Sunday, September 12, 2010

The Art Of The Steal, Lower Providence Style

This past Friday afternoon I was invited to accompany several current and former township officials to witness the ceremonial transfer of the 78 acres of land owned by philanthropist Gerry  Lenfest as it was officially exchanged for a small swatch (.87 acres) of land at 3rd and Chestnut in Philadelphia, slated to be the new home of the American Revolution Center (ARC). As chairman of our Zoning Hearing Board in 2008-2009, I presided over the many evenings of hearings on this project, examined over a hundred exhibits, and heard many hours of testimony for and against it, during two validity challenges to the Living History Overlay District. In the end, I came away convinced that the ordinance was valid, and that the project belonged to Valley Forge National Historical Park.

As many of you know, the 78 acres of land - formerly property of the St. Gabriel's Protectorate before being sold to Mr. Lenfest - was originally envisioned as the future home of the ARC. It seemed the most logical place - next to the very location where the Revolutionary troops endured the harsh winter at Valley Forge, and the very land where our struggle for freedom from tyranny in England is what most Americans consider symbolic of our determination and resolve to win.

I am genuinely glad that the ARC will finally be built - somewhere, as new generations of Americans desperately need to be reacquainted with the story of what drove our beginnings as a nation. Surveys show that the vast majority of Americans don't have a basic knowledge of historical facts about the American Revolution, the fundamentals about what drove us to seek independence, the sacrifices made to obtain it, and the creation of our founding documents and their application to current events.

Those of us who supported this project always said that, for us, it was truly about the project and our belief in its worthiness, wherever it would go. And, our fiduciary duty to do what was best for the majority of Lower Providence residents. We were, of course, proud that our township was considered as the best possible home for it and excited about the opportunities it would bring to our area.

Supervisor Rick Brown, initially in favor of the project, even saying at one point that he'd 'fall on his sword' for it, later flipped his position, publicly fighting it, and working with nearby residents to defeat it. Former supervisor Craig Dininny, originally against it, ended up supporting it. Interestingly, these two changes of opinion occurred practically at the same time. It was almost as if the the minute Craig supported it, Rick decided to fight it. Anyone who's ever doubted that some people make politics personal should consider this fact. But that is an entire separate blog post (or two). Anyway, that's water under the bridge.

While it was a beautiful and solemn ceremony, held at the Independence Visitor Center, complete with a color guard, costumed Revolutionary reenactors (including George Washington), and a moving rendition of our national anthem by The American Boy Choir,  it felt more like a funeral to me. Beautiful, respectful, dignified...and a sad ending to what would have been a significant, game-changing development in the history of our township. I and many others invested much blood, sweat and tears in a project we sincerely believed would be economically and culturally advantageous to Lower Providence, only to have the the truth about it remanufactured and spun to some people's political advantage. Only to have the project ultimately snapped up by Philadelphia and Governor Ed Rendell, who never misses an opportunity to do what's economically and culturally advantageous for the City of Brotherly Love.
I, at least, came away realizing that this project, having become more and more of a struggle to get across the finish line (in no small part to the opposition conjured up by Rick & Co., including current supervisor Colleen Eckman), created a situation that it did not take an opportunist like our esteemed Democrat governor long to work to his advantage and that of his Democrat friends in Philly.

As we sat there in the audience, listening to the speakers - from Secretary of the Interior, Ken Salazar, to Mayor Nutter, on up to Fast Eddie himself - regurgitate much of what we already know about this endeavor, it was unsettling to hear the disclosure of some things we didn't know about. Things like how it came to the Governor's attention that this project was at an impasse, and how driven he was, once seeing that the people of Lower Providence apparently didn't know what was good for them, to snag it for the point that he got up early on a Sunday morning to go tooling around town - in his sweats, no less -  with an aide and Mr. Lenfest, checking out buildings in the tourist areas of Philly, searching for something, anything, that might be appealing to the folks at ARC and that would also benefit tax-dollar starved Philadelphia.

(If I recall correctly, the timeline of when this occurred would have been about the same time last year Pennsylvania had an overdue approved state budget...but it would seem this was at the top of the Governor's priorities).

Obviously, he succeeded, and that chapter of the story of the ARC is closed. While we do have 78 more acres of preserved park space in our inventory, we lost out on a significant opportunity for jobs (during construction and in running the project), revenue from tourists, and taxes. Yes, infrastructure improvements would have to be made, and the ARC pledged money for that. Additional concerns would have been addressed during the land development process.

