Town By Town: Downingtown's slow but growing revival
One in a continuing series spotlighting real estate markets in the region's communities.
If you're keeping a list of suburban boroughs on the road to revival, put a check next to Downingtown. Not that this community of Victorian-era houses near the end of the SEPTA Paoli/Thorndale line is anywhere near finished with revitalization.
Continue to focus on the railroad as Downingtown's real estate story unfolds, because, as in many other emerging boroughs, trains play an oversized role.
Keep in mind, too, what developer Eli Kahn, who has been at work there for 25 years, says: "This isn't the city, so nothing happens overly fast, [even though borough officials] are some of the best people in Chester County to work with."
Terry Brett, whose Kimberton Whole Foods market has already expanded once in its nine years on Pennsylvania Avenue near Kerr Park, says most of his customers still come from the townships surrounding Downingtown, not the borough itself.
"Things are starting to improve," Brett says, citing a Thursday farmers' market he sponsors that began in April and that will shift this week from Kerr Park to the Masonic Hall for the winter, although on fewer days.
Another sign Brett sees is the opening of more restaurants on Lancaster Avenue - most recently a Molly Maguire's with a bar all the way from County Waterford in Ireland. But he adds that he doesn't sense the borough has yet developed a strong separate identity.
One sign Brett didn't mention was the resurrection of the Downingtown Main Street Association in 2011. It had disbanded in 2005, after a 12-year run that improved the Lancaster Avenue streetscape and created events such as the annual Christmas parade.
"Our [sales] numbers here are increasingly good, and we hope that the borough is becoming increasingly more upscale," says Brett, who is set to open his fifth store, on King Street in Malvern.
Weichert Realtors' Susan Murphy sees increasing evidence of the rise in Downingtown's fortunes, fueled, she says, by younger, primarily first-time buyers shut out of the West Chester Borough market.
"At an average price of $180,000, the older Victorian-style singles and rowhouses offer affordable living to first-time buyers," says Murphy, based in West Chester, who lives close enough to the borough to walk to town along the Struble Trail.
The current range, she says, is from the low $100,000s to about $400,000 - the latter mostly singles, "if they are in really good shape." Newer townhouses start about $200,000, Murphy says.
Most homes, however, are selling from about $150,000 to $250,000, slightly lower than the $250,000-to-$350,000 sweet spot agents in most of the region's communities have reported lately.
As with many boroughs of Downingtown's size, the inventory is just not there, says David Ash of Keller Williams Real Estate in Exton, about five miles away on Route 30.
"If the houses are priced correctly, they can sell very quickly after they are listed," says Ash, adding that sales in Downingtown have been steady since the beginning of the year, and that they didn't slow as much as other areas in recent months.
Houses there tend to be smaller, he says, a reflection of what was built to accommodate families of workers employed by the paper mills and other factories that once constituted the borough's industrial base.
As with communities such as Media, "a lot of [people] have lived here a long time and so do their children, so there is little motivation to move and sell," Murphy observes.
Still, the demand for houses that are as much as $200,000 below what is selling these days in trendy West Chester translates into 92 pending sales at the moment and an average 50 days on the market, she says.
Although there are ideas in the works for new and higher-density construction - the controversial Kardon Park redevelopment project of former industrial land for residential and commercial uses - there aren't a lot of houses going up in Downingtown.
"Having 325 units in Kardon Park would be of enormous benefit," Kahn says.
Developer David Della Porta, completing his Eastside Flats rental project along East King Street in Malvern, says smaller towns need to understand what density can provide to their economic health.
"Malvern and Downingtown aren't West Chester," Della Porta says. "West Chester is the county seat and is home to the largest university in the state system," so the ingredients for a revival are different.
What Downingtown has is the train (Malvern, too), and that's what sets it apart from West Chester, Ash says, noting that "people who live in West Bradford can drive in and get to work in Center City - if they can park."
That will get better, Kahn says, citing the $30 million River Station project approved by the Pennsylvania Department of Transportation at the 76-acre site of the former Sonoco Paper Products Co. at Route 322 and Boot Road.
River Station will include a new Amtrak/SEPTA train station, 250,000 square feet of retail and office space, 180 townhouses, 40,000 square feet of "live-over-work" space, and 15 acres of artificial wetlands for recreational use, according to architects Kimmel Bogrette, working with the Percheron Group on the project.
Says Kahn: "The best years of Downingtown are in front of it."
By the numbers
Population: 7,891 (2010)
Median income: $53,468 (2009)
Area: 2.2 square miles
Homes for sale: 37
Settlements in the last three months: 25
Median days on market: 40
Median price (all homes): $185,500
Housing stock: Primarily single-family houses, clustered near the business district and along the borders of adjacent townships.
School district: Downingtown Area
Sources: U.S. Census Bureau; City-Data.com; Zillow.com; BHHS Fox & Roach HomExpert; Downingtown Comprehensive Plan 2012