West Chester: Home of Reinvention
In county seat, redevelopment and reuse attract all types.
Chuck Ulmann, who has lived a few minutes outside the borough proper for the last 42 years, has kindly agreed to provide as comprehensive a tour of West Chester as six hours allows.
Ulmann, who worked in the pharmaceuticals industry from college through retirement, is not only well-versed in West Chester's architectural history but has, over the years, shepherded groups through the borough's streets and alleys, showing them the highlights.
In the first hour of the tour, Ulmann proves that just about every style of housing from the early 19th century to 2012 is represented in West Chester.
Eventually, either by foot or car, you get to see all of them - from the rambling Victorians and 1930s Colonial Revivals around Marshall Park to a surprising amount of infill housing and conversions.
"Housing is diverse, with something for everybody," says Atlanta native Mark Zandi, chief economist for Moody's Analytics, whose offices are on North Walnut Street, adding that he is "very partial to West Chester."
Those who want condominiums, however, are out of luck at the moment, but that is likely to change soon, says Kit Anstey, an associate broker with Prudential Fox & Roach who grew up here.
"There are none in the immediate downtown," says Anstey, who has a one-bedroom apartment in the Greentree Building at North High and Gay Streets, which was bought by Cornerstone Communities last spring for $9.8 million and is undergoing upgrades.
"There are a lot of professional people, including myself and people in my office, who want condos," he says.
Fifty-eight three-story condos are on the former site of Bishop Shanahan High School on North Everhart Street, built by McCool Properties of West Chester for NVR Homes.
"I just sold the last one, the sample, for $470,000," Anstey says.
All of this highlight's Ulmann's second-hour lesson: Just about every building in the Chester County seat has been or is about to become something else.
Many are directly linked to the Justice Center at West Market and North Darlington Streets, a seven-story, 422,000-square-foot facility that, in 2008, allowed the county Court of Common Pleas to consolidate its widely scattered operations into one building.
The 1966 north-wing addition to Thomas U. Walter's 1846 county courthouse at High and Market Streets was sold to developers Eli Kahn and Jack Loew for $4.7 million in 2011.
The building, now called 10 North High Street, was redeveloped as high-end office space, and is 73 percent leased.
The county also vacated office space at the old Mosteller Department Store complex at Gay and Church Streets. Kahn and Loew plan to redevelop that, too.
"We are envisioning a seven-story structure, with underground parking, 15,000 square feet of retail, two stories of office and four stories of luxury condos," Kahn says, adding that he and Loew are awaiting conditional approvals and hope to start demolition and construction by late summer.
All of this leads Zandi to believe West Chester has a bright future.
"It has a wonderful mix of businesses, the university and county-related activities," he says. "There is also a range of office space, industrial buildings, and is within a half-hour of several big shopping areas."
Many businesses - just about every financial institution, title companies, mortgage brokers, and law offices - are what one finds in a county seat.
Kahn, an Allentown native and West Chester University graduate, believes the borough's growth is being fed partly by aging suburbanites wanting an urban lifestyle who wouldn't feel as comfortable in Center City.
"The housing product they are looking for doesn't exist, and they are not looking for a large house to renovate," says Kahn, adding that he has been approached by corporate leaders and others looking for condos.
On the other hand, Brad Moore, 26, spent almost eight months looking for a house in his price range - $200,000 to $220,000 - before buying a rowhouse in July.
Moore, who went to high school and college here and who was living with his parents outside the borough to save money, says a friend recently bought downtown and others in his age group want to, as well.
"It's tough finding something below $300,000, but it's a place we want to live in," Moore says. "It seems to get better every year."
Prices typically range from about $300,000 to $1.5 million, Anstey says, adding "we could use more inventory."
Ulmann says he considers parking a major problem, limiting the number of times he drives in.
Anstey counters by saying a lot of parking complaints come from people used to parking at malls. But there is a YouTube video, "Where to Park in West Chester," linked from www.downtownwestchester.com. Comments attached to the video point to difficulties.
For the first time since 1974, West Chester has a hotel, on the site of the old Warner Theater, where Anstey worked as an usher when he was in high school.
Opened in August by developer Brian McFadden, the 77-room hotel uses parking in the new Chestnut Street garage. McFadden also developed Darlington Commons, a 36,000-square-foot office complex.
The borough has a bustling and changing restaurant scene - a sure sign of growth - drawing suburbanites into town after dark.
"You park your car, then head to the first restaurant," Kahn says. "If nothing is available, you move on to the next one."
The venerable Benny's Pizza on North Church Street has been around since 1959, and holds its own with sometimes pretentious newcomers.
"As a joke, some people reply, 'We're going to Ben-ay's' when you ask what they're doing for dinner," Ulmann says.
West Chester by the Numbers
Population: 18,461 (2010)
Median income: $42,922 (2009)
Size: 1.84 square miles
Homes for sale: 35
Settlements in the last three months: 15
Median days on market: 87
Median sale price (single-family home): $318,000
Median sale price (all homes): $318,000
Housing stock: 6,541 units, mostly multifamily, mostly built pre-World War II.
School district: West Chester Area.
Sources: U.S. Census Bureau, City-Data.com, Trulia.com, Zillow.com, AcidRain.comEndText