With gym poised to leave, LM board works out Ardmore Plaza plan

August 8, 2011

Ardmore’s Planet Fitness franchise was prepared to take its treadmills and ellipticals and leave within days – no doubt leaving gym members wondering where to work out –if Lower Merion did not change some rules for its shopping center location, representatives said last week.

It didn’t come to that.

After another lengthy discussion -- the second in two weeks -- township commissioners voted to approve Ardmore Plaza Shopping Center’s request, over the objection of ward Commissioner Steven Lindner and some neighbors.

The topic did, however, spark a heated conversation about how friendly Lower Merion is to businesses.

What looked to be a relatively minor amendment of previous land development conditions of approval to alter parking arrangements at the center on Greenfield Avenue got complicated when the matter came to the board’s Building and Planning Committee July 27.

The change was sought to accommodate plans by Planet Fitness, a tenant at Ardmore Plaza for about a year, to open additional space on the second floor for regional accounting offices.

With the addition, the recently renovated shopping center would be fully leased, representatives said.

In reviewing the application, the township learned that the gym had been operating in violation of an old condition of approval that prohibited it from opening before 6 a.m.

Planet Fitness advertises 24-hour operation on weekdays. In the Ardmore location, it has been staying open around the clock on two nights, Tuesday and Wednesday, at the request of local hospitals, which asked it to accommodate shift changes, commissioners were told.

Now it was asking to remove the restriction.

At the July meeting, however, Lindner pointed out another condition that required a fitness center tenant to provide programs for two specific community facilities, the Ardmore Avenue Community Center and Ardmore’s senior center, known as PALM (Positive Aging in Lower Merion.)

Ardmore Plaza attorney Lance Rogers said Planet Fitness does not employ personal trainers or offer fitness classes, but that it might provide membership benefits instead. He asked the committee not to hold up a recommendation of approval while the issue was being explored, and that is how it came to the full board for final action Aug. 3.

Before that could happen, some community members addressed the board.

Although Rogers said Planet Fitness had met with neighbors before the gym opened last year and offered memberships, representatives of the community center and PALM said it never contacted their organizations, and questioned how or whether it would be asked to comply with the program requirement.

Former Ward 4 commissioner Maryam Phillips, speaking for the Ardmore Progressive Civic Association, provided some background on the situation. In 2000, she said, Ardmore Plaza had presented a proposal for a second-floor fitness center use, and agreed to a set of conditions, including the two in question. The project never moved forward, but the conditions remained in place.

Phillips also raised concerns about parking enforcement on Greenfield Avenue. The community, she said, “is adamant that [fitness center] services not start before 6 a.m.”

With those issues outstanding, Lindner proposed tabling action to September, but his motion failed.

On Commissioner Phil Rosenzweig’s suggestion, a condition was added calling for the shopping center to come back to the township with a plan to comply with the program requirement. (Rogers said the gym could not offer “free” memberships, but might waive an initiation fee.)

That left the matter of hours. To move the approval for the office space forward, President Liz Rogan suggested the shopping center could come back to the board on that point later.

After conferring with Ardmore Plaza manager Michael Palladino, however, Rogers reported that it was unable to wait. According to Rogers, Planet Fitness was already questioning the delay – the initial application has been under township review since January, he said – and had informed Palladino that it was poised to leave.

Rogers said the franchise agreement “specifically requires it to operate 24 hours.” Under the wording of the condition, the gym could technically close at 5:55 a.m. and reopen its doors at 6 a.m., and be in compliance, he pointed out. Instead, in its latest communication with the shopping center, he said at the Wednesday night meeting, if the matter wasn’t ironed out, “It will leave by Sunday.”

There was no mention, and commissioners did not question, how Planet Fitness would have dealt with its existing Ardmore memberships in that event.

Instead, some members were dismayed, as Commissioner Jenny Brown put it, that the board might be prepared to “just kick another thing down the road.” The township “should not be trying to hold any applicant hostage,” she said.

Commissioner Lewis Gould noted that the township has put significant effort into Ardmore revitalization. “The board cannot have it both ways – say it supports the Ardmore business community” and potentially drive away business, he said.

It’s not a matter of being “business unfriendly,” Lindner said. “People are asking, if we dismiss this [condition] what happens to City Avenue rezoning,” he remarked, or a controversial development. He said he wants to make sure the community has the opportunity to be involved. “We’re this close to making it happen.”

“I believe we cannot afford to lose a tenant because of a condition that can’t be complied with,” commented Commissioner Cheryl Gelber on postponement. “I would hate to have it on my shoulders.”

In the end, the board voted 11-3 to approve the application, including 24-hour operation, with Lindner, Rogan and Commissioner Brian Gordon opposed.

That did not prevent Brown from expressing her opinion that the “conduct of the board on this matter has been an utter embarrassment,” and offering an apology to the applicant.

“No one should ever apologize for sticking up for neighbors to have their concerns adequately heard,” or for “enforcing our rules and conditions consistently,” said Gordon in response.

By Cheryl Allison