Despite COVID-19, restrictions on in-person visits, and competition from at least eight other new residential projects nearby, the interest in Lochiel Farm, a townhouse development just east of the Exton Square Mall in Chester County, stunned its builder and local officials.
When potential buyers were asked last year to book a time to view the site’s models, there were five times more applicants than homes. The models hadn’t even gone up yet.
“They had like 700 people lined up for 142 units,” said John Weller, West Whiteland Township’s director of planning and zoning. “And it’s not just there. It’s been crazy at all these new developments.”
Throughout Chester County, the wealthiest, healthiest and best-educated of Pennsylvania’s 67 counties, residential development is exploding. Nowhere is that more evident than in West Whiteland, where the area around its crossroads hub of Exton has been growing as fast and plentifully as the corn that used to wave in the community’s dwindling farmland.
Low interest rates, zoning changes, $25 million in improvements to SEPTA’s Exton rail station, easy access to the Pennsylvania Turnpike, the recent addition of several parks and trails, and an influx of retail and restaurants have lured young professionals, empty-nesters and builders to an area once best known for the 35 foot-high plastic Guernsey cow that fronted a local ice cream shop.
“All those things created a perfect storm for us,” Weller said. “Nothing was happening here. Between 2007 and 2013, we granted permits for 10 dwellings. Ten. Now we’re at the point where you see a construction crane practically every time you turn a corner.”
This trend likely was sped up by the COVID pandemic. Analysts in many areas are seeing an increase in suburban home sales as virus-conscious home buyers flee crowded city sidewalks and realize that they can keep working from home, far from their nominal offices.
In the face of this growth, West Whiteland also has been grappling with major issues involving what had been its key shopping nucleus, the Exton Square Mall. There, two anchor stores and many other businesses have departed.
The mall property is the subject of a planning study that, given the overall real estate boom, is seeking to reimagine the site’s potential.
Home purchases have jumped regionally in recent months. In Chester County, the median sales price in October hit $395,000, an 8% increase over the previous year, according to Bright MLS real estate service. The county has the highest median home price in the eight-county region.
In West Whiteland, more than 2,000 new apartments, townhouses and single dwellings have been built or approved in recent years in a relatively small area of the township that flanks the busy intersection of Routes 30 and 100. The boom there was ignited by the 2016 sale of the Waterloo Gardens’ property.
“Once those 86 townhouses at Waterloo got approved, six more projects followed quickly,” Weller said.
The township has tried to shape the growth, viewed unhappily by some residents. In 2015, it revised its comprehensive plan to restrict the densest residential development in its 13 square miles to the Routes 30 and 100 corridors. The growth that followed has been so intense that the township’s 2010 population of 18,000 could soon reach 22,000.
One of the newcomers is Karene Salaam, 44, who works for a California tech firm. When that company was hired to install fiber-optic cable along the Pennsylvania Turnpike, she moved into the Reserve at Ashbridge, a new six-building complex set between the township headquarters and the Main Street at Exton shopping area.
“Exton had the charm I was looking for, and I’d looked in King of Prussia, Downingtown, everywhere,” she said. “I never have to leave home to go shopping or to restaurants.”
Within a mile of Ashbridge’s 410 units are J Creekside’s 291 apartments and the 242 at Keva Flats. To the north, Hanover Exton Square’s 331 units just debuted, and there’s a proposal for another 354-unit building nearby. Work is set to start at Exton Knoll, with 318 residences, to the east.
Most of these apartments are marketed as “luxury.” One-bedroom units can go for up to $2,000 a month.
In addition, nearly 500 townhouses and carriage houses — with price tags in the $500,000 range — and 100 or so more expensive single-family residences are going up in the township.
“The most common question we get,” Weller said, “is who are all these people moving in?”
Many new residents are young professionals or busy senior citizens looking for low-maintenance, luxury living, developers and township officials say. A growing community of South Asians has taken root in Exton, where several Indian restaurants and groceries have opened. And recently, an influx of Philadelphians has arrived.
“We feel like Exton is ground zero in light of all that’s going on in Philadelphia,” said Stephen Wolfson, president of the Wolfson Group, which developed Ashbridge, as well as the adjacent Main Street at Exton.
“It’s right in the path of people who are leaving the city and jumping out either to King of Prussia or Exton,” he said. “You can walk to the train station and be in Philadelphia in 50 minutes or New York in two hours. You can jump on the new bike path and ride it into the city.”
The recently upgraded SEPTA station, serviced by Amtrak and the Paoli-Thorndale regional rail line, has been such a draw that township officials are talking with the transit agency to add service.
Meanwhile, despite COVID fears and retail contraction elsewhere, several chain restaurants have recently opened in Exton, as have two supermarkets, a Whole Foods and an Aldi.
“All this development can look pretty haphazard if you’re just driving by,” Weller said, “but a lot of underlying thought and strategy has gone into it. We’ve looked at traffic and open-space planning. We’ve persuaded developers to restore some of our historic buildings. We’ve even managed the storm water.”
Exton is roughly 30 miles from Center City Philadelphia and its housing prices have remained lower than many closer-in suburbs. The township had hoped the density of new development along Route 30 would insure a supply of less-expensive homes. But the spike in demand has countered those intentions.
“By increasing supply, our intent was that basic economics would take over and keep prices from becoming too astronomical,” Weller said. “But given the price points on these new units, I don’t know that this has been entirely successful.”
Median household income in the township now exceeds $110,000, climbing by a third in the last decade. The share of Asian residents has spiked from 11% to 17%. The percentage of Black residents — 4.5% — fell over the last decade, census figures show.
Curiously, in a kind of odd commercial biology, as everything around it is expanding, the community’s longtime economic and social center, the Exton Square Mall, is struggling. Sears and J.C. Penney are gone, and numerous other storefronts are empty. When the mall’s owner, Pennsylvania Real Estate Investment Trust (PREIT), filed for bankruptcy Nov. 1, store operators were told the mall would be open at least through the end of the year.
Residents are worried about the future of the 70-acre property at the intersection of Routes 30 and 100. Township officials dispelled rumors of an Amazon warehouse proposed there.
Already the Whole Foods and Hanover Exton Square have been built on what had been mall property, and the township is weighing a plan to add a five-story apartment building on the site of a former Sears Automotive business.
The hectic development has led West Whiteland to seek outside help. Last month, the township hosted a three-day visit by members of the Philadelphia chapter of the Urban Land Institute, who will make recommendations by year’s end.
“We approached ULI and said, `We’re a thriving community, in fact we might be thriving a little more than we’re comfortable with. At the same time, we have some great opportunities, and we don’t want to screw it up,’ ” Weller said.
As for the mall, Weller said township leaders had been in touch with PREIT executives. Without providing details, he said, “I can say they have a lot of good and creative ideas.
“But even if the worst happens and PREIT goes belly up, that property is truly prime real estate. Someone is going to come in and do something there.”
For Weller, what has been the most striking is how brisk the buying and leasing has remained given COVID-19.