Fu­ture of Norristown State Hos­pi­tal de­bated

The Mercury (Pottstown, PA) - - FRONT PAGE - By Gary Puleo gpuleo@21st-cen­tu­ry­media.com @ on Twit­ter

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 high­tech 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 w w w.dhs.pa.gov/cit­i­zens/ state­hos­pi­tals/nor­ris­town­state­hos­pi­tal.

GARY PULEO — DIG­I­TAL FIRST ME­DIA

A crowd of 110 peo­ple at­tended a meet­ing on the fu­ture of Norristown State Hos­pi­tal.

GARY PULEO — DIG­I­TAL FIRST ME­DIA

Troy Truax of Michael Baker In­ter­na­tional, Inc., speaks to the crowd at Tues­day’s pub­lic meet­ing on pos­si­ble uses for Norristown State Hos­pi­tal.

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