With boarded up shops and vacant spaces lining the corridor, it’s safe to say that it’s been decades since anyone has enjoyed a stroll down Bala Avenue in Bala Cywnyd.
In its defense, the Bala Avenue is relatively short, spanning just three blocks between. And yet, in its heyday, it was a bustling retail corridor with an architecturally stunning theater at its core.
Today, it’s mostly frequented by speeding cars looking to bypass traffic along Montgomery Avenue and City Avenue.
“It’s beautiful fundamentally, but there aren’t many reasons to take time to walk along it at the moment,” says Bobby Fijan, a partner at Cross Properties. “We’re hoping to change that.”
For the past year or so, local developer Cross Properties has been quietly acquiring more than a dozen parcels up and down Bala Avenue. Just this week it announced its $100 million master plan to bring some life back to the street with three major mixed-use developments in the works.
Bobby says one reason his team was attracted to the site was because the bones and history of the corridor were already there. In the early 1900s, Bala Avenue was what nearby City Avenue or Bryn Mawr Avenue is today: A popular shopping district and retail hub.
But as attention focused on building up other nearby corridors in later decades, Bala Avenue was largely forgotten. Many of the shops along the avenue have spent the past two or three decades vacant.
“This is a revitalization of a shopping area that was meant to be there,” Fijan says. “We’re revitalizing something that was there to begin with.”
The first phase of revitalization efforts has been underway since this past spring, with Cross Properties focusing on construction of the mixed-use development 10 Union.
This 109-unit, four-story development is being built from the ground up and will be the first of three major mixed-use projects proposed for what the developer is calling the “NoBa” district. If the developer gets zoning approval, two more mixed-use projects will follow, including 202 Bala and 1 Cynwyd. The first phase is expected to bring a total of 240 units and 20,000 square feet of retail to the neighborhood.
That’s a lot of residential for an already established and well-off town, where the median income is $113,462. But Fijan says given that Bala Cynwyd is the closest suburb to Philly—the Bala station is the first stop on the Cynwyd SEPTA rail line—there’s a market for a wide-range of demographics who want to be close to Philly, but perhaps live in an area that offers a small-town feel.
He points to towns even farther from Philly that have found success with similar mixed-use redevelopments with walkability at their core. “There’s vitality in places like downtown West Chester, Phoenixville, and Wayne,” Fijan says. “We’re trying to create that on a smaller scale in the closest community that exists to Philadelphia.”