Newtown’s New Town
Love it or hate it, is there really anything stopping Ellis Preserve?
“We’re the first ones here, so we’re just looking to hang on when things take off.”
You can’t blame Tom Fenstermacher for using treadmill analogies. After all, he owns FACTS Fitness, which operates the Ellis Athletic Center at what BPG Development Company hopes will be Ellis Preserve Town Square, a $500 million master-planned community proposed at the intersection of Route 252 and West Chester Pike in Newtown Square. The ambitious project’s town-center approach is lifestyle-based.
For months, things have been simmering for proponents and opponents alike. Prospective retailers love the idea of Ellis Preserve; open space advocates don’t. The fitness center has already attracted 1,300 members—and there’s room for 2,000.
“Sure, we hear rumors about what’s coming and the traffic, but what are you going to do? It’s the nature of the beast,” says Fenstermacher. “We’re all trying to put out a great product in everyone’s back yard, but there are trade-offs.”
Right now, it’s a monster give-and-take between the township and the developer as to what will follow and the shape it will take. The first of what BPG hopes will be three new office buildings, Main Line Health’s Bryn Mawr Hospital Health Center, a 130,000-square-foot medical office and outpatient care facility, opens this summer. It’s this building that’s drawn the ire of residents, local groups like Save Open Space (SOS) and township officials, all of whom who say BPG first proposed a master plan for the entire site that in-cluded a retail town center, residential units and office buildings, along with a new ordinance that would permit it.
But then, opponents say, BPG began developing the parcel piecemeal with the medical building. After that, Newtown Township Supervisors fretted mostly over a lack of concessions, the impact of traffic, parking, and preserving lawn frontage. “It changed the focus and diverted both sides,” says Supervisor John S. Custer Jr., who says the township is busy determining if the town-center option is better than the standard by-right plan—what the current township ordinance will allow.
Bob Dwyer, vice president of development for BPG Development Company, the development entity of BPG Properties Ltd., says the health complex and a second 140,060-square-foot office building fit both its by-right and town-center plans. But a third office building and a fourth retail structure, while consistent with the existing ordinance, aren’t what the township wants.
The existing special-use zoning ordinance permits office space and age-restricted housing, but not a town center or retail—except on a 13-acre parcel bounded by Route 3 and Winding Way. There, Custer wants “local business” or what Dwyer calls “big-box retail,” although he doesn’t think they’ll meet BPG’s profitability requirements.
Past and Future
The land in question was originally developed as Ellis College in 1922 at the bequest of Charles E. Ellis, who made his fortune with a horse-drawn trolley company. In 1909, he left a bulk of his estate as a school for fatherless girls. After the college closed in 1977, a third of the acreage was converted into a corporate campus by Atlantic Richfield Chemical Corp. (ARCO) in the 1980s. It’s now occupied largely by SAP America and Lyondell Chemical.
In 2004, when BPG purchased 205 acres from SAP America (which retains its current 110-acre tract), it did so to develop the property in accordance with the existing ordinance. It began preserving the existing college buildings—including the old gymnasium (now the fitness center), a conference center and six quaint stone cottages (former dormitories)—and updating ARCO office space. The work cost upwards of $16 million.
Then BPG proposed doing something special and more consistent with the township’s more modern comprehensive plan, which calls for open space and mixed-use development that leads to efficient living. “Town centers do that, and this location warrants it,” Dwyer says. BPG’s version of its town center includes a complimentary mix of high-end retail stores and fine dining establishments with offices, hotels and residences. All of it is based around pedestrian paths, trails, woodlands, open spaces and civic and cultural resources. Fiscal impact estimates indicate the net annual benefit of the entire development would be more than $417,000 for the township and $2.8 million for the Marple Newtown School District, Dwyer says.
Not that Ellis Preserve will ever shake a steady customer off his bar stool at Casey’s Seafood Grille & Pub on West Chester Pike—or so says 73-year-old Dick Pound, a former Newtown supervisor turned Casey’s host/manager. He’s lived in Newtown Square since 1965, volunteered for its fire company and is president of the Newtown Square Business & Professional Association (NSB&PA).
