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By Tom Infield – Inquirer Staff Writer – February 26, 2012
It was 1930, the Great Depression. But Americans still had a quarter to go to the movies, and Hollywood studios were building cinema palaces in downtowns across the country.
Warner Bros. picked a site at 120 N. High St. in West Chester to show its top-grossing films of the year, The Green Goddess and Song of the Flame.
Eight decades later, the Warner Theater is long dead. But the building, with its art deco facade, is at the forefront of West Chester’s ambition to mold itself into the downtown destination for the fastest-growing and most affluent county in the Philadelphia region.
What West Chester aims to become is the new nexus for suburbanites who appreciate urban attractions – upscale living, good eateries, fine shops – but closer to home than in Center City.
Over the last decade, more than $140 million has been spent on downtown development. Now, construction crews are at work on a $15 million project to turn the old movie house into an 80-room boutique hotel – the Hotel Warner – by Labor Day.
Brian McFadden, the developer, said the hotel would not have a restaurant or an entertainment complex. The lure will be West Chester itself. “What it will have is 35 eating establishments within a three-block radius,” McFadden said. “What it will have is all the amenities in downtown West Chester.”
Eli Kahn, another developer, said West Chester had a ways to go in becoming a mini-Center City. Chester County Courthouse workers may fill restaurants at noon, and West Chester University students may fill taverns by night. But more condos and other new housing are needed. The trends are in West Chester’s favor, he said. “As downtown Philadelphia has seen an enormous rise in condominium living – a lot of empty nesters and urban professionals – the little suburban boroughs have experienced the same kind of demand on a smaller scale,” Kahn said.
The 213-year-old borough of 18,500 people, 25 miles west of Philadelphia, has been hit like every other community by the recent recession, the worst since the 1930s. Kahn, who is remodeling the North Wing of the old courthouse as a five-story office building, cited “17 to 20” empty stores at a community meeting in December.
“Get more people in town; that’s what we need,” said Mary Manning, the owner of Visual Expansion Gallery, a frame shop in a row of stores built at the same time as the theater. Yet, more money has been spent on downtown development in West Chester over the last decade than in almost any other town center in the region. Most of this has been government money, including $100 million for the Chester County Justice Center, opened in 2008, and $15 million for a seven-story county parking garage, opened in 2005.
In addition to occupying the justice center, the county moved some of its administrative functions into a new six-story office building on Market Street developed by Kahn and his business partner, Jack Loew. Besides their work on the North Wing, the pair plan a 120-unit apartment building on Chestnut Street. They are also sizing up plans for the old Courthouse Annex, at Gay and Church Streets, which they purchased in September.
The borough itself has put up two downtown parking garages since 1999. There has been a proliferation of eat-in taverns, and a few upscale eateries. There’s a new gourmet Italian deli, martini bar, jewelry store, and bank branches. Many a small town would love to do what West Chester already has done.
Billions nationwide have been spent on downtown revitalization – much of it with little visible result except for street saplings and brick walks – since the urban-renewal programs of the 1960s. “I think people wonder, Why is West Chester successful and we are not?” said Chad Kimmel, a Shippensburg University professor who recently coauthored a study of Main Street programs across the state.
West Chester has had good local leadership, he said. But its advantages start with the fact that it is both a county seat and a college town. About 1,000 county employees work downtown. With Chester County nearly doubling in population since 1980 – to more than 500,000 today – the county’s bureaucracy has grown. It also has major offices 1.5 miles out of town. West Chester University, a small teacher college when the theater was built, now has 14,000 students. About one-third live off campus, including in downtown apartments.
Like other suburbanites, Chester Countians appear to be growing bored with malls and isolated office complexes at highway intersections, Kahn suggested. They want a “walkable” ambiance, with a downtown lunch, downtown stores, and downtown living, he said. And that is where West Chester comes in. “West Chester will need to move the downtown residential demographic from a predominantly twenty something to a 40-to-75-year-old demographic that will include urban professionals, empty nesters, and retirees,” he said. Kahn hopes to address that need himself on the Courthouse Annex site. He said he and Loew were thinking of a condo tower, perhaps eight stories tall.
With the Hotel Warner and the other projects planned or in the works, Malcolm Johnstone, leader of a downtown-promotion group, said he envisioned a West Chester that in five years would have an increase in tourism and more people – besides students – living downtown. But Johnstone has been around long enough to be a bit cautious. He has seen other towns with grand ambitions fall short.
What helps West Chester, he said, is that it isn’t starting from scratch. It isn’t trying to reclaim a blighted area. The new projects are right in the heart of a town that is doing well. Lenny Doyle, proprietor of Taylor’s Music Store & Studios, said he had confidence. “It’s all going to be positive for the community,” he said.