Tuesday next week our readers in Lower Merion will participate in a rematch of the contest between the Lower Merion Board of Commissioners’ president, Elizabeth (Liz) Rogan; and filmmaker Andrew Karasik. In May, Karasik challenged the incumbent Rogan in the Democratic primary. In a closely contested election, Rogan secured her nomination for a third term as commissioner of Ward 7 with 398 votes to Karasik’s 362.
Lower Merion’s Ward 7 is a heavily Democratic district and no candidates filed to compete in the Republican primary. However, lacking any candidates of their own, 98 Republicans wrote in “Andrew Karasik” on their ballot, thus guaranteeing him the Republican nomination and a chance at a rematch in the November 3 general election.
With control of the Lower Merion Board of Commissioners at stake, the two candidates for Lower Merion Township’s Ward 7 Commissioner responded to questions posed by The Philadelphia Jewish Voice.
1. What in your background qualifies you for being elected to the Lower Merion Board of Commissioners?
|Rogan: I started as the assistant director of planning and community development in Lower Merion Township in 1990 and moved on to be the director of the department in 1997 and continued to serve until the end of 2003. I joined the Board of Commissioners in 2004. I was elected to serve as board president to fill an unexpired term in January 2011. Then I was elected by colleagues in 2012 and again in 2014.||Karasik: Lower Merion is the only home I have ever known so it is a home worth fighting for. Beginning in high school, I worked as an advocate for this community, representing the youth of this township in front of the Board of Commissioners and the Board of School Directors. I served on the Coalition of Youth for Lower Merion and Narberth and, for my service, was named Montgomery County Youth Advocate of the year.|
|2. What do you see as the biggest issue for your ward, for the township?|
|Rogan: For the ward:
For the Township:
|Karasik: Ward 7 is one of the densest, most developed wards in the Township. Traffic is a nightmare and our roads are congested beyond reasonable levels. Yet, Ward 7 lies at the epicenter of increasing development in Lower Merion. With the potential development of Saint Charles Boromeo Seminary, the 250 apartments already approved at the Miriam Estate, and the 110 new units at the Palmer Seminary, Ward 7 is bursting at the seams. And on top of all that residential development, one of the largest Whole Foods on the East Coast is being built at an intersection already plagued by congestion. We need new commercial development and we need to enhance our community gems like Whole Foods, but we need to do so in a scaled manner. Placing that much commercial development at that intersection has been deemed by many I have spoken to as irresponsible. (Continued below.)|
|3. How has your professional life prepared you for an elected office?|
|Rogan: Working as part of Lower Merion Township’s staff provided direct working experience and understanding of organizational dynamics and structure – I know who to go to for what.It also started my professional network with other professionals in both the full spectrum of municipal operations… not just planning and development, but public works, parks, finance, human resources, information and emergency services, and not just at the local level, but at the county, regional, state and federal level.
I also developed working relationships with related professionals such as in law, engineering, architecture, developers and property managers as well as decision makers at local educational, religious and health care institutions.
I learned about wide range of grant funding programs and the value and benefit of partnering with nonprofit organizations.
Update: The Pennsylvania Chapter of the American Planning Association recognized Rogan at last week’s annual conference with their 2015 Leadership Award for an Elected Official. According to the citation, Rogan “has applied planning principles to the diverse challenges of a first-generation suburb, promoting the revitalization of older commercial centers, preservation of historic structures and natural areas, and community engagement for many projects…. Her leadership and advocacy have led to accomplishments for the Township, large and small, including innovative zoning revisions, an official map ordinance for public spaces and pedestrian paths, adaptive reuse of historic buildings, and redevelopment of key properties.” See the Lower Merion Township press release .
|Karasik: I’m a filmmaker and a school teacher who teaches film arts to kids. I’m deeply proud of what I do. In a world where so much of what we hear isn’t conversation but yelling; isn’t discussion but posturing, the gaps in society are so crushing sometimes — rich vs. poor, left vs. right, old vs. young, black and white. But we can bridge that gap — I see it happening every day. The arts are so valuable because they give us a language that bridges the gaps between people. Songs, stories, photos, and yes, films — shared ideas and experiences. Shared triumphs and pain that shows us we’re not all that different from each other. That we can get along and thrive together. The fundamental tenet of both teaching and filmmaking is listening. As a teacher, you must listen to your students. You must work with them and guide them into knowledge and development. If I dictate a student’s educational path, rather than guide them along it, their development will stifle and I will have failed as their educator. As a filmmaker, my job is to tell a story. But to tell that story, again, I must listen. I must let the story of my subject unfold rather than dictate the next plot line. As an elected official, I must listen to the residents. Together, we must synthesize our vision for the future, so that I can effectively advocate for them.Professionally, beyond my career, I serve on the Boards of numerous community groups in Pennsylvania, including on the Philadelphia Orchestra Maestro’s Circle Board and the Penn State University Alumni Council. Having been named to these boards is a true honor and underscores my commitment to working to build a better and more philanthropic community.|
4. What kind of impact did the visit to Lower Merion and vicinity of Pope Francis make, in your opinion, and what is the lasting legacy, if any?
