By Vincent Montoya-Armanios
At least ten Morrisville residents have been organizing to stop Select Morrisville LLC from moving forward with its proposal to demolish Williamson Park and develop luxury apartments, a hotel, retail shops, restaurants and an amphitheater. So far, almost 900 people have signed a Change.org petition to save Williamson Park.
Environmental concerns are shared by many members of the group. Steve Fowler, for example, is concerned that the development proposal will disrupt the local bird population. Another resident argued that the LLC’s proposal would require removing part of the land from the emergency flood plan and that the council should assume that the levee will fail at some point, causing flooding and serious damage. Eva Kastner-Puschl, who recently moved to Morrisville partially because of her attraction to the park, pleaded with the Council, “I am very much convinced that this would be a threat to our basements, backyards, and the levee.”
The Borough will need to either break their ongoing lease with the First Baptist Church of Trenton, First Presbyterian of Trenton, and Turning Point Methodist by classifying the underlying land as “blighted” or purchase the churches’ interest in order to actualize Select Morrisville LLC’s development plans. There are concerns that Morrisville Borough will feel empowered to declare other properties as “blighted” to nullify contracts that currently restrict the Borough’s use of land. Elizabeth Lester Abdalla, who is a member of a local Presbyterian Church, questioned how the Borough planned to break the lease with the churches or declare the area as blighted when Williamson Park does not appear to meet any conditions of blight, and she pointed out that the lease for the three churches and the underlying land is not set to expire for several years.
Others criticize the manner in which the Morrisville Council is conducting public hearings. They complain that corporations are granted hours of council meeting time to make a case for their plans to dramatically alter the community, while residents who will be affected by the decision are limited to three minutes each. The council may provide more time to residents but has argued that it does not want to set a precedent that will lead others to speak beyond three minutes. Residents have wanted to use the time to cover subjects such as the park’s history and their series of environmental concerns. Despite the various concerns raised by community members, “all I hear council talk about is money,” said Save Williamson Park member and Morrisville resident Amanda Laster. At the Council’s Feb. 16 meeting, councilman Ted Parker explicitly stated, “I ignored a lot of the public comments.”
The group also complained that the council did not begin holding publicly accessible meetings to discuss the development plan until December 2020, even though they began discussing the proposal in April 2020. “If we hadn’t bugged them, they would still be doing zoom meetings privately,” one resident said. He added that recordings on the public access channel were completely unintelligible.
In the Borough’s December council meeting, one resident criticized the decision to include the development proposal as an achievement in the Comprehensive Plan. The Comprehensive Plan is a document required for some funding sources that should address issues such as environmental protection, resource preservation, business, community health, and other subjects. Theoretically, the Comprehensive Plan is supposed to guide the Council’s decisionmaking moving forward but has no legally binding authority. Even though the Council has not formally approved Select Morrisville LLC’s proposal, the planning commission has expressed its intent to tout the $125 million proposal in its Comprehensive Plan. Some residents feel that such a proclamation is premature and misleading. A member of the council nevertheless argued that a large development proposal alone is an achievement and should be noted in historical records. Council meeting notes have not been uploaded since November, which is another area of criticism. Joshua Kuntz pointed out that details regarding the development plan are extremely hard to evaluate and the Borough has a responsibility to make information more accessible.
Some residents have also expressed concerns about the prohibitively expensive rental rates of the proposed luxury apartment development. The Courier Times has reported that rent is expected to start at $1,700 per month and that the number of children living at the luxury property will be capped at 80. The restriction on children and the high cost of living will accelerate the process of gentrification taking place in the Borough, which is among the small minority of Bucks County townships with a Black population above 10%. Amanda Laster argued that the proposed development is so different in character from the rest of Morrisville that it will lead to some degree of segregation: “The residents of the new apartments won’t patronize the existing businesses. Or, I fear, gentrification will make its way through Morrisville. The once affordable, historic borough will continue to be developed into ‘luxury and boutique’ experiences, forcing out the people who call Morrisville home,” she said. She added that the new space will require additional policing, which may exacerbate existing tensions between the community and the police.
A Little League organization has also expressed opposition to the plan to demolish Williamson Park, which is where their teams play baseball.
So far, the group has distributed flyers to oppose the development plan and plans to create a website. They are fundraising for signs for residents to display their opposition to the demolition of Williamson Park. They created a facebook page called “Save Williamson Park” in December and an Instagram under the same name.