Saturday, February 25, 2012

Franklin Mint site OK’d for 1.2 M-square-foot mixed-use plan

by Natalie Kostelni

"After nearly seven years, the owners of the former Franklin Mint property here have finally received zoning approval for a scaled down project on a 170-acre property fronting Baltimore Pike.

Middletown council signed off on a mixed-use zoning district ordinance that will permit a development team to construct 1.2 million square feet of space on the former headquarters of a company known for its sale of commemorative plates, dolls, coins and other baubles. The ordinance will allow for 300,000 square feet of retail space, 120,000 square feet of office space and the remainder in an age-restricted community with 200 residential units.

The developers had initially proposed much grander projects. One was a 3 million-square-foot town center that stunned this Delaware County community. It sparked a series of revised plans that also met with opposition and spurred a watchdog group called “Save Middletown” to form to monitor progress of the project.

At one point, the developers floated a by-right plan. That meant the developers didn’t need to go through the local approval process because the land is zoned appropriately for a proposed use, called for 1.5 million square feet of office and industrial space. That also wasn’t embraced. In general, council and residents had concerns over density, traffic, stormwater management and setbacks.

Through a lot of work, a final version emerged that was more palpable.

“It’s not necessarily what I would have chosen, but it’s consistent with the community,” said Dr. John Laskas Jr., a former councilman who helped establish Save Middletown. “Some of the elements are attractive and useful and council reflected the consensus of the community.”

The project went through a public airing and council was willing to listen to the community’s concerns, which is one of the biggest achievements to come out of the long and sometimes contentious process, Laskas said. When the development was initially proposed, it seemed as though it would sail through the approval process without any public input.

“We provided people access to the information and what was happening,” Laskas said. “That public outrage gave [council] cover.”

After opposition mounted, a charrette and other meetings were held involving a range of stakeholders including members of the development team, local residents, SEPTA and PennDOT to try to work out a version that would be acceptable.

One finally was formed.

“I’m happy with where we got compared with what we started,” said Councilman Mark Kirchgasser about the zoning ordinance that paves the way for the project.

Lorraine Bradshaw, who also sits on the township council, was the one holdout to vote against the final version and zoning change. She had concerns about parts of the ordinance that addressed signage, parking and other issues.

“I think between the town center plan and the plan that they have come up with there is a lot more that could have been done to make it more pedestrian-friendly,” Bradshaw said.

The Franklin Mint site has been in a state of suspense since around 2004 when it ceased operations in Middletown and its owners started to sell its products online. The developers bought the land in June 2005 and then began floating development proposals. The development team is comprised of Wolfson Verrichia Group of Plymouth Meeting, the McKee Group of Springfield, Pennrose Properties of Philadelphia and Dewey Cos. of Wayne.

What part of the project will be completed first is unknown and a representative from the development team couldn’t be reached for comment.

In the meantime, a new $80 million SEPTA train station adjacent to the site is making headway. Phase one of three has been completed and the station is scheduled to be completed by next year. Referred to as the Wawa station, it will sit off Route 452 on land between the mint site and land referred to as the Granite and Strine parcels. It is the endpoint of a three-mile extension of the R-3 Media-Elwyn line. The station is independent of the redevelopment of the Franklin Mint property.
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