In a professional career that has touched the Kimmel Center for the Performing Arts, Comcast Center, BNY Mellon Center, and other contemporary landmarks of the Philadelphia skyline, civil engineer James Verzella will be most remembered on this side of the Delaware River for his contributions to several, much smaller projects.
As a member of the
borough planning board for more than two decades, most of which were spent as its chair, Verzella had a hand in a number of key decisions that helped preserve the historic, small-town feel of Collingswood as it grew from a sleepy, inner-ring Philadelphia suburb into
an emergent Camden County community.
As Verzella leaves town for Voorhees, borough commissioners honored his years of service with a formal proclamation at their monthly meeting on Monday.
"Jim’s been a very active part of our community," said Mayor James Maley, "a real big
asset on our planning board, and we’re going to miss him."
Through those years of change, Verzella said he was proudest of helping enforce standards that provided a continuity to redevelopment in the borough.
Other towns that go through the "growth spurt" that Collingswood did may not always adhere to a "disciplined process," Verzella said, but those presenting to the board "knew they needed to have their stuff together" because the body demanded it.
"I make an exception, the next guy points to that, we lose control," he said.
Those standards were challenged periodically throughout the years by certain proposals that weren't the best fit for Collingswood, Verzella said, and he was not shy about shooting down those that didn't work.
"The very first controversy was 7-11 wanted to rip down a block of buildings," Verzella said. "We said no."
Plans to erect strip malls along Haddon Avenue, or to convert
the Old Zane School into an Eckerd drug store, met the same fates.
When "a major bank" wanted to come into the borough, the board rejected the proposal, Verzella said, because its business model was based on a heavy volume of car traffic that would have been wrong for Collingswood.
"We [also] rejected the first
LumberYard proposal," Verzella said.
Later, as the Collingswood restaurant scene emerged, the planning board "didn't stray from that plan," Verzella said, even when it began to feel some pressure to loosen B.Y.O.B. restrictions in the business district.
His decisions didn't always endear him to borough officials, either.
Verzella recalled going "nose to nose" with Mayors Michael Brennan and Maley on more than one occasion, but he said "the mayors knew if I said no, I meant no."
At the end of his lengthy term of service, Verzella was as much an architect of the Collingswood renaissance as any other key volunteer from whose efforts the borough has benefited.
Verzella provided "a real breadth of information," and was "a great asset" to the community, Maley said.
"It's really tough to get someone with that type of knowledge from their work [in a volunteer role]." he said.
"We appreciate all the work that he’s done."