West Chester: The Buzzy Borough That Only Gets Better
Downtown West Chester | Photograph by Jeff Fusco
While planning committees around the region rush to give their downtowns the Oprah makeover treatment, West Chester only has to ponder how to improve an already vibrant borough — one with more than 65 places to eat and drink and quality independent boutiques. Volume is what’s coming next: Three new apartment complexes (including an eye-catching Eli Kahn development) have added 360 upscale residential units that are being rented by boomers and millennials alike. “The high density, the parks, the historic buildings, all the dog owners … it provides the community with neighborliness. People can’t help but know each other,” says Malcolm Johnstone, executive director of the West Chester Business Improvement District. “This is the anti-urban-sprawl community.” Buyers want in, according to realtors from around the region, who report that interest from clients across all age groups and demographics is growing. Additional attractions in the works — like a possible second hotel and the Knauer Performing Arts Center, which is giving the 100-year-old armory a second life — will only up the cultural appeal.
Media: New Retail, New Life for the Whole County
Michael Markman at the future site of West End Flats | Photograph by Jeff Fusco
The formula for resurgence in Media is familiar. Step one: Add amenities downtown (five new restaurants opened last year; the many art strolls and popular holiday celebrations). Step two: Construct some new apartments that allow residents to walk to said amenities and public transportation (see the new, upscale West End Flats, which is bringing 162 apartments to State Street). Step three: Rehab dead zones (see BET Investments’ massive plan for the Granite Run Mall). Even though the latter two projects aren’t finished, this Delaware County town — which benefits from the fantastic Rose Tree Media School District and a quick commute to Center City — gets livelier each year. “We don’t have to advertise anymore, because the restaurants are full,” says Zubair Khan, of the Media Business Authority. “We draw patrons from a 10-to-20-mile radius.” It’s true: Surrounding towns are already benefiting from this newfangled Media.
How to De-Mall a Mall
The Granite Run Mall — a onetime Delco staple — is being born again. Michael Markman, president of Horsham-based BET Investments, breaks down his ambitious plan for the 88-acre property, now called the Promenade at Granite Run, set to open in 2018.
1. Add air. The walls and roof are being torn down to create an outdoor mixed-use walking community.
2. Add fun. Frank Theatres is opening a bowling alley and dine-in movie theater with a bar and nightlife events. Twelve new restaurants are being added as well.
(Parents, take note: While the kids watch the next X-Men, you can eat and drink.)
3. Add people. Four hundred luxury apartments are being constructed, with heavy landscaping and walking paths. So are offices and new stores.
4. Add services. CHOP is opening a pediatric medical facility.
5. Add transit. A shuttle will run a two-mile loop from the Promenade to West End Flats, BET’s downtown Media apartment building, so people can access both shopping districts and the train without a car.
Conshohocken: A Skyline That’s Growing for Residents, Too
Rendering of SORA West, a proposed mixed-use development | Courtesy Gensler
Seth Lejeune, a realtor with Berkshire Hathaway Collegeville, says Conshohocken has “become almost a rite of passage, much like Manayunk is for younger people.” That makes sense, considering so many people are heading to jobs in the ’burbs. Conshy has easy access to all the 76s (the Expressway, the Blue Route and 276) plus regional rail, and it’s a stone’s throw from Center City. It has great schools and new hiking and biking trails, and the town leadership continues to weave in smart residential and commercial projects that add activity and density. One such skyline-altering project — to be complete by 2020 — is Keystone Property Group’s SORA West (formerly known as One Conshohocken), a proposed development on a five-acre site that has plans for two office towers, retail, outdoor dining, a rooftop lounge, green space and a hotel. It’s a block from the train station. “Conshohocken is one of the most desirable office locations in the suburbs,” says Keystone partner Richard Gottlieb. “Companies are continuing to come here. People like the opportunity to be close to work, and amenities enhance that. On Friday and Saturday nights, the streets are alive.”
