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From the Ashes

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Carl Chetty on Coatesville’s mean streets. The Lone Ranger was the ultimate hero—the shining star that galloped in on his stately steed and saved the day in the Wild West. It’s a nice image. But Carl Chetty wants none of it.

Even so, he wouldn’t mind making good on his promise for revitalization in Coatesville. But the founder and president of Chetty Builders knows he’s staring at “a 20-year plan that’s five years behind.”

Given the city’s bouts with arson, violence, vandalism, fright, friction and flight, Chetty doesn’t want to be the lone voice of hope in the western suburb’s winds. And yet, with offices in Kennett Square, his seasoned residential and commercial firm is the only immediately local developer with any interest in Coatesville.

Between 2007 and 2009, this old steel city was the public stage for 50-plus fires. Well before the blazes, Coatesville was known for its lackluster economy, high taxes and troubled government. Its drugs, crime and collapsing property values made it a breeding ground for everything that’s wrong in society. It seemed too far gone for a remarkable municipal makeover like those in Kennett Square and Phoenixville.

The fires took time away from focusing on redevelopment. The daily reality made the future hard to ponder. “It’s always status quo rather than anything visionary,” Chetty says.

Regardless, Chetty is Coatesville’s No. 1 cheerleader, and he maintains that the city is far from dead. In fact, it’s perched for a rebirth, he says, insisting that Coatesville is the next Manayunk.

The past eight years, though, have been fiercely frustrating. Coatesville still needs a city council that’s “professional, and not one voted in by demographics and personal agendas,” says Chetty. And it can’t be opposed to the redevelopment of its own city.

Chetty’s interest in Coatesville began in the mid-1990s, when his company bought 100-plus acres at the northwest corner of the city limits. The controversial Paul G. Janssen Jr. had been hired to manage the city, well before his more recent and similarly explosive stops in Norristown, Yeadon and—almost—Radnor.

By the late ’90s, Chetty was, more or less, partners with the city. He was given the power of eminent domain, which “became an ugly word.” His 190 single-family homes at the Highlands at Millview sold out in three years. That attracted others to fill the 350 luxury units in his Millview Apartments, beginning in 2005. Chetty invested $55 million in both.
 

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As the city continued to identify blighted property for condemnation and a Janssen-planned golf course (that was never built) would’ve forced folks to sell, the city manager was ousted. “He could’ve said he’d purchase properties for a reasonable price,” Chetty says. “But the residents said, ‘No. We’re going to fight you.’ They drove him out of town. Those organizers were elected to city council.”

They, too, have since been replaced.

Chetty owns—or has options on—most of what’s available downtown. For the rights, council members made him use a city-appointed appraiser. Once values became public, would-be sellers flooded Chetty’s phone lines. “The town even fought us in buying what were mostly teardowns,” he says. “They thought our pockets were lined with gold.”

Though he grossly overpaid for downtown properties, Chetty has helped rid Coatesville of absentee slumlords and drug dealers. Meanwhile, he’s fielded calls from other developers, who’ve warned him that he’s destroying his career. But he takes comfort in the fact that the city is on the right track.

To date, however, all of his downtown Coatesville properties and acreage remain vacant. Nothing new has been built, and conversations with potential retail tenants continue. Eighty percent of the existing structures have been—or will be—bulldozed to make way for mixed-use commercial retail on the first floors, plus office space or residential living above. The surviving 20 percent of older buildings with historic value will be rehabilitated to retain the flavor of an old steel town from the early 1900s.

“Coatesville is always saying the time is now, but it’s been saying that for the past 15 years,” says Lou Voigt, Chetty’s senior project manager.

Voigt is overseeing plans for eight downtown buildings, each anywhere from five to 10 stories high. Right now, the tallest building in downtown Coatesville is four stories.

Coatesville is famous for its steel—steel that helped build portions of the Golden Gate Bridge. But by the 1970s and ’80s, the steel industry was gone—and so were 50,000 workers. Coatesville’s population dipped to less than 8,000 and now is at 11,000-12,000. “It became a ghost town,” Chetty says.