Ironically, the land swap also accomplished the removal of the land at 3rd and Chestnut from federal protection, archeological and otherwise. Given its proximity to other significant Philadelphia landmarks, that fact alone should be somewhat alarming. However, I digress.

But it was classic Ed Rendell, a Rendell we saw before at work in what's been called a theft of another cultural project in Montgomery County, The Barnes Museum. This subject, and Rendell's role in it, was documented in the 2009 film, 'The Art Of The Steal'.*
In case you're not familiar with that saga, the late Albert Barnes (1872-1951) amassed a collection in the early 20th century that makes even the Louvre envious. Barnes was an American art collector, a little-known medical scientist who had an eye for modern art. He used the money he made from his work to acquire paintings by unknown painters that no one else wanted. At the time, they were quite attainable. So, the doctor-scientist begin amassing a collection of these artworks sensing a value and aesthetic in them that most in the art world dismissed.

Today, these unknowns are household names: Czanne, Matisse, Picasso, Renoir, Monet, Manet, and Van Gogh, and their work is what we now call "impressionism" and "post-impressionism". In the current art market, the collection is worth far more than he ever could have paid for them at the time he acquired most of them, reportedly between $25-35 billion dollars. In all likelihood, not even the Louvre or the Metropolitan Museum of Art could afford to buy the entire collection at market value.

Mr. Barnes' will stipulated explicitly that the collection remain at the Barnes house in Montgomery County, that the home become an educational institution, and that the collection be used to school art students. "The Art of the Steal" chronicles the myriad lawsuits and wheeling & dealing that destroyed the integrity of one man's unique vision of his art and collection. According to the documentary, the paintings will be moved into a museum for the tourist crowd in Philadelphia rather than maintaining Barnes' wishes for an art school.

And I bet you can't guess who was a driving force for engineering that

The only advocate for the collection's relocation who appeared on camera is Gov. Ed Rendell, who spoke at length about the advantages for Philadelphia, saying it was a "no-brainer". Never once in the interview does the Governor say he's doing it in the best interest of the wishes of Barnes. The message is that he's doing what's in the best interests of Philadelphia and his political future. 

While they're not the only ones to blame for the loss of the ARC, I hope that Republicans Rick, Colleen and the rest of the 'not in my backyard' contingent are proud of themselves, if for nothing else than that they aided and abetted our Democrat, tax & spend governor in absconding with yet another valuable project that will certainly create revenue for Philly but do absolutely nothing to create jobs or put money back into Lower Providence or Montgomery County. At least Rick and Colleen had the common sense not to attend the ceremony since for them  it wasn't about the project at all. Smart move.

As someone named Barbara posted in response to an online article announcing the exchange said, "This should have been a magnificent Center in Valley Forge, built on private property purchased for the purpose. In Valley Forge, it would have created many jobs both in construction now and, later, in running it. Instead, it will be a little and cramped addition to an already built up area, creating minimal jobs now and probably into the future as well. It will also be just one more place in Philadelphia for people to go with nowhere to park. Shame on everyone for allowing a few selfish landowners to keep the original plans from becoming reality."

Amen Barbara.

*Facts and some references/phrasing for portions of this post were retrieved from an imdb review of the film.


Anonymous said...

I am certainly proud that a hotel and conference center wasn't built next to a national park in LP township. LP is already full of failed economic development projects and we don't need another. How about trying to keep LP a nice place to live?

Anonymous said...

It is disgusting that a few narrow minded people thinking only of themselves could do t his kind of damage. \LP makes it so hard to do business here, no wonder other areas get allthe good places to eat and shop while we get no interest from anybody but banks and drug stores.

I own a small business here and they even harrass us about the stupidest things, if you can even get them to return a phone call. They make it obvious they don't want business here of any size. LP is getting to be a place nobody can afford to live and too much headache to work in.

Other areas understand that we're the guys who pay the bills and create jobs. If you want to tax your people to death, go rigfht ahead, other areas embrace us. And they wonder why the office park is mostly empty.

Andrew said...

Janice, I read it and it echoes my feelings on both of these projects. I have always believed that the ARC would be a tremendous asset, not only to LP but the entire area. It's loss is akin to Norristown's fumble on the Hildren's Hospital center proposed for Main Street.

Anonymous said...