Newtown: Smart and Seamless Development
Newtown Township has long been synonymous with historic country charm, which is why the yuppies flocked here in the ’80s to new developments that used to be orchards and farms. Now their offspring — as well as new arrivals — are reshaping the area again. “A lot of the changes have to do with demographics,” says Newtown native Jay Spaziano, an agent with Addison Wolfe Real Estate. While most Newtown-area residents are getting up in years, an influx of younger folk led to a 27 percent drop in the median age of Newtown Borough’s south side from 2010 to 2015. Those new arrivals — who love the lauded Council Rock school district — have a new way of living: They’re replacing older houses with more modern ones and prefer planned communities with smaller plots of land to tend to (like the Reserve at Makefield, a new Toll Brothers community). All this activity is having an effect on the town center; there’s a new condo project with retail called Steeple View on State Street, and the recently completed Promenade on Sycamore, which has apartments and upscale retail (there’s a new Anthro), has expanded the walkable downtown. Despite all the movement, locals are quick to note that the borough has done a great job of preserving the quaint vibe and history.
Malvern: The Biggest Building Boom in Chesco
Rendering of Uptown Worthington | Courtesy O’Neill Property Group
Malvern is in the midst of a gold rush of sorts. Buyers looking to get into the excellent Great Valley School District and close to the Main Line at a good price (realtors like to refer to this as the Upper Main Line, much to Gladwyne’s chagrin) are making grabs for newly converted land. “We’re seeing an awful lot of new construction,” says Linda Theuer, a realtor with Berkshire Hathaway in Malvern. Some of these new communities have walking trails, playgrounds, and houses with all the great rooms and chef’s kitchens one could want, but smaller lots, by design. “People today want to be doing things with their families, not taking care of big plots of land,” says Theuer. Commercial projects are sprouting at an equal clip. One such project is Uptown Worthington, a development by O’Neill Properties that will have high-end apartments, eateries and a hotel to complement the Wegmans that’s there. Plus, changes coming to downtown Paoli and Devon (if that tempestuous Urban Outfitters center ever happens) will only benefit this growing village.
Glassboro & Pitman: Revivals That Are Revving Up the Entire Region
Glassboro, the home of Rowan University — traditionally a commuter school — is slowly becoming a college town. The Rowan Boulevard development plan, in the works since 2000, has successfully connected the campus with the town’s main drag. Now there’s fresh retail, student and non-student housing, and restaurants (like burger place Prime, from the Pub & Kitchen crew) — all good reasons for students to stick around. While it might not be Happy Valley just yet, says Rowan prof and Glassboro resident Courtney Richmond, a tipping point feels nigh.
Not to be outpaced, the neighboring (and once sleepy) town of Pitman has been crafting a new vibe. A regulatory loophole led to the recent opening of two microbreweries, sparking an anti-temperance movement. After 100 years, Pitman is dry no more. A pocket park and wine bar are in the works, and thanks to an infusion of funds from medical publishing titan Peter Slack, the rehabbed Broadway Theatre of Pitman will put on a full roster of shows (including many for kids) this year. Now, says former chamber of commerce president John Fitzpatrick, Pitman is seeing “more younger people, couples in their 30s with kids.” The next hurdle: getting that long-rumored Glassboro-Camden light rail line on the books.
Ardmore: A Downtown That’s Making a Comeback
Ardmore Farmers Market in Suburban Square | Photograph by Jeff Fusco
Ardmore has been around for more than a century, but town leaders have been working overtime in the past decade in hopes of making it the hippest Main Line town. (Take that, Wayne!) It’s working: Newer, cooler spots like Ardmore Music Hall and brewpubs like Tired Hands Brewing Company and Iron Hill Brewery & Restaurant have brought life downtown — “Young life,” notes Emily Withers, of Keller Williams Main Line Realty — and people who are looking to put down roots. (The town, the largest on the Main Line, boasts more than 40 drinkeries and eateries.)
