Of all the words used to describe commercial activity in the regional nexus that is King of Prussia, Linda Iem and Gilda Suncar might have come up with a new one: adorable.
The two women drove from their fashion-industry jobs near the King of Prussia Mall to what has become their regular lunch spot. They walked among shops, restaurants, and apartment complexes as smooth jazz drifted faintly from speakers on lampposts, wooden chairs on a lawn waited for takers, and water leaped in narrow streams from a line of fountains.
Iem, 35, a South Philadelphian, pointed at various businesses. "Imagine if that was your bank, that was your favorite restaurant, that was where you lived," she said. "You'd never have to leave the community."
The two were strolling Thursday through the King of Prussia Town Center in the Village at Valley Forge, a growing, created neighborhood as carefully manicured as the artificial green space at the corner of Town Square Place and Main Street. It's one of several such complexes in the region — including ones in Exton, Chester County; Newtown Square, Delaware County; and Voorhees, Camden County — that developers are building or have built to resemble traditional town centers and to fill the growing demand over the last two decades for one-stop environments. Expect more where those came from.
"The next 10 projects you become aware of will be mixed-use, walkable, compact places," said Tom Comitta, president of Thomas Comitta Associates Inc., a town planning and landscape architecture firm in West Chester.
What's happening in the region is part of a national trend, according to the Urban Land Institute. Mixed-use developments generally yield higher returns on investment than more traditional shopping centers, according to industry leaders. Residents get walkable amenities, and towns, counties, and schools pull in additional tax revenue and attract workers.
The Village at Valley Forge expects about 1,250 housing units to rim its shops and restaurants. Once fully occupied, they could bump up the township's population 10 to 15 percent.
In these types of mixed-use developments, pedestrians are king, which means hiding parking behind buildings, constructing a "Main Street" lined with storefronts and parallel parking spots, and putting office spaces and residences as close as possible to shops. It means adding public gathering places and bits of green space — even if the grass is artificial.
"They're trying to replicate the role historic town centers have had," said Andrew Svekla, associate manager of smart growth at the Delaware Valley Regional Planning Commission. "I see these new ones as hybrids: the traditional downtown and the evolution of shopping centers."
However, in these places, customers are more likely to see high-end chains that can afford the rent than the likes of family drugstores and Mom-and-Pop hardware stores. Iem said the green space at the Village at Valley Forge looked a little out of place, since "it seems in the middle of the parking lot."
In Middletown Township, Delaware County, Granite Run Mall is transforming into the Promenade at Granite Run. Ellis Preserve at Newtown Square will include a Hilton Garden Inn. The former site of the Echelon Mall in Voorhees is now Voorhees Town Center, which hosts the township building and is a venue for movie nights and other events. Owners of the College Square Shopping Center in Newark, Del., plan to add outdoor seating and open green space like that at the Village at Valley Forge.
The complexes might cost open space, but they help fill local coffers. The site of the Village at Valley Forge sprouted from a golf course and now generates more than $480,000 in annual local property taxes, according to Montgomery County. Main Street at Exton in West Whiteland Township, built at the site of a former horse farm, is paying about $1.25 million in local property taxes, public records show.
Some municipalities are embracing the trend and shaping how these complexes should look before developers come in with their own ideas. For example, Susquehanna Township, Dauphin County, passed an ordinance in February to create a "Traditional Neighborhood Development" district. Acceptable designs in this district would be "compact, mixed-use, walkable, and interconnected," with pedestrian gathering places, a "pedestrian orientation," and green spaces of a certain size.
The vision of developer Steven Wolfson and his partners in the 1990s spurred West Whiteland to amend its zoning ordinance to accommodate Main Street at Exton. Its movie theater, township building, shops, restaurants, and open space soon will be joined by a more than 400-unit apartment complex that also will incorporate the 170-year-old Ashbridge House on Commerce Drive. Developers hope to start construction this fall. The entire project brings city-style amenities to the suburbs, said Wolfson, president of Wolfson Group in Plymouth Meeting. Consumers can't get these perks from strip malls, he said.
"I own a lot of those shopping centers," he said. "I'm not putting them down. They serve a purpose." But in developments like his Exton property, according to Wolfson, "there's a different vibrancy."
John Weller, director of planning and zoning in West Whiteland, said officials are excited about the project. "We expect it's going to be a really notable and unique asset to our community and a real contribution to the housing stock here," he said.
In King of Prussia, Venkata Krishna, 31, who has worked there as an engineer for AT&T for eight years, says he can drive past the mall, park his car, and walk around the Village at Valley Forge, sampling new restaurants as they open. He said he and his wife are considering moving from Conshohocken into the townhouses Toll Brothers is building across from a Mission BBQ chain restaurant and a few hundred feet from LA Fitness.
"It's like a city in itself," Krishna said. "I like it for what it is."