|Rogan: It provided and enabled emergency services personnel the chance to work together directly – from the local, county, region, state and national levels – fantastic coordination and cooperation and communication exercise.It was a terrific PR value and opportunity to be seen on a national stage as a capable and sophisticated organization and community.
May the pope’s message of charity and compassion for your neighbors work to inspire our community to embody William Penn’s vision to become a tolerant and equitable community.
|Karasik: Pope Francis’s visit to Lower Merion was a highlight in the 300-plus-year history of this great township. To see Lower Merion showcased on a national stage was nothing short of remarkable.I was especially struck by His Holiness’ warmth and compassion and I think we can all take note of his message and leave one’s mark on the World and to touch everyone we meet in a positive way.|
|5. How will the Presidential elections of 2016 impact the township?|
|Rogan: A Democratic administration in Washington, D.C. will enable ongoing practices and policies to continue. For example, Federal cooperation and assistance support the repair and maintenance of Lower Merion’s infrastructure: salt in the winter, emergency aid in disasters, liquid fuels tax, etc.A change to a Republican administration risks a return to the previous policies of unfunded mandates. The Federal government mandated actions from state and local governments without providing technical or financial tools to implement the requirements.||Karasik: The 2016 presidential election will be one that represents a clear choice for the future of this country and that choice echoes here in Lower Merion: Do we want leaders who divide and separate us or do we want leaders who will galvanize us into working together for the common good. The township is divided. We are battling Narberth over traffic improvements at a key intersection, rather than working together to find the safest solution that makes everyone happy. Residents are fighting the township at every turn because they feel they have no other recourse — their rights have been trampled upon and their views have been disrespected. We need leadership that will bring everyone to the table with no preconceived notions and will work together to find cohesive solutions that benefit the community as a whole, not specific factions or ideologies.|
|6. Some development projects have been stalled for years, even decades. Which projects would you want to push forward? Which would you wish to stifle?|
|Rogan: Local governments do not control private development – that is up to private market forces, basically bankers decide what gets built or doesn’t since they are the source of construction and gap funding.I’d like to see Dranoff’s Cricket project in the ground and complete, as well as the train station’s reconstruction and the development of a parking garage for the train station.
I’d like to kill several of the proposed apartment developments that I believe are actually already underway on Rock Hill road and along the river off Righters Ferry Road. The caveat to that desire is that I would like the pedestrian trail along the river and the bridge that ties over to the Manayunk Movie Theatre to still move forward.
I guess it might also be wonderful if the Merriam Estate were never built since the loss of the woodland will be extremely sad. That said – again, I would still want the public access granted as part of the plan approval to pedestrian trails and Chinese garden on the property and into the Merriam Estate house… neither of those will occur if the plan does not proceed.
|Karasik: We need to comprehensively reexamine development in Lower Merion, and we cannot do so without a Comprehensive Plan. It is not enough to say it is in the works or that we are in the final stages. We needed a new Comprehensive Plan decades ago and our leaders dragged their feet, while allowing development to continue in the township without foresight or consideration of impact. This is irresponsible leadership. The very lengthy plan that now comes forward embodies a jumbled vision for Lower Merion, one that does not comprehensively improve our way of life, but rather develops parcels part and piecemeal. The redevelopment of Ardmore is a perfect example of this piecemeal development. By focusing our efforts over the last seven years on one out of scale project, rather than on the entire redevelopment of the Lancaster Avenue Corridor and the Ardmore Business District, we have set back the redevelopment of this key village core for years. Redevelopment in Ardmore cannot hinge on One Ardmore Place. We need a comprehensive redevelopment plan that looks at every major commercial property and works with each individual landlord to develop an intelligent and appropriately scaled mixed-use plan. (Continued below.)|
|7. Although the board of commissioners does not have authority over the school district and school board, what is your opinion of the state of Lower Merion schools?|
|Rogan: Lower Merion has wonderful new, modern facilities, both of the high schools and middle schools – as well as our six elementary schools… Management of the attendance districts is atrocious and the overcrowding being forced onto Lower Merion high school is shameful.I also question the administrative structure in the district which is extremely heavy in management layers as compared to actual teachers and support staff.||Karasik: As a proud graduate of the Lower Merion School District, I know firsthand the value of our schools. Our schools are turning out matriculating, successful young adults who are ready to make their impact on the world. And it is for that quality education that so many families continue to choose to call Lower Merion home. But we cannot allow the success of our schools to be endangered by a Board of Commissioners that rubber stamps development project after development project, overcrowding our classrooms even further. (Continued below.)|
