For years, Malvern was a quick stop on SEPTA's Paoli/Thorndale Line, removed from traffic-clogged Route 30 down the hill. Its faded Victorian vibe was marked by antique shops, run-down small factories, and a mishmash of random businesses.
Any growth was on the fringes of the 1.3-square-mile borough, in detached, fortresslike luxury homes with two- and three-car garages.
But that was before a pair of successful developers discovered the well-worn center of Malvern, almost as archaeologists might uncover a buried and bejeweled city - with valuable assets such as quick rail access to Philadelphia, a small but flourishing core of eateries and shops, and a pleasant, walkable small-town environment just waiting to be mined.
The developers, David Della Porta and Eli Kahn, are embarking on a soon-to-be-constructed project to make over the main drag of East King Street into a four-story wall of urban-style cool, with coffee shops, sidewalk bistros, and trendy retailers topped by 190 upscale apartments.
"This was a chance to do something spectacular," said Della Porta, who with Kahn spent several years buying a row of 11 properties - including two former industrial sites, Amerigas and Fisher Feed, along with older homes and garages - needed to redo the borough's east side. They see the development, to be completed in early 2013, as a magnet for young workers in the Route 202 corridor and older empty nesters looking to downsize.
It is not the first suburb to try to capitalize on easy access to commuter rail and other amenities to attract people in their 20s and 30s, who have moved to the city even while holding good jobs in the suburbs, according to new census data.
"Communities of the future" is what Barry Seymour, executive director of the Delaware Valley Regional Planning Commission, calls the Malvern plan and similar ones in towns such as Phoenixville and West Chester.
"Folks don't necessarily want to be downtown [in Philadelphia], but they still want that experience of being able to walk and have access to services," he said. "Plenty of small towns have that, where you give up the suburban lawn and the big house."
The biggest question about Malvern's proposed makeover may be what took so long. The SEPTA trains that stop in the center of town zip into Center City in little more than a half-hour, and the village is within a stone's throw of thousands of jobs at mutual-fund giant Vanguard, Paoli Hospital, and the Great Valley Corporate Center.
But Malvern is also deeply rooted in tradition, which may also explain why antiques stores had been its biggest commercial draw until recently. What's more, Malvern's location, far back from busy Lancaster Avenue, didn't attract the kind of high-end retail development that went first to heavily trafficked downtowns such as Wayne or Ardmore.
Still, some saw the potential of Malvern well before the new redevelopment scheme.
"People love Malvern," said Stephen Iacobucci, the 52-year-old owner of the Flying Pig Saloon, which draws customers from up and down the Main Line for its array of 24 beers on tap amid replica pigs of every kind hanging from the rafters. "But if you look around, there's not a lot of foot traffic. If I relied on local traffic, I wouldn't survive."
Kahn and Della Porta's $35 million project could be a game-changer. Plans call for 210,000 square feet of retail, roughly doubling the size of the downtown, plus underground parking and 5,000 square feet of office space. The developers aim to begin construction this fall.
Kahn's vision for the borough goes back to the 1990s, when he assembled the land for a very old-school development of large homes called Malvern Hills.
"I spent a lot of time here, and fell in love with the town," he said. Nine years ago he began buying properties on East King Street.
Around the same time, he began a partnership with Della Porta, who was specializing in high-density suburban apartments and condominiums, such as Terrazza at Newtown Square. Both men saw the redevelopment of walkable suburban downtowns near train stations as the next big thing.
"Every demographic you can think of wants to rent an apartment right now," said Kahn.
"Attitudes have changed," Della Porta chimed in. "People want to be more mobile."
No longer, he said, are they "thinking they're going to buy a house and it will be the greatest investment of their lives and they'll live there 30 years." (One such person, in fact, is Kahn, who in January moved into Malvern with his wife and daughter.)
There are signs that the smart money agrees with them.
Ronald Bailey, director of the Chester County Planning Commission, said that despite the recent credit crunch, bankers were more willing to finance this type of multifamily project than traditional luxury homes.
"We're seeing very little greenfields developing," said Bailey. Developers are looking instead to build high-density projects in communities where there is existing infrastructure, he said.
Still, such development is not taking place uniformly across the region. In Delaware County, for example, county planning commission director John E. Pickett said plans for a mixed-use project in Chester and hopes for development near other train stations were "being held up because of the economy."
Malvern officials are enthusiastic about the new development. Borough Council President Woody Van Sciver called it the "future of the community."
"We're a railroad borough," he said. "With all the push toward transit-oriented development, we should consider the train station as important as a highway intersection such as 202 and 29" (site of a new Wegmans market and a planned residential community).
It probably doesn't hurt that gas prices have been near $4 a gallon. "Everyone wants the shortest commute possible these days," said Kahn, who later added words that would have been considered suburban sacrilege just a short while ago: "Home ownership is not what it's cracked up to be."