Chetty believes Coatesville can be a viable city of 100,000. It’s already Chester County’s only city—albeit a Class 3 one. It’s a half-mile from the now-thriving Chester County Airport, home to Sikorsky Helicopters. An industrial area to the west is set to take flight. The Brandywine River, which runs through Coatesville, is an unmistakable amenity.

For these and other reasons, Chetty maintains his gamble wasn’t—and isn’t—a mistake. “Coatesville still has great potential,” he says. “We still see a diamond in the rough. The next step is a revitalized central business district. We’re right on the cusp of seeing all of this take off.”

Chetty estimates that his downtown redevelopment efforts will cost him $400 million. They would follow on the heels of the return of the Coatesville stop on SEPTA’s rail line and a refurbished train station. In recent years, the farthest west the train goes is Downingtown, skipping Coatesville and moving on to Parkesburg and Lancaster. Those other stops have brand new facilities and parking lots that fill to capacity daily.
 

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Chester County’s commissioners are overseeing the redevelopment of the Coatesville station, supporting it with $7.5 million in state and federal grants. It’s scheduled to open in the spring of 2011.

Dubbed Pennock Place, Chetty’s first tower draws on the name of one of the region’s founding fathers. It’s two blocks from the train stop. “Once everyone sees the first building come out of the ground, other developers will sit up and take notice,” he says. “We want other developers to come in. We don’t want to be the lone guy.”

In some ways, he’s not. Don Pulver—who has almost single-handedly redeveloped Conshohocken—has also been in Coatesville from the beginning. His interest is the Route 82 corridor off the Route 30 bypass as it enters town. A new Courtyard Marriott and an 80,000-square-foot office building will open at the same time as the train station.

Pennock Place will break ground next spring. Chetty’s Tower 2 would follow a year or two later, and Tower 3 eight to 10 years out. The developers want fresh, young traffic to turn blue-collar jobs into white-collar ones. Daytime activity spills over into the need for residential space and retail amenities and conveniences. “Coatesville can be better than Manayunk,” Chetty says.

Pennock Place replaces eight existing three- and four-story brick buildings that date between 1920 and 1950. It will feature 100,000 square feet of new space. Initially, the project was slated to begin in 2005-06. That was before Chetty was lumped into the city’s turmoil and “seen as a wedge, driving out [the elected politicians’] base,” he says.

Half the Pennock was presold six years ago. A full-service Rite Aid would’ve been the flagship tenant. But then the economy tanked, Rite Aid’s stock dropped, and the company halted its development projects. Since then, Chetty has had several meetings with Drexel University and the Chester County Hospital.

Chetty’s second project in the works is a 400,000-square-foot behemoth just across the street from the Pennock. Also seven stories, it will have 50,000 square feet of retail space. Chetty will throw in two 450-car parking lots for the city—if it starts a parking authority. Part of the yet-to-be-named building could become an enhanced U.S. Post Office.

As planned, Tower 3 makes up two full blocks. East Diamond Street, which runs between its two buildings, would have to be widened. A seven-story residential-retail complex would include a 1,400-space parking lot, and Chetty is hoping for a hotel occupant in what will become a 10-story center portion.

Somehow, Chetty has hung in there, despite multiple stages of stagnation. He’s overcome now-defunct projects like the 98-townhome North Flats Community—along the Brandywine by the Riverwalk project—that had been scheduled to start last spring.

Nearly finished, the Riverwalk has no accompanying buildings. “There’s nowhere to walk to,” Chetty says. “It’s the road to nowhere. No one will use it. There’s no reason to use it. It’ll become a haven to drug dealers, and [the city] threw us out with the bathwater.”

But like a true hero along the lines of the Lone Ranger, Chetty harbors no hard feelings. He can’t afford to. “We’re vested beyond the point of return,” he says. “So we will find a way to make it work.”
 

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