Those same 20- and 30-somethings, plus empty nesters, are expected to fill two new high-end apartment buildings. Dranoff Properties hopes to break ground this spring on One Ardmore Place, an eight-story building with 110 luxury rental units atop street-level retail. The project, which is replacing a surface parking lot on Cricket Avenue, is the linchpin of the revitalization plan, which connects Lancaster Avenue to Suburban Square. Across the street, Core Development has proposed a 77-unit building. And Suburban Square is getting a refresh: The defunct Macy’s is being replaced, in part, by the upscale health club Life Time Fitness, and a new parking garage, an enlarged Trader Joe’s and a rehabbed SEPTA station are in the work
This newly robust, pedestrian-friendly downtown is a top priority for today’s buyers. But so is diversity. The south side of town is home to one of the oldest and largest black communities on the Main Line. “I think diversity is always a draw — having a well-rounded area where you meet people of different backgrounds,” says Withers. The shops aren’t alone in expecting boom times: The Lower Merion School District has approved expansion projects, knowing that its student body is about to swell.
Q&A: The Developer Speaks!
After nine years, Carl Dranoff will break ground on One Ardmore Place this spring. Here’s why it was worth the wait.
You build giant towers downtown. Why apartments on the Main Line?
CD: This fits right into our playbook — we take on large-scale, game-changing projects. Ardmore has all the right ingredients: architecturally interesting buildings, the train station. You don’t need a car. That’s rare for the suburbs.
Did you need to be sold on the ’burbs?
CD: No. The township outlined a multi-phase, multi-year redevelopment plan. We saw, even back in 2008, that many residents in our urban buildings were commuting to jobs in the suburbs. Even more do now. We will diversify our holdings with Ardmore.
What sets this building apart?
CD: Most Main Line apartments are decades old, with no sense of community, no one to take your packages. We have outdoor space. We hired Cope Linder, the 1706 Rittenhouse architects. We will build an underground garage with 210 spots for the township.
There was some resistance from residents. Why stick with it?
CD: There were many opportunities for me to throw my arms up, but at the end of the day, this is the poster child for public-private collaboration. It could be a prototype for other towns that are starting to come back.
Marlton: A Quiet Town on a Building Spree
New home in Devonforde Estates | Photograph by Jeff Fusco
In Jersey, single-family homes and townhomes with upscale finishes are in high demand, and developers are responding. In Marlton — a 3.25-square-mile town that makes up most of Evesham Township — at least six communities are in the works from prolific developers like Procacci Development Company and Ryan Homes. And, says Cristin Holloway, managing broker of the Holloway Real Estate Group, most of her new buyers are young professionals fleeing the city in search of great schools and more space: “They’re ready to settle down and coming to New Jersey to do that.” Locals are loving the restaurant boom (even though it’s in a mall in nearby Moorestown), while Evesham officials have been furthering deals to keep the fun in town: There’s a lot of buzz about the redevelopment of the Tri-Towne Plaza on Route 70, which will have almost 300 luxury apartments, a pool, a gym, health services (Virtua has already signed on as a tenant), restaurants, a 1.5-mile recreational path, and a walking path that connects to Marlton’s downtown.
Phoenixville: High-End Rentals Mean a Younger Crowd
Downtown Phoenixville | Photograph by Jeff Fusco
Here’s something to consider: Rent for a two-bedroom apartment in Phoenix Village — one of a few newly opened upscale apartment buildings here — is around $2,000 a month. There’s a reason for that. This borough is a case study in downtown revitalization, with a main street that gets more vibrant every year. (The historic Colonial Theatre — of The Blob fame — is currently getting a state-of-the-art redo, and revamped theaters are traditionally boons to local economies.) That downtown life brought in the apartment buildings, including a 2016 Toll Brothers project called Riverworks that has a rock wall and dog spa; proposals could see another 1,000 rental units in the next few years. The appeal extends beyond Bridge Street, though. New-construction developments are being filled by young families who love hanging downtown, the Schuylkill River Trail, the proximity to offices in King of Prussia and Malvern, and a school district that ranks in the state’s top 50. While home prices are on the rise, realtor Seth Lejeune, from Berkshire Hathaway’s Collegeville office, says savvy investors are still finding good buys on the outskirts of town.
Published as “The Hottest Suburban Towns” in Philadelphia magazine’s March 2017 issue. Edited by Ashley Primis; Brian Howard and Sandy Smith also contributed to this story.