Tuesday, July 17, 2012

Phoenixville looks to develop former steel plant site

by Paul Jablow

"If you're flying over Phoenixville on a weekday, or perhaps glancing at a satellite map of it, the gash is instantly visible: 120-plus acres of unused land flanked by a village of stores, rowhouses and quiet streets.
Five years from now, business and community leaders hope, you will see something very different on the vacant land: apartments, specialty shops, offices and — perhaps most important — streets filled with pedestrians. Maybe even a minor-league baseball park.
The gash is the former site of the Phoenix Steel Co., which closed in 1976 and set off a decline that turned the borough in northern Chester County into what local developer Manny DeMutis calls "a ghost town. Parents were afraid to let their kids out on the street."
Recent developments such as a thriving string of restaurants, the refitting of the old Phoenix foundry as an interpretive center and convention facility, and an expanding art theater have encouraged local leaders to see a real renaissance under way.
And with open land more expensive than ever to develop, Borough Manager Jean Krack sees a bright future for such smaller urban centers as Conshohocken, Coatesville, and Phoenixville, where workers broke ground on a new borough hall last month. The bonds to finance it have been rated AA, Krack says, the highest for a Phoenixville project "in years."
Property assessments in the borough of 16,000 residents have grown from about $587 million in 2002 to $736 million in 2010, an increase of more than 20 percent, much of that in the teeth of the current recession.

Part of that, Krack says, is luck, being in the right place to take advantage of healthy job growth in the area and developments such as the ongoing $100 million expansion of Phoenixville Hospital. "Location is a key to this," he says.
He adds, however, that the borough has followed several strategies open to any city. One has been to work intensively with potential developers to get them answers as quickly as possible about what can and can't work within the borough's master plan and zoning code.
"All too often, developers get caught up in seeking a variance for this and a variance for that. We work on the difficult pieces first," Krack says.
The borough has also concentrated on two types of new development: restaurants to attract traffic from outside and upscale rental apartments rather than single homes or condominiums.
"It's an untapped market," Krack says. "With the flux in the job market, renting is safer."
But "there's still a blank canvas in the center of the community," says Barbara Cohen, manager of the Schuylkill Heritage Center. "We need a full-blown, colorful watercolor."
Cohen, a former executive director of the Phoenixville Area Chamber of Commerce, is encouraged by the first steel site project approved by the borough, a 350-unit rental apartment development to be built by the Philadelphia-based BPG Development Co. Groundbreaking is anticipated for next spring.
Company president Stephen M. Spaeder says the apartments are "the kind young professionals want to be in," near a walkable downtown and a reasonable commute to work.

"The strength is the proximity to so many jobs," Spaeder says. The borough is a short drive from employment centers such as Great Valley, King of Prussia, Phoenixville Hospital, and the area's pharmaceutical companies.

Many young people working there don't want to live in "the subdivision they grew up in," DeMutis says. Plus, "They have no interest in the 45-minute commute to work."

Spaeder and BPG vice president John Forde envision the development — strictly one- and two-bedroom units — as attracting young professionals and empty nesters. It will also add little burden to the Phoenixville Area School District. Out of more than 500 new residents, according to the company's fiscal impact summary, just 24 will be school-age children.

Its entrance will also feature a highly unusual landmark: the oldest known Ferris wheel in the country, fabricated at the Phoenix Steel Co. and installed in 1895 at an amusement park in Asbury Park, N.J. When the park closed, the wheel spent seven years in exile at a Biloxi, Miss., water park and was eventually purchased by the heritage center. The wheel won't be operational.

Cohen is eager to know what will go in the 100-plus remaining open acres of the steel site. The borough so far has approved plans for only a seven-acre project proposed by the DeMutis Group that would include apartments, stores and a 30,000-square-foot office building
To date, however, DeMutis has not arranged financing for his project and the rest of the site remains a question mark, although Krack says that a new road through the steel plant site, for which federal funds have already been approved, will make it more marketable.
David Gautreau, a borough councilman, says Phoenixville has also been in discussions with a minor-league baseball team — which he declined to identify — to come to the borough if funds can be raised for a new ballpark on the steel site.
Parking and traffic are already big issues in the borough. "If you come down here at night you'll see a wall of traffic and that sometimes discourages people," Gautreau says. "If you keep growing and growing, how do you maintain the traffic flow?"
Says Krack, "There's no doubt that parking and transportation are going to be the new priorities. … We don't have a parking garage. We're right at that tipping point of needing a garage. It's very difficult to find parking after 5 o'clock."
During rush hour, the borough already has traffic jams and Route 422, the main thoroughfare in the area is, in DeMutis' words, "a joke."
In recent years there has been talk of rail service through the borough to Great Valley and Paoli, but this has never materialized. The likely alternative, Krack says, is improved area bus service, which is, of course, easier to finance.
Business leaders, including Robert S. Hankin, who led a group that developed the old Phoenix Steel foundry building, view the glass as half-full. "If you're worried about parking," Hankin says, "it means people are coming to your town."

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