Changing Skyline: Dynamic W. Chester draws developers

The condo building would replace a long-vacant courthouse complex on Gay Street. Bernardon Haber Holloway Architects

We've heard plenty about the repopulation of big-city downtowns by postcollege singles, empty-nesters, and determined young families, all eager to live in neighborhoods where they can walk to work, restaurants, and culture. What hasn't gotten much attention - yet - is how compact small towns are starting to sample from the same demographic pot.

The Philadelphia region is peppered with towns that resemble mini versions of the city (save for the skyline, of course), but surely one of the most dynamic is West Chester, in Chester County. Over the last decade, this college town has seen its population bulge by 4 percent. Like Philadelphia's downtown, it boasts an ample collection of historic buildings, terrific housing stock, eclectic shops, a diverse restaurant scene, even some nightlife.

So it was only a matter of time before developers started thinking about inserting new, high-end housing into West Chester's tree-lined downtown. Three rental projects with a total of 354 units have just been approved, and the borough council is now evaluating the business district's first condo proposal. It looks like a shoo-in.

The seven-story, 90-foot condo building wouldn't be the tallest in the borough; that distinction belongs to the new county Justice Center, at 125 feet. But the condo project, which is being developed by Eli Kahn and Jack Loew, could do much more to reshape the historic county seat into a new kind of urban hybrid.

Kahn, who graduated from West Chester University and never left town, sees the units going "to presidents of companies, or folks of that socioeconomic type." These are people, he explains, "who are interested in living in a walkable neighborhood with some of the qualities of a big city, but don't want to have to move to Philadelphia or the Main Line." Because of its access to the university's performing arts center, West Chester can mix big-city sophistication with small-town ease.

For years, West Chester, roughly the area of Center City, has been seen as a charming place to visit. Its downtown streets thrum with people, restaurants, and specialty shops devoted to gourmet chocolates and rare olive oils. There's even a new downtown hotel. But the idea of downtown itself being a desirable place for people to live? That's something new.

Only a dozen years ago, the county commissioners were prepared to level the very block of Gay Street where the condos are proposed to construct a new justice center. Known as the "First Block" because it is where West Chester had its beginnings in 1762, it had been virtually lifeless for 30 years - ever since Mostellers, Chester County's biggest retailer, and five buildings were subsumed into the county's old courthouse complex. With their doors sealed, the buildings turned their backs on the street, creating a gap in the downtown's retail continuity that still exists today.

Eventually, after intense push-back from community preservationists, the courts shifted the project to Market Street.

Enter Kahn and Loew, who scooped up the county buildings. Ironically, their plan now calls for demolishing the same six historic structures that the borough fought so hard to keep in 2001.

But unlike a government building that keeps banker's hours, this project stands a good chance of enhancing the downtown's vitality. Besides its 24 condos, the design by Bernardon Haber Holloway calls for ground-floor retail, two floors of offices and underground parking, accessed from a rear alley. (Hear that, Philadelphia?) While the borough's preservation board agonized over the loss of the historic structures, it ultimately concluded that they had been stripped of their character during the county's tenure. It approved demolition in a unanimous vote.

The design for the new condos is pretty much what you would expect in a historic town. But while the architecture is fairly rote - you've seen this bland, traditionally inspired building dozens of times - it at least has the advantage of being deferential to its surroundings.

The architects broke down the mass with setbacks and shifts in materials. If the developers use quality materials, and the architects focus on the details, it can be made worthy of West Chester.

That's important because that justice center on Market Street, also designed by Bernardon, didn't turn out so well. Despite the obligatory courthouse references - Classical columns? Check. Pediment? Check. - the building doesn't even have a base. It calls to mind a bloated whale that somehow beached itself on the sidewalk, and is quite a comedown from the gracious, Greek Revival courthouse that Thomas U. Walter designed around the corner in 1847.

West Chester's growth and housing values have outperformed many small towns in the region, including Swarthmore, another college town, as well as Media and Haddonfield, which have recently lost population. West Chester owes much of its economic success to the dual good fortune of being home to a courthouse and a university, but it's more than that. When the world was ready to come to its door, West Chester still had a distinctive downtown and walkable streets that people wanted.


Contact Inga Saffron at 215-854-2213, or on Twitter @ingasaffron.

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