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Preservation vs. Profit in the County Seat: West Chester’s Conflict of Several Interests

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In West Chester, bulldozers and other large construction equipment are stored on East Gay Street across from Borough Hall. And whether or not that’s an omen, it’s certainly telling. “A little building here and there—fabric is what defines character,” says architectural historian Jane Dorchester.

As a historic preservation consultant, Dorchester is a diehard proponent of maintaining a town’s telltale fabric. Local developers, however, are “putting holes in the whole,” she says from her West Chester office. “We’ve lost pieces of the fabric—one here, two there, three here. Some say you can’t save everything. But if you start with that position, you won’t save anything.”

Founded in 1799, West Chester is home to about 18,500 people, and 380 new condos could add as many as 950 new residents. A mere 1.8 square miles, the borough is relatively built out and has height restrictions by ordinance. Still, as a historic hub and crossroads community, it remains desirable territory.

West Chester is “peculiar,” Dorchester says, in that it’s both a county seat and a college town—a “double whammy” that can drain economic viability. More students equal more transients and rentals, which is a “perfect calling card” for developers like Tony Stancato, who speaks of those “key anchor tenants” as “components.” Not exactly preservationist speak.

 

West Chester is a textbook example of the perpetual conflict between preservation and development. There are three national historic designations within borough limits: downtown, the West Chester University campus and the expanded district. In 2000, a group of civic-minded preservationists (sometimes called the First Block Four) convinced the county to reconsider its initial proposal and relocate its new justice center to the north side of the 200 block of West Market Street. The fight saved half of what’s called the First Block—but a portion of the other half is now threatened.

Eight years ago, the National Trust for Historic Preservation named West Chester a “distinctive destination.” The 2011 Com-prehensive Historic Preservation Plan adopted by its borough council was funded by a grant from Preserve America, and there’s a historical and architectural review board (HARB). 

But testy preservationists cite contradictions. West Chester, some contend, is great for talking about historic preservation and not so great about acting with it in mind. “They’re coming for our assets,” says Bill Scott, a retired attorney and former borough council president. “You can’t keep tearing down and be a historic town.”

Those with longer memories recall 1972, when, on the 100th anniversary of WCU’s Old Main Hall, officials tore down the largest load-bearing serpentine stone building left in the country.

Of late, there are at least 13 threatened historic sites. Among the several already lost: the Tinicum Press Building on East Gay Street, and the last half of a house at East Chestnut and North Matlack streets (to make way for Stancato’s 60-unit Chestnut Lofts). M.S. Yearsley & Sons Hardware, a landmark on East Market, was also torn down.

Preferring higher-traffic locales, developers typically knock down buildings only to rebuild another in its place—one version of progress. As for the historic structures, “they will go down,” Scott says. “We can do better for our town.” 

 

Scott blames what he calls “weak-mindedness.” Developers are good salespeople. “They hypnotize you,” he says.

For Dorchester, it all boils down to a simple matter of have vs. have-not. “HARB has no money; council has no money,” she says. “But we’re dealing with property owners who have money.”

The 19th-century Barclay estate most typifies this discrepancy. Bordered by North High and North Church streets on the east and west, Marshall Street to the south, and West Virginia Avenue on the north, the grounds are on the National Register of Historic Places, as is the property’s Hartshorne Manor. Council approved Stancato’s development plan last September, while also authorizing condemnation of the tract so it can be reclaimed under eminent domain. An ordinance needs to be drafted, then $1.2 million raised to pay the market value to Stancato and his business partner, Victor Abdala.

Initially, Stancato tried to preserve the tract through a property trade with the council, after then-owner John Milner Associates, a historic architectural firm, had sought the developer as a consultant in December 2011. The rough economy had forced a business decision. Stancato recommended to council a trade: the Barclay estate for a parking lot at Chestnut and North Church streets. He would develop two levels of parking and allow the borough to operate the facility in the evenings. It would’ve kept the Barclay grounds open.

But there’s a popular seasonal growers’ market in that lot, and their petition of protest, combined with the council’s distrust of Stancato’s economic analysis, prevented the trade. “All along, we said that if Plan A didn’t work, we would have a Plan B, and we spent a lot of money on Plan A,” Stancato says. 

The developer purchased the property in February 2013, proposing to subdivide it into four lots, two of which immediately sold. Before accepting, Stancato approached the neighbors, who use the private property as a public park, to see if they could match the offers. They couldn’t.

 

Now, the neighbors have come to life. John Cottage and Bill Lynch formed SaveTheBarclayGrounds.org this past July, collected 1,736 virtual and actual petition signatures, and scattered 140 yard signs around the borough. In the 80 years that the grounds have been open space, the property has successfully been defended from development four times. “It’s an exceptional property,” says Cottage. “Barclay projects the image of West Chester as a beautiful, tree-lined, tranquil place. It would be an irreparable loss.”

Still, Cottage admits that eminent domain has a bad reputation. “It’s been abused so many times,” he says. “But we’re trying to protect something, not take something.”

Lynch says the agreements of sale would be “neutralized” by eminent domain. The fundraising strategy is focused on collecting collateral that will give council the confidence to proceed with eminent domain. There’s also a plan to gradually reimburse promissory-note donors like Lynch and his wife, Barb, who have offered the $300,000 value of a business property they own in the borough as security. Both are borough-born, and a daughter married on the grounds. 

“Right down the street, we have others who weren’t even born in the United States, and they have the same affection for the property,” says Lynch. “Generations upon generations of people have recollections of this property.”

Stancato has offered to work things out with the other two lots, both at the tract’s literal gateway. “The neighbors want to take a shot at more,” he says. “There are no bad guys here—just bad circumstances. But now, I have an obligation to buyers, contractually and morally. Two [local] families are counting on their dream lots.”

Most recently, the borough’s decision to adopt an ordinance to acquire the Barclay property was held over until the first council meeting of 2014. 

 

Tony Stancato and other prominent local developers live in West Chester, or once did. Stancato’s grand-father, an immigrant stonemason, arrived in the borough in 1909. His grandson lives four blocks from the Barclay on 4.5 acres of a 12-acre property he subdivided years ago. The son of a developer, Stancato grew up two blocks closer to the Barclay.

“I’m not totally removed from all the emotional ties,” he says. 

Back in 1995, Stancato bought the vacant F.W. Woolworth building at High and Gay streets. It became Iron Hill Brewery & Restaurant, a primary impetus for downtown West Chester’s late-’90s resurgence. “All four corners [of the intersection] were vacant,” he says. “People said we were crazy.” 

Downingtown-based developer Eli Kahn used to live in the borough, but he now lives in Malvern, which is seeing its own changes, thanks to his East King Street Revitalization project. Kahn owned the Barclay estate before selling to John Milner Associates. Opponents say he has too much money and political clout.

Another well-known West Chester developer, Brian McFadden was part of an active group that bought and preserved the ’30s-era Warner Theater as a hotel. He incorporated an old structure into a new one—the preservationists’ preference.

“But one move affects two others,” says Dorchester, who remembers the last time West Chester lost this much fabric—in the mid-1950s and ’60s—mostly to parking spaces and commercial expansion. “We’re not Philadelphia.”