MIDDLETOWN TWP. A decade after the Franklin Mint closed, its round museum building still sits vacant along busy Baltimore Pike in Delaware County.
Development of the prominent property has been plagued by opposition from residents, a slow economy, and - most recently - a legal battle among the developers.
But the plan took a step forward this week when a revised zoning ordinance won approval from the Middletown Township Council. The site, with more than 170 acres, could now have 350 townhouses, offices, retail space, and a hotel.
Its completion could take years. By that time, the site could become just one piece in a transformation of the heavily traveled Route 1 through Middletown.
Granite Run Mall sold last year, and its new owners plan to redevelop it into a mix of shopping and housing. Three other townhouse developments are proposed or under construction along Baltimore Pike, and SEPTA hopes to extend its Media/Elwyn Line to a Wawa station at the Franklin Mint development.
In response to traffic congestion and the coming development, the township plans to use a new local services tax to improve the crowded intersection at Routes 1 and 452.
Together, these changes give the township an opportunity to rethink one of its busiest corridors, said Mark Kirchgasser, chairman of the council. The council will carefully review every plan, he assured residents this week.
"We want to make sure everything interlocks," Kirchgasser said after the zoning-change approval.
Years after forming a "Save Middletown" group to fight more ambitious plans for the Franklin Mint property, some neighbors still have concerns. About 20 attended a meeting this week - a small group compared with the hundreds that packed meetings in the past.
They shared fears of increased traffic in an already-congested area, the potential for families to move into new housing developments and add students to the local school district, and the strain that development could place on emergency services.
Township officials responded that emergency services could handle the development, and developers for the Franklin Mint property said their upscale townhouses would attract residents in their 50s and 60s, rather than families with children.
The latest plan to build additional townhouses on the Franklin Mint site could be a great fit, said Richard Bickel, director of planning for the Delaware Valley Regional Planning Commission.
"It's a challenge [to redevelop] anywhere, but this is an unusual site, and it's highly visible," Bickel said. "Everybody goes by on Route 1 and sees it, and they remember the Franklin Mint."
A development group, now led by the Springfield-based McKee Group and Pennrose Properties in Philadelphia, owns land on and near the former property of the coin and collectibles manufacturer. The group's initial proposal for the site in 2006 included 1.2 million square feet of retail space, more than 1,000 residential units, 400,000 square feet of commercial space, a cinema, and a hotel.
The Save Middletown group campaigned against what they called "the city." Tony Ieradi, one of the group's organizers, said he was pleased that years of meetings and compromise led to the downsized zoning proposal approved in 2012.
Then, the developers disagreed over how to proceed. Their dispute played out in court last year, as the Pennrose and McKee companies sued to stop the town from approving plans submitted by a third partner, the Wolfson Group.
The case was settled in October. Mark Dambly, president of Pennrose properties and a Middletown resident, said his company and the McKee Group bought Wolfson's share of the development. He declined to say how much they spent, though court filings show they offered to pay Wolfson $25 million.
The developers' latest proposal replaced about 350,000 square feet of retail space with additional townhouses.
The change approved Monday would allow up to 350 townhouses on the site. The construction of those homes and some office space would become the first phase of the development, said Kevin McLaughlin, senior vice president of the McKee Group. He said the group still hoped to build up to 500,000 square feet of retail and office space and a 150-room hotel.
Even after years of changing and reducing the scope of plans, not every resident is pleased. Mary Jo Grove does not think new development will improve the township. She said the area was less congested 29 years ago when she moved to New Darlington Road, off Baltimore Pike. But she paused when asked what she would prefer to see in the area.
"A golf course? I don't know."