Updated: Wednesday, June 28, 2017, 7:08 PM
West Chester’s 20,000 residents soon could get a bit of the open-space action occurring elsewhere in Chester County, although theirs would be of the concrete variety and right in the heart of town.
Three years after developer Eli Kahn first proposed a patch of undeveloped space at the corner of Church and Gay Streets to accompany his retail and office space development — an effort to sweeten the pot for borough officials and honor a deceased partner — he has resurrected the plan.
“When I first conceived it, I honestly thought it was the greatest plan I’d ever come up with,” he said. Other Kahn projects include the county government building at 313 W. Market St. and Eastside Flats, a retail and housing development along Malvern’s main street.
Most Borough Council members at the time did not agree. They did not exempt him from requirements to add parking in an area where parking spaces can be scarce, and the project stalled.
“We felt like, ‘We’ll step back and go away for a while and see how the political environment changes,’” Kahn said. “Patience pays in this business.”
Now the council, with some new members, is mostly in favor of the project at the former site of Mosteller’s Inc., once Chester County’s biggest retailer, and a courthouse complex. The borough traces its beginnings in 1762 to the corner, known as the “First Block.” But the borough’s renaissance has bypassed the land, which Kahn bought from the county in 2011.
In return for not building on valuable square footage at the corner, Kahn is again requesting an exemption from parking requirements, although he says he plans to lease 55 spaces elsewhere. He is also asking for exceptions to borough rules about setbacks and facade, and would need approval to build taller than 45 feet. He also said he wants council support for liquor licenses for one or two restaurants, which the mayor opposes.
Many cities and states offer incentives to developers who incorporate open space or public amenities in their plans. Kahn will go through West Chester’s conditional-use process.
Several years ago, the borough approved Kahn’s plans for a 90-foot-tall, 110,000-square-foot retail, office, and residential condominium building. But he said the plan did not make financial sense for him. After Jack Loew, his business partner of nearly three decades, died in January 2014 of brain cancer, Kahn came back with a different plan, one that included a public space in Loew’s memory.
“An office and retail building is great, but at the end of the day it’s just another building,” Kahn said.
He and partner Adam Loew, Jack Loew’s son, presented a preliminary illustration of the plan to the community last week that includes an open 10,000-square-foot area he called the “front door” of his building. That area would include patches of grass and shrubbery and fountains of the sort found at Dilworth Park at Philadelphia’s City Hall. The 45,000-square-foot, L-shaped buildings would be 60 feet tall. The first floor would be restaurants and shops. A lobby would connect two wings of office space above.
“When I first saw this plan,” said Donald Braceland, a council member, “I said to myself, ‘That’s it. That’s what West Chester needs.’”
When Kahn first presented his plan, more than 1,700 people signed a petition in favor of it, and letters of support came from state legislators and former mayors.
But Bill Scott, a council member on and off for about 10 years, laments Kahn’s plans to demolish several buildings on the property that date to the 1800s and that Scott contends are representative of the borough’s character. He fought to keep the county from knocking them down to build its Justice Center in the early 2000s. Kahn says he will demolish the buildings no matter which of his proposed plans the borough ultimately approves.
“The public very much appreciates it, likes it, because it’s been an ugly corner,” Scott said. “That project is excellent, it’s wonderful, it’s beautiful. The only problem with it is, it’s not West Chester.”
A few people in the audience at last week’s meeting agreed. One resident said the plan looked too modern to fit in and was disappointed it did not fit his idea of a plaza — a venue for people, musical performances, and the arts. Another resident said the plan looked like a business park, not a town center.
Mosteller’s closed in 1981, former county offices at the site sat vacant for years, and Malcolm Johnstone, executive director of the West Chester Business Improvement District, says development of the property is overdue.
“Right now,” he said, “our position is that something needs to happen at that corner.”