
The land planning study does not include the portion of the property located in East Norriton Township known as the Norristown Farm Park, and was limited to the 65.4 acres in West Norriton and 133.4 acres in Norristown.
A survey conducted by sub-consultant Vernon Land Use during the initial phase of the studies that included focus group meetings and interviews of residents in the neighborhoods near the State Hospital, found that the majority opinion was that the property has been underutilized, with deteriorating buildings, and that it is a valued resource for mental health services.
Certainly, the evening was an education for many who may have long wondered what goes on behind those seemingly mysterious gates at 1001 Sterigere Street and perhaps never realized that the property was home to 754 NSH employees, ranging from 335 in the Regional Forensic Psychiatric Center to 39 in the dietary segment.
A few speakers offered testimony on the existing nine county mental health tenants, with a total of 441 employees, and the impact it would have if they were to be relocated.
Abby Grasso director of NAMI (National Alliance on Mental Illness), which works with several of the property’s tenants), implored the audience to recognize that there is a significant operation that exists on the Norristown State Hospital campus that needs to continue.
“NAMI of Pennsylvania Montgomery County, an affiliate of the National Alliance on Mental Illness, is a local grassroots organization with a membership of approximately 250 individuals,” Grasso explained. “We are committed to providing education, advocacy, support, and awareness to those individuals living with mental illness and their families, in hopes of them living their best life. Our affiliate is located in Lansdale, but partners with many of the of the programs located on the hospital grounds, such as Montgomery County Emergency Services, to provide support to families who have had to involuntarily commit their loved one for mental health treatment, the CHOC Shelter to provide resources, and others to provide education and support.”
Grasso noted that NAMI took part in the Land Planning Meeting held by MBI, in July.
“(We) shared concerns for the future of programming housed on the Norristown State Hospital Campus. The State Hospital grounds have provided a safe environment for many to work towards living in their own recovery for almost 140 years. Great efforts have been made to create a strong, recovery oriented community and programs discussed by the consultants tonight regarding the land study are a huge part of that community. The consultants this evening identified the programs, both state run and non-state run, in their presentation. While they talked about the number of employees on the campus of Norristown State, no one mentioned the number of people served through the programming of the non-state programming. These programs, along with the state of Pennsylvania, serve and employee well over 5000 people per year,” Grasso said.
“I get it. We all want to live in a thriving community with a strong economy and good neighbors, but as the question is posed, ‘what is the future of Norristown State Hospital grounds,’ we need to remember this process is more than buildings and programs or developed land and rebuilding community; it is about people. People who rely on the supports provided on the grounds in hope of living their best life. As the independent land study is completed with input from various stakeholders it is imperative to think about the individuals served through programming on the State Hospital grounds. The people served through programming are often misunderstood, judged, and forgotten; demonstrating just how strong the stigma related to mental illness really is. We heard that stigma loudly through public comment tonight. What most people don’t realize is that the programming offered on the Norristown State Hospital grounds is providing housing to decrease our homeless population and programming to provide life skills education to assist individuals to be their best self and be productive members of our community. The programming provided to those impacted by a mental health challenge is giving all of us the opportunity to live in a healthy community.”
Grasso said a book could be written based on the stories of individuals and families who have benefited by the hospital’s programs.
“One woman in particular speaks of Norristown State Hospital with gratitude and the grounds as a safe place to ‘get better.’ I have had the pleasure of speaking with Francie, the sister of Susie who was recently transitioned from programming at Circle Lodge into a shared apartment in the community. Francie shared that 'as a lawyer' she was not able to do what the staff at Circle Lodge did in teaching her sister life skills, providing plans to help her succeed, and helping her sister ‘become part of the world.’ Testimonies like this speak to the importance of the programming offered on the grounds.
“So let’s be honest; for decades programs have been placed on the grounds of Norristown State because it has been easier,” Grasso added. “People have stopped programming from being placed in their community because they didn’t want it in their ‘back yard.’ Placing programming on the hospital grounds allowed for no zoning, no community objections to serve ‘those people.’”
It is vital for our community to be educated on the impact of living with a mental health diagnosis, how to support individuals impacted, and how to break the stigma associated with mental illness so that everyone has the opportunity to live their best life in their community, Grasso said.
“If decisions are made to transition programming off the state hospital, it is imperative to include the individuals and family members receiving support and treatment on the grounds in the discussion of transitioning the programming,” she noted. “They will be the ones impacted. Again, we all want to live in healthy, strong communities, but we cannot put economics, land development, or real estate before people.”
