When Peggy Wilson first heard talk of a Drexeline Town Center, she was hopeful.
Then came the details. The center is set to include an expanded ShopRite, an apartment building, a new Wawa, a medical complex, and a large building of self-storage units.
“Maybe don’t call it a town center and get our hopes up,” Wilson, 65, said with a laugh.
Wilson is one of many Drexel Hill residents who have taken to packed zoning meetings and Facebook forums to voice their concerns about the Drexeline Town Center, a $100 million project that would replace the dated Drexeline Shopping Center on 17 acres near busy Route 1 and State Road.
One of their gripes: The center won’t look like the Shops at Ellis Preserve, which opened in 2016 in Newtown Square. Or the King of Prussia Town Center, which has become a bustling destination near the mall. Or Collegeville’s Providence Town Center, which next year will celebrate its 10-year anniversary.
Those are the real town centers, they say, and this Delaware County neighborhood deserves this type of restaurant- and shop-filled center.
“It would be nice if it made you drive by and say, ‘Wow that’s something special,’ ” said Don Fields, 47, a Drexel Hill resident who has run for Upper Darby Township Council in the past and been outspoken about the proposal. “When you go by Ellis Preserve, you want to drive in. … A lot of people feel like this development isn’t aiming high enough.”
“There are different types of town centers,” said Upper Darby Mayor Tom Micozzie, noting they did not want to close ShopRite or the Anthony’s Ristorante and Banquet Center on the property. “We didn’t have an alternative.”
Over the last decade, faux main streets have exploded across the region — particularly in suburbs that don’t have the authentic-seeming downtown strips of West Chester, Media, and Phoenixville. Nationally, however, this trend isn’t new.
“It’s been around for, oh, 9,000 years,”said Christopher B. Leinberger, a developer who grew up in Drexel Hill and is now chairman of the Center for Real Estate and Urban Analysis at George Washington University. “This is the way we were building cities until around the 1950’s.”
In the late 20th century, there was “pent-up demand” for driveable suburban development, Leinberger said, but then the pendulum swung back. More and more 21st-century suburbanites want walkable urban communities where they can live, work, and play without leaving their local social circle.
“Philadelphia is behind the trend on this,” Leinberger said. “This is what the market is demanding.”
“The old retail model of just an old suburban shopping center — that doesn’t work anymore,” said developer P. David Bramble, of MCB Real Estate LLC, which bought the Drexeline site in 2016. “These need to be places where people can have experiences.”
As for opposition to the Drexeline proposal, Bramble and Micozzie said developers met with local officials early on to discuss what would best serve residents. Medical centers are especially important for the area’s aging residents, Micozzie said, and the apartments would attract millennials, who would be a brief trolley ride into the city.
Bramble called Drexeline “damaged,” “tired,” and “outdated.” It was clear residents wanted something new. The developers’ challenge, he said, then became “delivering something people intend to use.”
Seven miles away, another Delaware County town has done just that.
Newtown Square boasts Ellis Preserve, a 218-acre center with apartments, corporate offices, a gym, a hotel, and a retail area. Near the intersection of Route 252 and West Chester Pike, people can walk from Mod Pizza to Chipotle Mexican Grill to the brunch spot First Watch to the more upscale Firepoint Grille, and stop at shops along the way.
“The community of Newtown takes full advantage,” said Steve Spaeder of Equus Capital Partners, which developed the Preserve. “We’ve delivered something here the community really enjoys.”
But Bramble said the frameworks of other centers would not necessarily have worked at the Drexeline site, which sits on Darby Creek and is not entirely flat.
“What works in King of Prussia won’t work in Upper Darby,” Bramble said. “Site constraints are everything.”
Upper Darby Township Democratic councilwoman Barbarann Keffer said she believes more could have been done despite those constraints.
“I don’t know of any town centers that have storage units,” Keffer said “That doesn’t draw people here. There would never be a storage facility in Radnor or Newtown Square.”
“Do I like the six-story office building [with the storage units]? No,” Micozzie said. “But there’s nothing else that could’ve gone there” on a slope near Darby Creek.
Wilson frequents the Drexeline shopping center — to visit her eye doctor, pick up odds and ends at the Ace Hardware, and buy groceries at ShopRite. When she pushes her cart through the cramped aisles, she thinks about how the complex needs sprucing up.
“It’s pretty run-down looking at this point,” Wilson said. “I don’t think we’re resistant to the idea of it being upgraded.”
One recent afternoon, the ShopRite parking lot was packed. But the adjacent strip of storefronts — a part of the complex once home to shoe, uniform, and electronics shops — was desolate. Even signage for the shopping center was fading.
Pat Burns, the owner of the Drexeline ShopRite, said his store, which has existed under various names since 1980, is struggling to keep up with competition.
If the proposal is approved, ShopRite would expand to become a 75,000-square-foot “interactive” store with a new pharmacy, a family restaurant, a full-time nutritionist on site, and space for cooking classes, he said.
“It’s great for us,” Burns said. “It’s great for the community.”
Roberta Snow, 63, who lives less than a mile from the center, agrees.
“The idea that someone has proposed something that would deal with the whole parcel is a good idea,” Snow said. “It’s not getting any younger.”
The zoning board is expected to rule on the center’s application later this month. Bramble said he hopes to begin construction within a year.