Pride of Ownership

Stan Zukin can’t get enough of West Chester—real estate, that is.

Real estate mogul Stan Zukin. (Photo by John Wynn)Scott Zukin opens the walk-up door to what was once Joel’s Exclusive Dress Shop. Its stucco façade is pristine, save for some graffiti on the alleyway wall. A layer of drywall dust coats the hardwood stairs, and a vacuum can be heard groaning from one of the nearly finished apartments upstairs. On the first level, the 2,300-square-foot retail space is almost complete—soon to be another addition to downtown West Chester’s increasingly diverse dining and retail scene.

Zukin Realty, the business Scott shares with his father, Stan, is just a quick stroll away from this prime Church Street locale. The apartments will rent for $1,800-$2,000 a month. They’re stunning two-story, three-bedroom units with modern kitchens, massive bathrooms and ample natural light—thanks to the preserved transom windows throughout. Less than a year ago, the building was a lawsuit waiting to happen.

“It was so bad that we had to sign a waiver before entering, in case we were hurt,” Scott says. “I’ve never had to do that before. The floors were rotted out.”

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A furniture restoration expert turned renovation impresario, Scott is otherwise modest about the building’s turnaround. The level of quality—the emphasis on preserving rather than gutting—is business as usual for him and his father. It’s a pattern they’ve repeated throughout West Chester, the place they call home and where they prefer to do business.

As they walk the streets of the borough’s vibrant, picturesque central business district, it would be easy for the Zukins to make like a pair of Donald Trumps, pointing out conquests and potential deals in terms of “got it … got it … want it.”

Truth is, you’re unlikely to ever witness them taking stock of the considerable holdings that surround them. Decorum dictates that it’s something they simply do not do. Flaunting the exact number would potentially lead to satisfaction—“a disease,” Stan calls it. And that could inspire laziness—something neither Zukin seems intimately familiar with.

Stan was the first developer to roll the dice on rejuvenating downtown West Chester’s restaurant scene. He now rents space to many of the jewels in its culinary crown, including Baxter’s, Doc Magrogan’s Oyster House, Pietro’s Prime and Kooma. Anyone looking for an apartment for their West Chester University-bound offspring will likely see a few Zukin properties along the way. And in a few years, if all goes well in their dealings with West Chester Borough Council and nearby residents, the Zukins will be at least partly responsible for the first overnight lodgings downtown in nearly half a century.

Some see the Zukins as visionaries who sparked West Chester’s modern-day renaissance. To others, they embody the ruination of its small-town character. Either way, you can’t argue with success.

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Now 68, Stan rolled into West Chester in 1962 from the Logan section of Northeast Philadelphia as a 22-year-old pharmacist. He bought the smallest drugstore in town and, from day one, demonstrated a work ethic that would be a harbinger of greater things to come. The post-World War II rush from cities to the suburbs had been underway for the better part of a decade, and central shopping districts across the country were beginning to feel the pinch of their competitors in the strip malls popping up to serve the auto-obsessed masses.

As business declined, Stan saw many of his commercial neighbors give up and close their doors. Instead of following suit, he took note of the absent stores’ inventory and added it to his own. “We had basically a Wawa in a drugstore,” Stan says. “Then we put in hardware; we put in a large card department. Anything that would sell, we’d carry. So we were basically a general store.”

He also went up against remaining competitors by staying open 11 hours a day—including Sundays, a business tactic all but unheard of in the 1960s. “I didn’t see anything wrong with the town except that the merchants didn’t work long enough or hard enough,” Stan recalls. “And when they had more competition, they decided to close earlier instead of later.”

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Over time, it seemed the same malaise had spilled into the real estate community, too. Here was a town full of viable property centrally located in the crossroads of the county. And yet, around the time Stan decided to shift his focus, half the commercial buildings in the borough were empty.

It was around 1990, and as property languished unoccupied, Stan had a thought: “I remember saying 18 years ago, ‘If we just had a handful of good restaurants, this town would turn around.’”

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The idea rattled around in his head until he finally began sharing it with others. “As I was telling people I was going to buy this property in West Chester, it seemed like everyone said to me, ‘There’s no parking; 50 percent of the properties are vacant; you’re going to lose all your money here. What are you doing?’ I don’t think I had anyone who said to me, ‘Gee, that’s a good investment.’”

Technically, it wasn’t. Stan himself admits that even at its lowest point, West Chester property wasn’t a rock-bottom bargain. “West Chester was never cheap,” he says. “I don’t think I ever got a good buy—I just worked the buy I got.”

And Stan kept acquiring property, working up enough equity on the previous property to get a loan for the next one. “As long as they were willing to lend me money, I kept buying,” he recalls.

And with each purchase came another batch of second-, third- and fourth-floor apartments he’d immediately renovate to “make the cash flow.” Those renovations took off when Scott closed his woodworking shop in Philadelphia and joined his dad’s business in 1996. “A lot of people saw the difference when we started restoring the fronts of a lot of properties,” Scott says.

With the borough’s Historical and Architectural Review Board (HARB) to guide him, Scott has led the way in historically accurate renovations of buildings throughout town, several of which have garnered positive recognition at the federal level. The work also pleased the likes of Malcolm Johnstone, executive director of West Chester’s Business Improvement District.

By some estimates, the Zukins now own more than 30 properties in the borough alone (a sister company that handles sales and management of large commercial and residential properties is run out of Philadelphia by Scott’s brother, Wayne). Concentrated ownership of rental property brings to mind plenty of things—some of which aren’t exactly positive. The Daily Local has seen many a letter to the editor bemoaning the Zukins’ stranglehold on off-campus student housing. Stan’s inclination to perceive West Chester as his own personal Monopoly board can rub some—including his son—the wrong way at times.

But for a guy who basically learned everything he knows about real estate from Parker Brothers, it’s not such a stretch. After all, if you buy properties (even the cheap ones) and start collecting rent, you’re going to make some money.

And the Zukins were ready to take another leap—that is, until West Chester officials had their say. The pair has proposed the first hotel in the borough in nearly 50 years—a multi-use structure with 100 luxury rooms, topped by 20 condominiums, including retail, dining and meeting spaces—at the corner of Gay and Walnut streets.

The plan raised both hopes and ire around West Chester. Detractors contend that the 90-foot, eight-story structure would overwhelm the streetscape. Supporters—including the HARB, Johnstone and much of West Chester’s business community—believe that the annual infusion of thousands of overnight guests would spark a tourism boom.

In late January, Borough Council voted against a zoning change that would’ve allowed Zukin Realty to move forward, citing Stan’s unwillingness to conform to the existing ordinance. No council members would comment on the Zukins for this story.

Stan sees the controversy as unfortunate. But he expected resistance from a town that values its 300-year history and tends to be unnerved by rapid change.

For his part, Johnstone predicts that the Zukins’ vision will be vindicated in the long run. “We’re getting back something [the town] used to have,” he says. “Once these hotels are built and they’re operating, people will wonder how they ever got along without them—if they ever think about it at all.”

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