Downingtown Is on a Remarkable Growth Trajectory

About 15 miles west of the proper Main Line, Downingtown is experiencing unprecedented growth, albeit with some challenges.

Though Downingtown was incorporated in 1859, its history dates back more than a century earlier, when it was called Milltown. In the heyday of paper mills, its plant workers submerged concrete-filled drums to make a footbridge spanning the Brandywine River, trimming their 20-minute walk to work to just five.

Fast forward to the 10-foot-wide multimodal bridge that’s part of the Hankin Group’s massive River Station. In the works on both sides of the river, this transit-oriented, mixed-use development will serve a similar modern-day purpose. “We’re already walkable, but this project will make us more walkable—especially in the next three to five years,” says Alex Rakoff, president of the Downingtown Borough Council.

Commuter railway
Courtesy of Penndot

Downingtown is basically built out, so there won’t be any new land—only continuous redevelopment. With a current population that hovers at 10,000, the borough encompasses just 1,408 acres covering a little more than two miles.

Ground was broken in late 2021 on the former Sonoco Paper Company site, shuttered in 1995. The 14,200-square-foot development already has its first tenant, Twin Valley Coffee. When complete, it will feature two restaurants, 442 residential units, ample outdoor meeting and event space, and a web of walking paths—all on the Brandywine’s scenic banks. River Station’s first three buildings—consisting of retail space and 202 housing units—were completed this past summer. At press time, 60% of the latter were leased to residential tenants for an average monthly rent of $2,400.

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The Exton-based Hankin Group sees the new bridge as more than just a shortcut from one side of the river to the other. “It’s a connector, but with an even greater connection to a vast trail network, all tied together at our property,” says Neal Fisher, Hankin’s vice president of development. “River Station was designed for its interconnected use of residential and retail—and as a place to come together for events. The bridge plays a huge part in that.”

River Station is also less than a quarter mile from what will soon be Downingtown’s new commuter rail stop. Beginning in 2024, PennDOT should begin utility and infrastructure work for the station, which will replace the old one on West Lancaster Avenue. Actual construction is slated to start about a year later and take three years. “I’ve seen towns in Pennsylvania never try to change—and they’re paying for it,” says Phil Dague, Downingtown’s mayor.

But Dague remains vigilant in his efforts to reconcile the borough’s past with its future. “If I fell asleep for 100 years and woke up, I’d want to instantly know I was still in Downingtown,” he says. “But I’d also hope to see a vibrant, modern, thriving town for that time in history.”

Indeed, Downingtown is experiencing the sort of revitalization that puts it at a crossroads. “The environmental and historical importance of Downingtown is at a critical moment today,” says Adrian Martinez, a longtime resident and former member of the planning commission. “These huge changes could be visionary—or they couldn’t.”

“When you have a core main street, affordable housing, a Kimberton Whole Foods and a train station, you have small-town America. Downingtown has those core things.”
—Developer Eli Kahn

Downingtown intersection
Photo by Ed Williams

In the race to transform the borough, Malvern-based developer Eli Kahn gets the initial credit for paving the way for Hankin and others. “They’re doing it as right as you can,” Martinez says of both. “People think no developer is a good developer—I don’t think like that. But it’s still not Downingtown anymore. It’s a new place.”

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Such seismic changes, however, require careful management. Downingtown is basically built out, so there won’t be any new land—only continuous redevelopment. With a current population that hovers at 10,000, the borough encompasses just 1,408 acres covering a little more than two miles. Almost 100 of those acres—7%—are designated parkland. Another 4% is tax-exempt, and a whopping 34% is either fully or partially in a floodplain or floodway. That precarious situation was punctuated in 2021, when extensive damage from Hurricane Ida prompted a countywide study and the formation of a borough flood advisory committee.

Apartment complex rendering
Rendering courtesy of the Hankin Group

River Station’s first three buildings—consisting of retail space and 202 housing units—were completed this past summer. At press time, 60% of the latter were leased to residential tenants for an average monthly rent of $2,400.

Hankin Group development
Photo courtesy of the Hankin Group

It all adds up to a general philosophy of fiscal restraint. “There might be opportunities [for further development] down the road, but they have to be the right fit,” says Rakoff. “A lot of residents are concerned with overdevelopment, and it’s magnified in a smaller community.”

But the four-term councilman knows that you can’t stop growth. “It’s happening all over Chester County—and we’re in the middle of the county, so a lot comes through us,” he says. “But we have to be smart.”

The mayor agrees. “We want to grow, but we can’t build much more,” says Dague, a Downingtown lifer. “We’re built out, and we’re surrounded on our borders. The world has grown around us.”

Eli Kahn has plenty of empathy for Downingtown’s industrial past. Raised in Allentown, he spent his summers working at the pen-and-pencil factory his father ran in Deer Lake. Kahn capitalized on what he calls the “quintessential moment”—the 1995 opening of the Exton Bypass, which made Downingtown accessible to eastern suburbs like King of Prussia and Conshohocken. He found a plethora of vacant, lower-cost, prime-for-redevelopment industrial buildings on unwanted lots, repurposing them at a lower cost than he could in, say, Malvern, Great Valley or West Chester. “We found value in those buildings and lots, and a municipality with arms wide open,” Kahn says.

