Sunday, May 23, 2010

King of Prussia plans expansive improvement zone

"Upper Merion officials and commercial property owners are close to creating a business improvement district that would cover 1,900 acres in the King of Prussia area, instituting a special tax aimed at raising $1.1 million to fund the effort.

A hearing is scheduled for May 27 before the township’s supervisors regarding an ordinance that would establish the King of Prussia Special Improvement District. Other property owner-funded districts have been formed throughout the region and considered a success including in Center City, along City Avenue and in West Chester.

These special districts can do everything from picking up trash and directing tourists to creating signage, improving lighting and launching advertising campaigns or — as is a key goal for the proposed King of Prussia district — influencing land-use decisions to create more compelling destinations.

“We think it’s a good idea for the area,” said Bob Hart, general manager at the King of Prussia Mall. Kravco Simon, as the owner of the mall, is the largest commercial property affected by the district and tax. The mall totals 3 million square feet of retail space.

“The King of Prussia area is an outstanding location and we think working together with other private enterprises will improve the area,” Hart said.

The business community has taken the lead in establishing the improvement district and has the support of Upper Merion’s planning commission as well as its community and economic development group. The supervisors will review it next week.

“I think for an office property owner, if you have a Class A property and want to create a Class A environment, it would seem to be reasonable,” said Bruce Hartlein, vice president of leasing and development at Liberty Property Trust, of the improvement district. Liberty Property owns 1.5 million square feet in the King of Prussia area and of that, four buildings totaling 340,000 square feet would directly be affected by the improvement district.

The area is somewhat of an “anomaly,” said Rob Loeper, township manager. King of Prussia has 25,000 residents but about 50,000 people each day come to work in the area.

“That’s pretty significant,” Loeper said about the business community and commercial property owners. “That has been an entity that is out there and a big part of the community but to some extent, disenfranchised. This brings them to the table as a voice.”

The improvement district is also being viewed as an attempt to keep King of Prussia competitive. Loeper has been told by some business and property owners that King of Prussia has “lost some of its luster and that this area isn’t coming back as fast as it should. For example, they are having a harder time pitching King of Prussia.”

King of Prussia has long been defined by its robust commercial activity, network of major roadways and large swaths of concrete. While a destination, it lacks a defined gateway or cohesiveness and green areas. The improvement district would set out to address a series of issues that would enhance the area. Some of those issues include: Modernizing land use and zoning to support existing businesses and redevelopment opportunities; make physical improvements, such as streetscaping; addressing transportation issues; marketing it as a destination; and greening it up.

“The overall appearance is a major one,” said Larry Houston with Carter van Dyke Associates, a landscape architectural firm that has helped Upper Merion devise its plan.

Much of King of Prussia was developed 20 or more years ago and in some respects it is out of step with issues of today. For example, land-use issues would try to encourage more mixed-use development, where residential, retail and commercial are combined. Transportation relies too much on vehicles rather than public transit or bicycling or even walking.

Improvement districts aim to induce change over time, Houston said. They are typically operated in five-year increments and renewed at the end of the term.

“It’s amazing what cooperation can do,” he said. “They are doing things that the individual owner can’t do.”

The district would include an area roughly bounded by Dekalb Pike, North Gulph Road, South Henderson Road, and the King of Prussia Business Park area along First Avenue, Moore Road and Allendale Road. It also includes a portion of South Gulph Road near Dekalb Pike.

The district, commonly referred to as a BID, or business improvement district, would tax commercial property owners a special property assessment each year for the next five years to fund the improvement district and its activities. Those who own residential and industrial properties within the catchment area are excluded from paying the tax. The tax would be 0.00089 mils. The first year budget is estimated to be $1.1 million."

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