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Embreeville psychiatric hospital may be demolished in deal that would preserve open space

The potential settlement agreement marks the end of a more than five-year saga, during which township officials, residents, and a development team disagreed on what should happen to the controversial psychiatric site.

Pictured in 2015, the former Embreeville State School and Hospital site has deteriorated for decades in West Bradford Township, Chester County. According to the developer who purchased the land on which the complex sits, the psychiatric facility suffers from asbestos, mold, and possible soil contamination.
Pictured in 2015, the former Embreeville State School and Hospital site has deteriorated for decades in West Bradford Township, Chester County. According to the developer who purchased the land on which the complex sits, the psychiatric facility suffers from asbestos, mold, and possible soil contamination.Read moreCourtesy Chaz Pozzi

After nearly six years of disagreement and litigation, a Chester County town and a local development team may have finally reached a deal regarding the fate of the Embreeville State School and Hospital — the abandoned and hulking former psychiatric hospital that has deteriorated in West Bradford Township for nearly 25 years.

Township Manager Justin Yaich said Tuesday that West Bradford had reached a “potential settlement agreement” with Embreeville Redevelopment LP, the team that has sought for years to transform the 16-building hospital site into a massive housing and commercial complex, despite vehement resident opposition. Residents have argued that the developers’ plans were far too dense for a suburban town that has seen its population swell by nearly 20% in the last 20 years. Many pushed for the parcel to become open space.

In the tentative deal, expected to be announced Wednesday at a township meeting, many residents will get the open-space commitment that they had been seeking. Under the terms being discussed, Embreeville Redevelopment will demolish and remediate the 900,000-square-foot psychiatric facility, which is believed to contain asbestos, mold, and possible soil contamination. Once the property is cleaned, the township is expected to buy the site for $22.5 million.

The township plans to keep the land — measuring more than 200 acres — as open space, which will include a mix of untouched forest and “active” recreation.

“This ensures that the property is cleaned up and preserved and isn’t developed as high-density housing,” Yaich said. “The impact that it would have had not just on our community, our traffic, our services, the school district — it would be such a big impact. The township felt the best way to control the outcome is to step up to the plate."

Since the Embreeville complex closed in the late 1990s after allegations of mistreatment of residents emerged, prompting a U.S. Department of Justice settlement, local officials have struggled to decide how to reuse the crumbling facility and the land that surrounds it. All the while, what was left of the hospital withered — the building’s insides almost frozen in time.

Yet the victory for West Bradford residents comes at a cost — literally. Yaich said the Embreeville land would be partially paid for with a new property tax imposed by West Bradford, which would generate enough money to float a bond to cover the purchase. Residents currently do not pay property taxes to the municipality, and instead pay real estate taxes to the county and the Downingtown Area School District.

Yaich said the new tax would be set at 1 mill or less. (One mill is equal to 1/1,000 of a dollar. So, a 1 mill tax rate on a median-priced home in the 19320 zip code — roughly $220,000, according to Zillow — would be $220 annually. The 19320 zip code includes parts of Embreeville and Coatesville.)

About half the land would be paid for by a township open space fund, Yaich said. “If we get any other outside contributions or money,” Yaich continued, “it will drive that [real estate tax] down.”

The $22.5 million price tag, according to Kenneth Hellings, one member of the three-person Embreeville Redevelopment team, will cover the site remediation, while also allowing the entity to recoup the nearly $1 million it paid for the land, plus project and attorneys’ fees. Hellings said Tuesday that he expects it will cost roughly $13.5 million to remediate the parcel.

The potential settlement — negotiated over roughly a month and a half — marks a sharp departure from the proposal Hellings has been pushing since his team acquired the site in 2013. If Embreeville Redevelopment had been victorious in its original pursuit, the hospital facility would have been demolished, enabling the developer to build 1,100 residential units and 50,000 square feet of commercial space. The plan included some untouched open space, plus “active recreation” and a dog park.

That wasn’t enough to satisfy many residents.

Still, Hellings’ team pushed forward, saying that the scale of the design was necessary to account for the cleanup costs. But for the project to work, Embreeville Redevelopment needed the township to approve a zoning change allowing for residential use on the land. Hellings later challenged West Bradford’s entire zoning ordinance as invalid, alleging that it does not meet the township’s obligation to provide enough multifamily housing.

That challenge still remains tied up in court. All ongoing litigation would be dropped once a deal is reached.

The tentative deal allows Embreeville Redevelopment to build 33 single-family homes on an adjacent 20 acres owned by the Chester County SPCA. That swath has always been included in the developer’s plans; documents related to the case indicate that Embreeville Redevelopment has the site under agreement. None of the settlement will apply to Newlin Township, where approximately 13 acres of the Embreeville site are.

The possible demolition of the Embreeville complex comes at a time when mental-health professionals are raising concerns about how former mental-health hospitals have become increasingly exploited around Halloween. In an Inquirer commentary this month, two Bucks County human-services professionals noted that the Pennhurst State School and Hospital had housed thousands of residents with physical and cognitive disabilities. Today’s “Pennhurst Asylum” Halloween attraction, they wrote, “makes a mockery” of individuals with developmental disabilities.

The land upon which Embreeville sits was initially the site of Chester County’s Poorhouse, erected to provide services for low-income residents. By the early 1900s, the state took control of the land as part of a broader network of public hospitals serving patients with cognitive disabilities. For a while, Embreeville was considered a model hospital because of its low return rates and efficient discharges.

That reputation shifted, however, by the end of the 20th century. By then, the hospital had closed, and a smaller state-run institution for the intellectually disabled had replaced it. There, allegations surfaced of mistreatment of residents — reports of physical harm and medication abuse. After a federal Justice Department lawsuit, Embreeville closed in 1997.

In the years after, state and township officials floated the idea of purchasing the land, but ultimately backed out. The state later moved to sell the Embreeville land in a public bid. Hellings and his partners offered the lone bid.

At Wednesday’s meeting, Yaich said the township will take residents’ comments on the agreement into consideration.

Hellings said both sides were working “in good faith right now."

“The solution is what you’re seeing — if the constituents want it preserved, make sure you pay us the value,” Hellings said. “The town is working hard to do that.”