The line stretches across the Berwyn corner in all seasons. For 14 years, neither oppressive summer heat nor bone-chilling winter cold have kept Main Liners from turning out to Handel’s, an old-fashioned ice cream and yogurt joint where customers order at the window and eat in the parking lot.
Even if they don’t see eye-to-eye on burgeoning development for that stretch of Lancaster Avenue — full of asphalt parking lots, strip malls, stand-alone restaurants, and specialty shops — municipal officials, residents, and business owners share a love for the homemade ice cream.
“Handel’s is an anchor, not only for that corner but also for the village,” said Eugene Briggs, Easttown Township’s director of planning and zoning. “It’s a well-loved business.”
That’s why two local developers say they want to build a high-end, town-center-style apartment building on that spot, a “boutique” complex with Handel’s at its core.
David Della Porta, of Villanova-based Cornerstone Tracy, and Todd Pohlig, of Malvern-based Pohlig Custom Homes, have talked with Easttown Township officials about preliminary plans for the site and have presented ideas for a 120-unit complex to the town’s zoning hearing board in hopes it will sign off on a slightly larger project than the code allows.
“This site, I’ll call it the gateway to the village,” Della Porta said. “We have a chance to really add something that could transform the village.”
Their gateway plan: a four-story, 150,000-square-foot mixed-use development with Handel’s and one or two small retailers on the ground floor, luxury apartments above, and a public plaza in the center. The complex also would have a two-story, 228-spot parking garage. Della Porta declined to comment on how much they intend to spend on the project.
Over the course of two meetings this summer, developers presented their plans to the zoning board, asking it to allow the construction of a public plaza and one more story than the code permits. They will have a third meeting later this month. When the presentations are finished, Briggs said, the board will decide whether to recommend the project for consideration by the township planning commission, a process that would take months.
Pohlig, a longtime Easttown resident, said he has known Handel’s owner, Buck Buchanan, since they coached their children’s T-ball teams together 30-some years ago, and they still line the neighborhood Little League fields together. Pohlig said he was excited to bring new energy to the “eyesore” of an area around his friend’s business.
From a financial perspective, Buchanan said, he doubts he’ll benefit if his Handel’s becomes part of a larger development. But as a community member (four of his grown children live near the store), he said he’d be happy to see this project take shape.
“I believe this would be great for the community,” he said. “If this doesn’t get approved, I don’t know if anything will ever happen there.”
Easttown, a township of 10,000 people, sits in the middle of the historic Main Line, between Paoli and Wayne, with easy access to SEPTA’s Paoli/Thorndale Line and major highways such as Route 202 and the Pennsylvania Turnpike. Median household income is nearly $140,000, according to census data.
Residents who oppose the project say the complex will increase traffic, put pressure on the police and fire departments, and increase enrollment in the Tredyffrin/Easttown School District. They’ve started a loosely organized group called Save Easttown to protest the plan, which developers have called Berwyn Square.
Nick Kennedy, 54, a salesman who has lived in the neighborhood behind Handel’s for almost 20 years, is one of a few dozen people involved with Save Easttown.
After attending a recent neighborhood meeting about the proposal, Kennedy said he was concerned about parking and traffic, but he thinks developers and officials are well-meaning in their attempt to revitalize the dilapidated area behind the ice cream shop.
“It’s a sincere effort,” Kennedy said, but “it’s in conflict with what the neighborhood wants and what the neighborhood can handle.”
Similar conflicts have arisen nearby, in such places as Ardmore, Bala Cynwyd, and Phoenixville, as developers say baby boomers and millennials are gravitating toward this new style of suburban living.
Many Berwyn neighbors are in favor of developing the area, perhaps even for a residential complex, Kennedy said, but they aren’t keen on the scale of this particular plan.
Michael DeFlavia, 53, an options trader, said he had never been involved in township issues in his 15 years as a Berwyn resident, but became invested in this one when he heard of the builders’ “wildly optimistic” projections for how their project would affect the surrounding area.
The developers’ experts, Della Porta said, projected that the project would yield an annual surplus of more than $260,000 for the school district and result in a “negligible” impact on traffic.
“There is no optimism or pessimism involved in either of these studies, just science,” Della Porta added.
DeFlavia says he isn’t convinced. He’s worried that increased traffic would endanger students who walk from Tredyffrin/Easttown Middle School to Handel’s and the Bravissimo Pizza across the street and that the new units would further strain the area’s stellar public schools.
Scott Carpenter agreed, noting that many people move to Berwyn for the school district and the access to major roadways and regional rail.
From what he’s seen, he said, the exterior of the complex just doesn’t fit in with the small-town charm of Berwyn, a walkable, quiet suburb with close-knit neighborhoods and just enough restaurants and bars and ice cream shops.
“You should have some allegiance, some reverence to what’s already there,” Carpenter said. “That’s a rallying point for people. Like, ‘What are you doing to the community?’”
Those words have reverberated outside Easttown, too.
Carla Z. Mudry, from East Whiteland, has written about her distaste for the project on her Chester County blog.
In a phone call, she said the project’s renderings “look like New York City’s Flatiron Building in Berwyn.”
Briggs, the township’s planning director, said he’s heard mixed opinions, with some business owners and residents in favor of the project.
“The property is really at the core of the village of Berwyn,” he said. “It appears to be ripe for redevelopment.”
But, he said, it’s a matter of whether the redevelopment plans fit with the zoning code and the community. Even if the zoning hearing board approves, residents will have ample opportunity to provide feedback, including by filing an appeal in the Chester County Court of Common Pleas, he said. Realistically, he added, it will be at least several months before the planning commission hands down a final decision.
The developers originally were to meet with the zoning hearing board on Aug. 26, but Della Porta said they asked to delay the meeting a few weeks to better address residents’ concerns.