Once a controversial insane asylum, Chester County's Embreeville now the center of an open-space feud

Pictured in 2015, the former Embreeville state hospital site has continued to deteriorate in West Bradford Township, Chester County. According to the developer who purchased the land on which the complex sits, the psychiatric facility suffers from asbestos, mold, and possible soil contamination.

Developers and community residents are hardly ever on the same page when it comes to large-scale real estate projects.

Which makes at least part of what is happening in West Bradford Township a tiny miracle: Residents, officials, and a developer agree that the deteriorating, shuttered Embreeville State School and Hospital complex should be demolished.

Their rare harmony, however, falls apart when it comes to deciding what should happen next to the controversial psychiatric site in this affluent Chester County town. For years, developers, residents, and officials have squabbled and litigated what should replace the hospital and the land that encircles it. Finally, on Wednesday, a key zoning decision may offer some clarity.

If Embreeville Redevelopment LP — the group that purchased the property in 2013 — has its way, the 225-acre property would be transformed into a sprawling residential and commercial complex, erasing the crumbling 16-building hospital site, plus dozens of acres of open land, to build 1,100 residential units and more than 50,000 square feet of commercial space.

But many West Bradford area residents want those largely untouched fields and forests to stay just as they are. Others, meanwhile, acknowledge that development is eventually likely and are arguing now — before it’s too late, they say — for a more modest project, such as a retirement home, that would less severely affect roads and schools.

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Demolishing and cleaning up the Embreeville hospital site is estimated to cost more than $13 million.

The fierce debate over the fate of this West Bradford swath — soon entering its fifth year — is the latest example of the land-use feuds in the Pennsylvania suburbs. As with the fight to preserve Crebilly Farm in Westtown Township, or the argument over the Archdiocese of Philadelphia land in Delaware County, the conflict brewing in West Bradford underscores the tensions that townships face as they plot future growth.

Yet the West Bradford property is different from other suburban fights, mostly because it consists of more than just untouched land. Beyond determining the fate of hills and woodlands, a decision on the Embreeville site requires figuring out what to do with a 900,000-square-foot former psychiatric facility — one not only steeped in a dubious past, but also an expensive future. The estimated bill for demolishing the buildings and removing the asbestos, mold, and possible soil contamination on the site is more than $13 million.

On Wednesday, the West Bradford Zoning Hearing Board will decide on the developer’s challenges to the zoning ordinance, thereby green-lighting or derailing Embreeville Redevelopment’s path toward ultimate approval. Residents and the developer are expected to appeal if it does not go their way.

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A portion of the open space that surrounds the Embreeville site. While the former state hospital stands at nearly 900,000 square feet, it is encircled by nearly 175 acres of open space.

“We cannot expect an automatic victory to come from whatever decision is made,” said State Sen. Andy Dinniman (D., Chester). “My experience in Chester County is that our citizens are bright, they know to organize, and they understand the law very well. So the developer will not be in” for an easy time.

A ‘model hospital’ gone awry

The psychiatric facility and its surrounding land had been the subject of attention even before Embreeville Redevelopment purchased it from the state for slightly more than $1 million in 2013.

Starting in 1798 as land for the Chester County poorhouse — Pennsylvania’s first — the rolling West Bradford hills eventually became home to the county’s insane asylum, too. In the early 1900s, the state took control, forming a network of public hospitals serving Pennsylvania’s mentally ill.

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Throughout the years, curious explorers have documented what the Embreeville state hospital left behind. This elephant, its use unclear, was photographed in 2015.

In many ways, the Embreeville psychiatric hospital was initially a standout, according to news accounts. Lauded in the mid-1900s for its “open hospital” policy —  meaning that wards were unlocked and patients could travel in and out at will — the Embreeville complex was known for its low return rates, efficient discharges, and “model hospital” designation. In 1968, a reporter for the Gettysburg (Pa.) Times wrote that “the image of the mental hospital as a dark and festering dungeon where mentally ill struggle to merely survive … is being offset by hospitals like Embryville.”

By the 1990s, however, the situation at Embreeville had shifted. More than a decade earlier, the state psychiatric hospital had closed, and a smaller state-run institution for the intellectually disabled had replaced it. There, abuse allegations began to surface — reports of rape, drugging, and assault. In 1994, a year after the U.S. Department of Justice sued Pennsylvania over the allegations, a settlement came: Embreeville would close.