|8. What is your plan for the next five years for Lower Merion Township?|
||Karasik: Lower Merion is at a crossroads. We now must decide whether we choose to accept the blind belief that the Township must grow to survive, or whether it is more important to maintain the character of our community and quality of life that have become the hallmarks of Lower Merion. I do not believe that these two paths are mutually exclusive.First and foremost, we must work to protect the interests of current residential property owners. They are the people who elect the Commissioner and Lower Merion is their home. Their interests must always be paramount and cannot come at the expense of development for development sake. Of course, we must reshape the Township as we move into the future. We must reinvent our commercial cores and must continuously make improvements in economic growth. But expanding residential development in Lower Merion in an unscaled and irresponsible manner, not only endangers our character of life, but works against economic growth. Lower Merion will continue to adapt and move forward. But it must do so under responsible leadership that fights for the vision of its residents rather than promotes an agenda of rampant change for the sake of change. If we can return the Township Commissioner to a position where the focus is on the individual Ward and on improving the daily lives of residents with tangible results — things like traffic calming, walkability, and additional open space — then the future of Lower Merion will be a bright one that usurers in a new era for my generation and generations beyond.|
Continuation of answers by Andrew Karasik
Question 2 continued: Other parts of Lower Merion are ripe for appropriately scaled mixed use or commercial development. Unfortunately that is not what has been approved. With almost 2,700 new residential units approved or in the pipeline in Lower Merion, with very little new commercial development, we are simply perpetuating congestion and more traffic, while doing little to help our economy. Logic would dictate that new residential development increases the tax base. And while this can be true, in an area like Lower Merion, where all residents, regardless of type of residence use resources at the same rate — and those resources, like our schools are not covered 1:1 by our tax dollars — new residential development will increase taxes and draw down on those resources. I am not anti-development. I am in favor of smart, scaled development that promotes economic growth by targeting commercial sectors with new mixed-use development opportunities. I am not for the simple expansion of apartment units because those units will bring new people closer to transportation centers, especially when those developments are pricing hard working families out of our Township and destroying affordable housing opportunities.
Question 6 continued: If One Ardmore Place is built without comprehensively redeveloping the areas around it, not only will Ardmore fracture, but we will have missed the greatest opportunity we have to build a true village core for Lower Merion. Within Ward 7, the development of the Merriam Estate has been in the works for decades. Yet unfortunately, this project also represents a failure of leadership. Development at the Merriam Estate is the perfect example of unnecessary infill that comes at the expense of open space and our quality of life. The Merriam Estate would make the perfect gateway between Lower Merion and Narberth serving as a passive park for residents of both municipalities to enjoy. Instead of taking advantage of this great asset, our leaders have allowed the building of 250 apartments and a parking garage. When the owners of the Merriam Estate sought to develop the property, they offered the Township possession of the main mansion house for no cost. Rather than seizing this opportunity to create a community gem — a community center or even a conservancy — in the middle of Wynnewood, the Township refused and allowed the mansion to be included in the development plans. The Township should have worked with the owners of the property to not only preserve the mansion, but the entire estate — making the owners whole by purchasing the property and creating a passive park for the community.
Question 7 continued: The unfortunate truth is that because of the high cost of educating our students in Lower Merion, new apartment development will also cause a great increase in our taxes. Currently, on average, the School District raises taxes by about 3.5% every year. As we build more apartments and more school-aged children move into those apartments (which continues to happen in every new development built in the township), the shortfall in taxes paid by apartment residents causes increased taxes on residential property owners. This is not a sustainable model and yet, rather than trying to reduce the tax burden on residential property owners, the Township seeks to further that burden by increasing development. In Lower Merion, often times the left hand does not talk to the right hand. I will advocate for a permanent liaison between the Board of Commissioners and the School Board to ensure a cohesive relationship between our two tax agencies. Unfortunately due to the structure of the School Board, there is little accountability to the residents of Lower Merion. Because School Board members are elected at large, they hold virtually no responsibility to the individual voter other than during election cycles every four years. If the School Board were structured similar to the Board of Commissioners, with each geographical area of the Township electing their own respective School Board member, we would greatly increase the responsibility and accountability of an entity which controls 78% of our tax bill.