You can't blame Brown and Company for all the ills in the business park, they just took over in January, the taxes for Lower Providence are minimal, maybe the business poster doesn't know who they are paying all these taxes to anyway. Could it be the school district, one of the best in Montgomery County, why is the property tax base so high here in LP and so low in East and West Norriton and Norristion. Could it be our educational opportuninties at Methacton? Ask any realtor why, they all know why. I don't see them using the Norristown School District in the newspaper adds, but when it comes to LP, I see them using the Methacton School District as a big plus.

And I for one am thankful for Brown and Company sticking to their guns as far as the ARC was concerned. They were never against the Museum, it was all the commercial development they were opposed to, hotel, conference center, etc. I don't see Lenfest building all that in Philadelphia, just the musuem as was origionally proposed here. I am glad that we got the 78 acres of open space and they got an empty building in Philadelphia that could be used again for this endeavor. I live in Audubon and am happy that Brown and Company prevailed, otherwise we would be swamped with traffic all over our side streets. I hear you live in Trooper where no impact would have occurred, sorry you voted for it, you must not have been paying attention to the will of the people. Residents need a voice and should be heard first!

Jim S. said...

Thank God for a vew narrow minded people who stood up for the rest of our community. We need more of them on our borads and commissions. The Planning commission should start listening to the residents too. As you stated the Zoners caved into the ARC people and all their excessive wants and needs. What a shame a few zoners could give the ship away and stick it to the rest of us.

Janice Kearney said...

Note: the last two comments came from the same IP address at virtually the same time in order to make it appear that 2 different people held the same opinion. This is not the first time that's happened unfortunately. Nice try.

Joan said...

Great blog Janice!

Lisa Mossie said...

In addition to our illustrious Guv, Gerry Lenfest was also instrumental in moving the Barnes to Philadelphia.

Anonymous said...


By acknowledging your advocacy for the ARC project as a matter of policy, you have abdicated your duty to impartially apply the law in your capacity as a quasi-judicial officer. You didn't understand your Zoning Board role then and apparently still don't.

Anonymous said...

The ARC project has been dead and buried for monthes now. Why stir up old ugly memories except to make yourself look good and appear to be the Townships savior. Is Mr.Lenfest and Mr. Mascaro going to be funding your run for Supervisor in 2012. Let the games begin!
Anon. Voter
PS: I know you won't post his blog, but it does feel good just writing it.

Janice Kearney said...

Mike, Mike, Mike. Can’t we agree to disagree? If it is indeed time to 'stop stirring up ugly old memories', why do you keep the hatred alive on the TH blog? Why did you post 5 posts on this article alone, pretending to be different people? Why are you back to checking this blog multiple times a day if you don’t like what I say?

And I publish the nicer things you write to me. I’m sure your family would be appalled to know just how low you stoop and how disgusting you can be. Well, I’m tired of the one-way “conversation”.

It wasn’t always that way. I still have those flirtatious emails you (a married man) used to send me a few years back. And the fake gun club range card you gave me (which I never used by the way). Ever since certain people you also happen hate recognized what I bring to the table, I got added to your poison pen pal list.

Although I continue to invite you to talk face-to-face, to find out what your axe to grind is, to see if there is common ground, I get nothing from you but hate mail. You actually hid from me the time I actually knocked on your door over the summer. Your car was home, as it usually is, because you’re retired and home all day. I heard you moving around inside. But you knew it was me and, I guess, don’t have the courage to say ANYTHING to my face, ever. Pretty sad for an Army vet. I thought you guys were tougher than that?

Maybe it’s that you know beating up on a girl doesn’t play so well when it’s out in the open.

I most certainly do know my obligations and responsibilities. I do have a career in the legal field. I have litigated cases. Have you? I am with attorneys all day, every day. I can do my own legal research if need be. Our ZHB decisions have been out for some time. I am permitted to speak about this issue freely.

Meanwhile, you can’t even manage to get the right interpretation of ‘spot zoning’, which you accuse every plan you don’t like of being an example of, but somehow you presume to be an expert in planning and the law.

Oh well. I suppose harassing me is more entertaining than the soaps and game shows that are on all day.

Don’t say I never write, Mike.

Anonymous said...

From what I'm reading, if they toll 422, it's going to divert a lot of 422 traffic onto local roads because people will want to avoid paying. So Audubon will get lots of cars on their tiny roads but will have no money from anybody to improve those roads, which they at least would of had from ARC. Nice going dopes.

Anonymous said...

Whats wrong with open space - we need more of it - I for one am glad the ARC was never built in LPT