The Embreeville center was not the lone target of allegations — or closure. In the late 20th century, public mental institutions were shuttered nationwide amid a deinstitutionalization wave. From a mental-health standpoint, the policy meant moving patients out of state “insane asylums” and into centers where they could get better care.

For savvy real estate developers, it meant available — albeit complicated — land.

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An auditorium in one of the 16 buildings making up the former Embreeville treatment complex.

‘In the driver’s seat’

Even before Embreeville closed in the 1990s, officials were exploring what to do with the complex and its surrounding acres. Fearing the space could become a “dumping ground” for unwanted uses, said Jack M. Hines Jr., township manager at the time, officials looked at a variety of ideas: a park, community college, or fire training center, for example. One even suggested offering the facility to production companies for horror-film sets.

Amid the planning and evaluating, the Embreeville facilities deteriorated. Outside, weeds and tall grass sprouted. Inside, paint chipped, windows caved, and asbestos coated the floors.

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Inside the old Embreeville facility, even desks were left behind.

A few yards away, though, pristine open space — fields, forests, creeks, and wetlands — flourished, supporting recreational fields and an Indian gravesite memorial.

State and local politicians knew even a decade ago that development pressure was mounting. Situated in the center of Chester County, West Bradford had already experienced a shift away from its rural landscape and toward a residential one. Between 1990 and 2005, the township’s population spiked 12 percent, nearing 12,000 residents. Much of Chester County was experiencing the same.

So Dinniman, with Republican Chris Ross, a state representative at the time, arranged for the township to buy the 200-plus acres from the state for less than $1 million.

“We knew there were controversies around other pieces of state property, such as the Haverford State Hospital, so we said, ‘Let’s avoid all that; let’s get the land to the township at a very reasonable price,’ ” Dinniman said. “Then, the township could develop a portion if they thought a portion should be developed, but the township was going to be in the driver’s seat.”

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Since the complex was shuttered, the hospital site has gradually deteriorated. Today, it is not uncommon to find broken windows and doors.

Ultimately, however, West Bradford Township backed out, citing a declining real estate market, high cleanup costs, and an unfair taxpayer burden. In 2012, the township wrote that the acres had been appraised, and its value “determined to be negative $6.87 million.”

The lone bidder

A few months later, the state moved to sell the property — zoned as institutional and mixed use — in a public bid. The lone bidder: developer Ken Hellings, who, in partnership with Conrad Muhly, the CEO of Terra, an environmental remediation company, and a member of the Brandywine Valley SPCA’s board of directors, formed Embreeville Redevelopment LP with a third unidentified backer.

Hellings declined to comment. His lawyer could not be reached. But according to Hellings’ most recent public plans, the developer hopes to build multifamily units, single-family homes, and commercial space on the site. In a 2013 memo, Hellings’ team said the development would be “compact” to “maximize open space and minimize land disturbance.” It also planned for “active recreation” and a dog park.

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The most recent plan from Embreeville Redevelopment for the 225 acres in West Bradford, according to the township’s website. The developer’s plan includes a mix of single-family homes, multifamily units, commercial space, and open land.

Hellings has said in the past that the scale of his design is necessary to account for the demolition and cleanup costs. To make his plan work, Hellings originally asked the township to approve an amendment to the zoning ordinance allowing for residential use on the site. Since, however, Hellings has challenged West Bradford’s entire zoning ordinance as invalid, alleging that it does not meet the township’s obligation to provide enough multifamily housing.

If West Bradford’s zoning board rules for Hellings, that does not automatically give him the go-ahead, said Justin Yaich, West Bradford’s township manager. “He would still have to go through the planning process, the permitting process — there are still a lot of things that go into play … than a simple vote of the board.”

Even so, dozens of residents are expected to attend Wednesday’s decision.

“We’re saying, why would we put high-destiny building in the furthest corner of the township … away from grocery stores and public transportation?” said township resident Eric Bennett, 38. “1,200 units easily equates to 2,500 extra cars. Roads already have traffic congestion problems. … And the builder’s profits come at the expense of residents who will have to pay for the infrastructure to support it.”

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Paint chips and other contaminants coat the floor of one of the Embreeville buildings.