Truax pointed out that testimonies like Grasso’s emphasize that the NSH campus is not a “dormant site. There is a lot of activity on the campus that is not visible just driving by,” he said. “The community is now enjoying the campus even more. There was a time when they closed the campus down at 6 p.m., and didn’t allow anyone else to get on it, but now they keep the gates open and the community is welcome to come in and walk the campus and enjoy the grounds for various sports activities. It really is more integrated into the community fabric that it had been years ago.”
Seven nonprofit organizations are also based on the campus, including Greater Philadelphia Search and Rescue and Stony Creek Anglers, whose member, James Watters, said he was concerned about the “massive storm water” issues on Stony Creek.
“There is an education process to this and making sure everybody is cognizant of the facts and information, including what existing services are being provided on campus, the impact on employees and tenants as well as patients. The operations have a significant economic impact on the community today, that we see as a positive, and also there are barriers as to what we see can be done with the campus, relative to the cost of mitigating and removing certain buildings that cannot be used ... who is going to bear that cost? What developer would come in and risk his own dollar? You probably couldn’t get a retailer to come in and put in commercial retail or offices because there is a glut of existing office space in the area.”
It was pointed out during the meeting that major retail development is unlikely, due to the property’s discreet location.
“In terms of market viability, there is a lot of retail along the Route 202 corridor, and the entire area, and this site is not receptive to retail due to indirect access and the impact of traffic impeding upon existing neighborhoods,” Truax explained. “It’s not along a major highway; you'd have to access it through some narrow streets and it’s adjacent to residential neighborhoods.”
Norristown resident Bill Caldwell argued that it was important to redevelop the property as a source of tax revenue.
In conjunction with the Norristown Chamber of Commerce, Bill Corbett of Corbett, Inc., offered an impressive video proposal for a conceptual idea called Stony Creek Campus.
"What we were trying to offer was a visualization of what it could be," Corbett said. "Kim Ramsey is the Chamber president and got us to rally around what this could eventually be, creating this campus that would appeal to your high-tech startups, the millennial generation. Keep it as campus format, and then introduce some recreation and things that would be a benefit to the community. Our goal was to create this hub of activity for business, play, eat, and so on. There's no real proposal, we were just trying to show the possibilities to get the public to see the potential here for the Norristown community. The idea is to not knock down the wonderful old buildings from the 1800s and still embrace the social services on the campus. What makes it different is ... they talked about the amount of office space in the area, and I agree with that. But my thought on that is that the uniqueness of this would make it more desirable than your typical industrial office buildings in these office complexes. The uniqueness of this campus could make it the ideal hot spot for the community to rally around. We just don't want to see Norristown lose the opportunity to develop a really unique economic development for all involved. This is a totally inclusive idea, for all players in the business world. We're just hoping we can get a stronger ear for this."
Truax noted: “We have to be cognizant that there are some inherent challenges to big types of tax-ratable land uses because of the access issues. Also there is the problem of putting all your eggs in one basket, in terms of expecting that whatever comes out of this study is going to solve all the problems of tax revenue. There has to be a bigger picture overall. For those that want to see total redevelopment, we have to make sure the information that supports those ideas but also say if you do want to see redevelopment, here are some challenges or barriers to the redevelopment scenarios.”
MBI’s feasibility report is expected to be completed in March 2019, Truax said.
“We’ll be working in earnest over the next several months on more technical analysis based on the information we’ve collected through phase one, and the additional input from tonight’s meeting,” he said. “Having 110 people is a really good showing, providing additional insights to the public’s perception on the project, what they’d like to see, and then we have to use that information to help formulate our proposed recommendations in the feasibility study. And that’s what we’re starting to do now. We have to weigh all this in and use that information and come up with various alternatives for re-use options with our supporting recommendations that go along with all that. So the public’s input matters.”
In the end, MBI’s suggestions may need to lead to several zoning transformations, Truax added.
“We may have to identify certain recommendations to West Norriton Township or Norristown Municipality, where the property falls under their jurisdictions, that they may be required to make some policy decisions on their own on respective ordinances to permit some things to happen,” he added.
“A developer would come in and establish through all this input what the ultimate expectations are for the future use of the campus. Sometimes people are expecting some of the buildings to be reused but to do that we have to be mindful that there is an expensive cost of getting those buildings up to code. That’s the other thing we need to make people understand, that somebody has to bear that significant cost before buildings can be re-utilized.”
A transcript of the Oct. 9 meeting will eventually be posted, as well as answers to questions posed verbally and in written form, at www.dhs.pa.gov/citizens/statehospitals/norristownstatehospital.