Delco's Lansdowne hopes influx of artists and musicians transforms it into an artsy burg

Lansdowne is working to transform itself into an artists’ village of sorts. A big step is the opening of Utility Works, a coworking space on Baltimore Avenue. Painter Lawrence Smalley works in this space.

Kyle Robinson lugs three canvases in his arms and eyes some open space on a nearby wall. He hangs up his abstract paintings, giving a futuristic splash to his nearby Kay-Way Juice Bar and Plant-Based Cafe, where he sells homemade juices and smoothies.

Robinson, 33, is one of several artists in the area who’s now set up in Lansdowne’s new coworking space for artists, called Utility Works.

Owned by the Lansdowne Economic Development Corp. (LEDC), Utility Works is so named because it used to be a base for the Delaware County Electric Co., a PECO precursor. The project shows how LEDC is pushing an unusual growth plan for the 1.2-square-mile borough, imagining Lansdowne as a kind of left bank community for painters, musicians, and art aficionados.

Camera icon SYDNEY SHAW
Before the grand opening of Utility Works, artist and Kay-Way Juice owner Kyle Robinson describes what his space will look like.

And why not? Lansdowne’s downtown has everything an artist could ask for: restaurants with vegan options, outdoor spaces to lounge and listen to local musicians, a folk club, an old-school vinyl record store, a 75+ member symphony orchestra and even an exotic musical instrument shop.

Lansdowne, which has mostly single-family residences that average  80-plus years old, has no wage tax, big industry, or large commercial presence. Its real estate taxes are relatively steep and its schools do not rank high in test scores.

But it does have a prime location. The Delaware County borough, with about 10,600 people, sits about six miles from Media to the west and six miles from Center City Philadelphia to the east. Its SEPTA train station is only four stops — and 12 minutes — from University City on the Media/Elwyn line.

Lansdowne is also LGBTQ-friendly, say several residents. The town established an LGBTQ-friendly anti-discrimination ordinance in 2006 and has the second-highest percentage of LGBTQ couples after New Hope in Pennsylvania, according to 2013 data from UCLA’s Williams Institute on Sexual Orientation and Gender Identity Law and Public Policy.

New residents such as Ramsey Beyer, 33, and Michael Cantor, 32, have found affordable real estate in Lansdowne. Beyer and Cantor moved from West Philadelphia and now own a home with a dog and some chickens.

“We wanted to buy a house, and West Philadelphia was getting a little unaffordable,” Beyer said.

They agreed that more millennials will likely follow if prices in West Philadelphia continue to rise.

As for Lansdowne, its tax assessments — the assessed value of  property — rose this year for the first time since 2007, said Deborah Brodeur, the LEDC’s executive director. She credits the 1.5 percent increase in part to a new Walgreen’s that opened in a long-abandoned building in the borough’s downtown.

But Lansdowne still has cheap property ready for renovation, said Brodeur, who speaks from first-hand experience. She renovated a “fixer-upper” herself and is moving in with her husband.

In the third quarter of 2017, 79 houses sold with a median price of $143,000, compared with 76 houses that sold for a median price of $125,000 during that same period in 2016.

Camera icon ED HILLE / File Photo
Matt Schultz, executive director Historic Lansdowne Theater Corp., is backstage with the original 1927 marquee letters for the theater in this 2016 photo. He expects the venue to open in two years.

Property values could continue to rise if projects such as Utility Works occupy vacant space  downtown, especially when the nearby Lansdowne Theater is finally renovated. Matt Schultz, executive director of the Historic Lansdowne Theater Corp., expects the venue to open in about two years.

“We need at least a year for construction,” Schultz said.

The  rundown 1920s-era movie house closed in 1987 and was bought by the nonprofit in 2007. The theater plans to present live music and could attract as many as 1,300 people downtown on a good night.

Utility Works opened April 25 and now offers artists hot desks, conference rooms, and private and open studios for a monthly membership fee. It even has a weekly revolving retail space for members to rent and sell their art to passersby.

Camera icon CHARLES FOX / Staff Photographer
The hot desk area of the new Lansdowne coworking space, Utility Works.

The town hasn’t hit hard with a marketing campaign yet. But in its first month with walk-ins, 12 of the 32 individual studios were rented, along with one of the 15 hot desk memberships.

The base membership for hot desks, which rotate among different users, and other perks is $100 a month, while private 150-square-foot studios go for $275.

“As an artist, it’s often an isolated experience,” said Maura C. Williams, an occupational therapist and photographer renting an open studio. “I’m looking forward to being around other artists, so that we can talk with one another, problem-solve, inspire each other, and share resources.”

Williams has lived in the area for about 30 years and has seen artists blossom lately thanks, in part, to art festivals, music clubs, and supportive local restaurants.

One big draw is the the farmers market, which, beginning Memorial Day weekend, will be open every Saturday through the summer. It attracts more than 500 people each week.

George Blum, 51, discovered the market in 2010 and immediately fell in love with the town. “Just meeting people and talking to them the first day, I saw the sense of community.” Now he lives in Lansdowne and helps out weekly at the farmer’s market.

Camera icon SYDNEY SHAW
George Blum started shopping at the Lansdowne Farmers Market in 2010. Starting this weekend, it’s open every Saturday.

Grammy-nominated musicians such as Orlando Haddad and Patricia King of the Philadelphia-based bossa nova jazz band Minas also call Lansdowne home. Haddad and King lived in Brazil before settling in Pennsylvania in 1984 to raise their then newborn daughter. They have performed in Lincoln Center in New York, Kennedy Center in Washington, and the Kimmel and Mann Centers in Philadelphia.

The couple needed to live near a city for work but chose the Philadelphia area for their daughter, because “I didn’t want to force her to grow up in New York City,” Haddad said.

Jamie’s House of Music is one of several venues that Haddad says supports local musicians, and the Lansdowne Theater could be a hot spot when the renovation is complete.

The theater is one of several Lansdowne landmarks that make the town feel special, said Robinson, who grew up in Delaware County and lives in the borough with his wife, Dana.

“What stands out is the uniqueness and the older feel of the town — things like the movie theater with the marquee in the front,” he said. “And you have the people that have been here for a while that have equity in the town so there’s not a frequent turnover of different people. And it’s just a mild-mannered town.”

And that sense of community has been welcoming to millennials, Robinson said.

“I have a couple friends that live in Lansdowne and started families — friends that grew up with me and went to school with me that lived in Lansdowne, stayed in Lansdowne, and are growing families in Lansdowne,” he said. “The younger crowd is definitely coming to Lansdowne.”

Camera icon CHARLES FOX / Staff Photographer
In addition to the renovation of the borough’s theater, attractions in Lansdowne include restaurants and juice bars, a vinyl record store, and a farmers market.