O'Neill Properties Group L.P. is expected to announce today the signing of Wegmans Food Markets Inc. as its first major retail tenant to anchor the $420 million Worthington Urban Town Center Project in Malvern.

The signing of Wegmans, a high-end supermarket known for being extra choosy when it comes to adding locations, is a major coup for O'Neill, of King of Prussia, and its host, East Whiteland Township.

"We had the right site and the right township," Brian O'Neill, founder and chairman of O'Neill Properties Group, said yesterday.

O'Neill described his financing of the 1.6-million-square-foot mixed-use development on the site of the former Worthington Steel Plant as the "largest investment ever made by an individual in the state." The entire center is being built on recycled ground that at one time was a contaminated brownfield site.

"Therefore, I am not taking any chances," he said. "I wanted the number-one category crusher in every retail type, and Wegmans is by far the biggest and best supermarket operator in the country."

The new location will be a flagship store for Wegmans and, at 145,000 square feet, will be triple the size of a typical supermarket, company spokeswoman Jo Natale said.

O'Neill said the 97-acre Worthington Steel project will also include a 3,200-seat movie theater, to be operated by Movie Co., and a Borders.

He said that Wegmans and the center would debut in early 2009. Demolition is under way, and groundbreaking is set for the spring.

O'Neill, 47, described the development as "a brand new city from the ground up," with 753 multifamily residences, 745,000 square feet of retail, restaurant and entertainment space, and 185,000 square feet of office space. It will also feature more than 15 restaurants and 60 shops.

"Everything that is the best of its class will be present at this center," O'Neill said. "You'll have the best grocery experience, best apparel, best restaurant, and best movie experience - it will all happen here."

The project's design incorporates New Urbanism principles that other municipalities, such as Collingswood, are embracing. The concept is to provide a mix of retail, office and residential uses to a typically underserved area to create a traditional town feel and look with a town square that focuses on a return to Main Street America.

It includes a connection to and extension of the Chester County Rails-to-Trails bike path, and the reopening of Little Valley Creek, which is currently enclosed in a pipe under asphalt paving.

O'Neill said that once the development was complete, it was expected to attract an estimated seven million visitors a year.

"People are basically sick of the mall," he said. "They want this sort of urban street energy level. This will be a Fifth Avenue Main Street as opposed to a Mayberry RFD."

O'Neill said he expected the 750 residential units to sell out in less than two years.

"With the escalation of pricing in Chester County, teachers, police officers, and young professionals and others have been priced out of the market," he said. "We're giving them the first bite at suburban living at a price they can afford. There is tremendous pent-up, unmet demand out there."

Some of the region's biggest names in real estate - Brandywine Realty Trust, Liberty Property Trust, and Trammell Crow Co. - all have substantial properties in the township.

"East Whiteland Township is home to one of the premier business districts in the Northeast United States," Township Supervisor Joe Corrigan said. "The fact that Wegmans is coming is a wonderful asset for the community, not only for the folks who live here, but also for those who work here.

"It gives them the opportunity to go to Wegmans on their way home," he said.

The township Board of Supervisors decided last year to allow for the zoning for the Worthington project and gave approval to the master plan.

Corrigan said a Wegmans would be an additional asset to the adjacent Great Valley Corporate Center, which has more than 20,000 employees. The headquarters of Vanguard Group, the trillion-dollar money-management firm, are next to the Worthington site.

O'Neill Properties negotiated the purchase of the Worthington Steel Plant for $13 million in 2002 and completed four other acquisitions to enlarge the site to nearly 100 acres.

In luring Wegmans to open shop, the township achieved what many others had not.

The Wegmans chain is among the most sought-after supermarkets in the country. Last year, the company received 4,896 requests from 45 states to open stores in various communities across America. It turned down almost 95 percent of them, according to the company.

In 2006, Wegmans opened stores in Cherry Hill and Mount Laurel in New Jersey, and in Warrington, Bucks County.

This year, it plans to open only one store in the country - in Harrisburg.

Michael Beam, a consultant who worked for Wegmans from 2001 to 2005 and helped to develop its full-service, fine-dining restaurant concept, attributed the company's success to its "singular focus" on "the customer and their soul-guiding principle - which is making great meals easy." Beam is now managing director of HVS Restaurant & Advisory Services, a national consulting company.

Development Breakdown

The Worthington project will include:

745,000 square feet of retail, restaurant and entertainment space.

753 multifamily homes.

185,000 square feet of office space.

A connection to, and extension of, the Chester County Rails-to-Trails bike path.

Reopening of Little Valley Creek, which is enclosed in a pipe under asphalt paving.

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Contact staff writer Suzette Parmley at 215-854-2594 or sparmley@phillynews.com.