“People are very habit-oriented,” he explains. “Whatever’s coming will have to be real spectacular to change the habits of a person.”
Before it became Casey’s, Pound’s employer was a shot-and-beer joint. Now it’s a place for neighbors and friends to gather for good food and spirits.
Steve Graham, who owns Casey’s, grew up in Newtown Square when it was a laid-back lower- to middle-class neighborhood. Now it’s a busy middle- to upper-class neighborhood. Back in the day, his neighbors all worked for the utilities; his father was with AT&T. “Now they’re all corporate executives,” he says.
Graham owns three other long-established restaurants—some in other counties—and he concludes BPG’s town-center plan isn’t “the end of the world.” But he does call it “aggressive” and a bit “over the top.”
All the concurrent development in Newtown Square—Ashford at the old DuPont estate, Episcopal Academy and the Shops at Marville further up West Chester Pike—is attracting customers from higher economic strata. “A lot of people consider Newtown Square the Main Line, but I never did,” Pound says. “We’re too far away.”
NSB&PA hosted a luncheon for BGP’s brass, viewed its eight- by five-foot town-center model and was generally impressed. In April 2006, NSB&PA circulated a survey on the project. Opinion was split evenly. Opponents say the development also will split the township. “You’ll have this strip,” Pound says from inside Casey’s, “the shopping center across from us (Newtown Square Shopping Center) and then Ellis Preserve. It’ll be ‘this side’ and ‘that side’ of Route 252.”
Then he begins reminiscing. “It wasn’t too long ago that this was a small town with lots of land mostly owned by a half-dozen people,” says Pound.
The developer has billed his end product (if it becomes a town center) as an alternative to King of Prussia—and that’s exactly what opponents fear. They worry about any transients and thieves the traffic might bring through. Dwyer maintains a town center, which would lead to “24-7 activity,” would deter potential crime.
“We hope we can get this done soon before the by-right takes over,” he says. “It won’t even be called Ellis Preserve in the by-right scenario because the Ellis School buildings wouldn’t necessarily be preserved. The by-right alternative will most likely require several different names since it will consist of a handful of separate and distinct developments.”
For the township, a by-right plan, which would double BPG’s planned office space to more than 1 million square feet, would produce less weekend traffic than a town-center, but Custer says it’ll also be more difficult to get BPG to ante-up on traffic improvements. Plus, he’s leery of approving BPG’s proposed ordinance first and land use later, because BPG could sell off acreage to other developers.
But Custer also realizes the township’s walking a tightrope. BPG could submit a by-right (and, in fact, has a sketch plan it’s preparing should the town-center plan fail) and would eventually secure approval—if not from the township then a higher court. Custer prefers an integrated community.
Some insiders may regret shooting for the moon, but Dwyer says BPG didn’t do it for profit, but rather to be progressive: “We want to create a special destination,” he says. “A town center is a better use for a million reasons. We thought the township would embrace this.” For his part, Fenstermacher says BPG took usable, well-lit empty institutionalized space and converted it into a goodwill amenity. “It’ll be nice to see more things happening here,” he says.
Discussions with possible retail tenants are ongoing; the leasing is exclusively managed by Fameco Real Estate. By agreement, he can’t provide names, but Fameco’s Jon D. Kushner says the cache of interested parties is the “best of the best.”
“Leasing-up has been almost automatic,” he says. “They’re of King of Prussia or Suburban Square quality. This will be Suburban Square-West.”
Opponents aren’t sure how tenants can be lined up if there aren’t approvals. If the Ellis property becomes a town center, Custer says the supervisors would still recommend further changes to reduce density. For example, one hotel (reportedly a Hyatt or its equivalent) maximum, he says.
“We don’t need to become Hotel U.S.A.,” says Custer. “There’s already another one coming [at Marville]. We’re concerned with the character of our business community and the community in general.”
The general buzz Pound hears revolves around traffic. Almost daily someone asks him, “Why doesn’t the township just stop it?” His reply: If you go to court, taxpayers will pay for a losing battle.
“I’m realistic enough to know the township can’t do anything to stop it,” he says. “If someone owns a piece of land, he has the right to develop it.”