Guest Column from the Chester County Press
By Luke Zubrod
As Kennett Square emerges from the pandemic, we have so much to be thankful for.
Chester County boasts some of the highest vaccination rates in the country, that have allowed local businesses to shift back into a more normal gear. Almost all of Kennett’s small businesses appear to have weathered the storm, thanks to their own grit as well as significant community and governmental support. Throughout the pandemic, community organizations worked together to support our most vulnerable on issues like food and housing security, as well as education. Organizations throughout the county also collaborated in new ways to share African American stories, underscoring the complexities of history and its shared human struggles as part of a countywide Juneteenth commemoration.
While each of these is worthy of celebration, they come with challenges that have only grown since the pandemic began that include adolescent mental health concerns, digital equity and housing affordability.
Adolescent mental health concerns, including suicidal ideation, had already been growing at alarming rates over the last decade, and these trends were exacerbated during the pandemic. In response, local counseling group The Peacemaker Center is hiring additional counselors and making plans to expand their Kennett operation to meet growing demand. Johnny Johnston, campus pastor for Willowdale Chapel’s Jennersville campus, recently raised the issue of depression in a congressional message. His main goal was “to help normalize the conversation” within families.
The pandemic also revealed deficits that made learning more difficult for some, particularly as a result of uneven access to high-speed internet – a necessity when students were forced to learn from home for much of this year. The Southern Chester County Opportunity Network’s (SCCON) digital equity project is aimed at advocating for investments which would ensure everyone has basic access to this increasingly essential resource.
According to the National Association of Realtors, low borrowing rates and a shortage of properties boosted home prices nationwide by an average of 24 percent over the course of the last year—complicating an already difficult challenge in the region with housing affordability. The issue of affordability, long a concern in the Kennett Borough, is a difficult one to solve because the issues driving affordability in a place like Kennett—including pandemic-induced migration away from large cities—are outside the realm of local control.
However, while there are no silver bullets to the issue of housing affordability, towns like Kennett do have some levers of control. One such lever is reducing the surprisingly high cost municipal parking requirements place on housing development – such as that which is likely to be built in the coming years at the sizeable land parcel once occupied by NVF.
A recent study calculates that parking requirements—municipal mandates to have a certain number of parking spaces, for example, per developed unit of housing—raise housing costs by 13 percent for families without cars. Another study cited costs ranging from $24,000 to $35,000 per required parking space. Additionally, because property taxes generally orient around buildings, an excess of parking in a town limits the town’s ability to generate tax revenue to fund municipal expenditures.
For these and other reasons, many municipalities have reduced or entirely eliminated minimum parking requirements, among other parking-related issues. Seattle, Buffalo, Spartanburg, Minneapolis and Fayetteville are among those that have eliminated parking minimums altogether. Others, including Cornelius, N.C. and Fargo, N.D. have reduced their parking requirements by half, and Cincinnati has eliminated parking minimums in certain neighborhoods.
It is not just far-flung places that have reexamined their approaches to parking, but also places closer to home like West Chester and Phoenixville. Two years ago, West Chester created a Zoning Update Task Force that included members of their planning commission, borough staff and outside consultants. Among this group’s proposed changes was to conduct a parking analysis that would lead to eliminating unnecessary parking, rather than prescribe a fixed number of parking spots for developments. Phoenixville has done the same, and has eliminated parking requirements on their main street, among others.
As we emerge from the hardships of pandemic life and slowly resume our normal way of life, we have cause to revel in this sunny moment. However, we also have work to do in tending to the hardships exacerbated or revealed by the pandemic. Some of those hardships—for example, mental health—orient around the family and addressing them starts with asking questions and normalizing conversations about depression, anxiety and suicide.
Others—including housing affordability and digital equity—require community-oriented solutions. Especially on these community concerns, the time has come to begin elevating these issues in our dialogue with each other.
Luke Zubrod leads operations at Square Roots Collective and lives in Kennett Square together with his wife Jessica and their three children.