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In 1993, Kahn and longtime business partner Jack Loew bought the old Pepperidge Farm plant in town, then most of the other industrial buildings on Boot Road. Coupled with additional holdings, he and Loew (who died in 2014) gradually converted a sagging industrial area into a tech-driven belt that’s meshed nicely with a quality public school district, a separate technical school and the highly regarded Downingtown STEM Academy. Soon enough, Kahn introduced upscale living to the area, with developments like East Village and the Point at Downingtown, complemented by Brandywine Square and Ashbridge Square shopping centers and other retail destinations. “Downingtown said, ‘Yes, come renovate. It’s what we want, too.’ It’s a borough with foresight,” Kahn says.

Right now, Downingtown is reviewing its comprehensive plan for the first time in a decade. There are other proposed developments on the table, but only a 60-townhome project has been approved. The borough is also building a new home for its police and administrators, along with a new public works facility to replace the one decimated by Ida.

The Hankin Group has additional space on the east side of the Brandywine, and they’re hoping to break ground on a 157-unit multifamily development this summer. Kennett Square’s Zak Hawk questions Hankin’s investment. “On a river known to flood? It kind of seems silly,” poses Hawk, an engineer by training who’s part of Restore Our Roots, a volunteer group of riparian environmentalists with ties to Downingtown. “How long before it fails?”

Not long after Ida, Hankin replaced an 18-inch stormwater pipe at the River Station site with two 48-inch versions. Its reps continue to stress the unique amenities of riverbank life. “You’re not looking at an old pile of rubber that used to sit there,” says Hankin’s Fisher. “Philosophically, we want to create a community.”

Kahn feels the same way. “When you have a core main street, affordable housing, a Kimberton Whole Foods and a train station, you have small-town America,” he says. “Downingtown has those core things. Now, it’s a matter of how we refine it and keep it going—and how we maintain the synergy. It’s a great town that’s come an incredibly long way, and it still has places to go.”

Smart Growth Thwarted

About six years ago, two proposed developments were poised to give Downingtown’s Kardon Park a monumental makeover. Dubbed Kardon Park Ponds and the Mill Race, the 47-acre site would’ve netted 305 multigenerational dwelling units, 20,000 square feet of mixed-use retail space and 40 upper-level apartments, while still retaining 22 acres of open land. A known toxic site would’ve been cleaned up, an existing borough dump removed, and multiple ponds and trails restored.

The proposal was introduced in 2006, and opponents joined the fray three years later. Known colloquially as “Cash for Parks,” the case was mired in litigation for a decade until the Pennsylvania Supreme Court made its decision—one that dealt a major blow to private development in publicly dedicated or donated spaces. The far-reaching legal precedent could also make it harder for school districts, sewer authorities or any public body to sell dedicated or gifted public land. “Municipalities cannot turn their parks into strip malls without judicial review,” one ruling stipulates.

The court’s decision forced the 2018 retreat of developer Sarah Peck and project partner J. Loew & Associates after $1.6 million in costs and one last attempt at mitigation on a portion of the property. Though the Borough of Downingtown and East Caln Township fully supported the sale of the land, the Friends of Kardon Park did not. The citizens group was a major factor in the outcome. Its leader, Ann Feldman, won a borough council seat and has since become a magisterial district judge in Downingtown.

“The project had all the basics for encouraging revitalization and redevelopment—good partners and land ripe for a public-private venture to refurbish a park,” says Peck, who has offices in Malvern and Wayne and lives in one of her own developments in Bryn Mawr. “The supreme court set back the rights of local government to make its own property decisions for the foreseeable future.”

Downingtown downtown
Photo by Ed Williams

Ultimately, the high court went with Pennsylvania’s Donated or Dedicated Property Act of 1959 over the Project 70 Land Acquisition and Borrowing Act enacted five years later. The former law aims to ensure that “public facilities aren’t sold precipitously, or for purposes that do not serve a true public benefit.” The court’s ruling maintained that the parcels in question were acquired in a series of purchases in the 1960s and ’70s for recreation, conservation and historical purposes. How the ruling might apply to a school district or other public body was also addressed in court. “The judge questioned whether a salt dome would be considered property to be held in trust … of course not,” says Feldman. “But how does one make the distinction between a salt dome and public parkland when both are for the benefit of the public? The difference: One is used by the governing body to serve the public, but it’s not for the public’s enjoyment and use in general.”

River Station in Downingtown
Photo by Ed Williams

The developers continue to maintain that the Donated or Dedicated Property Act was actually supposed to free the hands of public entities that owned surplus, underutilized or derelict properties, allowing them to dispose of such acreage in rational ways. Now, it “effectively handcuffs public entities,” Peck says.

Peck is no newcomer to Downingtown. Her first development in the borough, Green Street Mews, was completed in 2008. It efficiently positioned 30 residences on just three-quarters of an acre—50% of which remains open space. It won four Pyramid Awards from the Homebuilders Association of Chester and Delaware Counties and was the Delaware Valley Smart Growth Alliance’s Community of the Year. “It was because of that success that the borough selected us for Kardon Park,” she says. “The trails could be paved there, and you wouldn’t have the ruts that remain. Water could be retained, and you wouldn’t see the mounds of ugly weeds. We could’ve met unmet housing market demand. It’s ironic and sad. It defeated what everyone wanted. I don’t want to sound like a sad sack, but I feel bad. We did try.”

As president of the borough council, Alex Rakoff is adamant about steering development away from Downingtown’s six parks. And while the borough’s mayor applauds Feldman’s efforts, he can appreciate both sides of the legal argument. “I’m glad we didn’t develop Kardon,” says Phil Dague. “We love our parks, but this could really make a municipality think twice before accepting a gift of land.”

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