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First Block Report

WEST CHESTER BUSINESS IMPROVEMENT DISTRICT

FIRST BLOCK COMMITTEE

November 23, 2009 

COMPILATION of COMMENTS

Purpose

Provide and assist the Chester County Board of Commissioners by obtaining input into the potential re-use of the Historic Courthouse and disposition of the county properties located within the First Block generally regarded as the block bordered by High, Market, Gay, and Church Streets.

Members of the First Block Committee:

Jackie Van Grofski, chair; Don Thompson, Lance Nelson, Ernie McNeely, and Malcolm Johnstone (minutes).

Why This Is Important

This block, informally titled The First Block, sits right in the center of downtown West Chester. Whatever happens on the block will have a visible and direct effect on neighboring downtown businesses. The future reuse of the eight County-owned properties will have a significant impact because they consist of approximately 60,000 square-feet of footprint and 215,530 square-feet of office space (source: Bernardon & Associates Architects, PC, 1999). Additionally one of these buildings is the historic 1846 Courthouse designed by Thomas U. Walter and there is, of course, community concern over what the future will hold for this historic resource. It is important to consider the future disposition and reuse of all of these County-owned properties as they are significant to the history and future of West Chester. 

Invited Interviewees

Interviews were conducted September 9, September 23, October 7, and October 21 in 15 minute intervals.

Invitations were extended to:

Blair Mahoney, Chester County Conference & Visitor Bureau; Pat Comerford, business leader; Dave Fairman, business leader; Bruce Cavin, Architect; Jason Alexander, concerned citizen; Karen Simmons, Chester County Community Foundation; John Featherman, business leader; Kim Hall, Chester County Historical Society; Katie Walker, Chamber of Commerce of the Greater West Chester Area; Nancy Keefer, Chester County Chamber of Business & Industry; Gary Smith, Chester County Economic Development Council; Ray Ott, resident; Sue Bayne, West Chester Borough Council; Wendy Hoffman & John Stanzione, Chester County Bar Association; Pat O'Donnell, concerned citizen; Walter Hipple,West Chester Historical & Architectural Review Board; Bill Scott, resident; Tom Comitta, resident; A. Roy Smith, resident.

Appendix A includes the specific suggestions of each presenter.  Appendix B includes additional comments and citizens are encouraged to submit their comments.

 

SUMMARY of COMMENTS (listed by category)

General

●  Incorporate more green space and passage connections including pocket parks and other outdoor gathering space.

●  Consider the need for parking to accommodate any future development.

The Historic Courthouse

●  Locate a central visitors center near the entrance area of the Courthouse.

●  Develop interpretive displays (e.g., the Underground Railroad) that tell the story of the Brandywine Valley and its place in American history creating a destination for the area.

●  Conduct outdoor public functions in the front area and/or fountain courtyard.

●  Develop partnerships with the Chester County Historical Society and other destination organizations. 

●  Allow complimentary non-profit agencies to locate their offices there.

●  Offer space to the group of publicly accessed non-profit organizations. Suggestions include: Chester County Conference & Visitors Bureau; Chester County Bar Association: Chamber of Commerce of Greater West Chester; a new arts and cultural center.

●  Keep Courtroom #1 intact for special occasions, public/ceremonial use for judicial, municipal, cultural and historic activities.

Northwing (Five story, 1966 structure just north of the Courthouse)

●  Create an events center that could act as a Chester County Convention Center on the first and second levels with offices retained in the upper levels.

●  Create a 'resource center' that may accommodate such things as a satellite location for classroom space such as a satellite campus for a university; exercise programs and activities; business incubator space; and affordable housing units for senior citizens.

●  Remain an office building.

●  It should be torn down and rebuilt as a more compatible structure to the neighborhood with retail.

●  Develop as a mixed-use commercial, residential and public building with a strong arts and cultural identity along the lines of Avenue of the Arts concept.

●  Retain and lease it until such time as the County needs additional space.

●  Create retail anchored by a farmer's market on the ground floor like Reading Terminal or Wayne.

●  Maintain the vertical frieze, i.e.: that portion of the High Street facade engraved with the names of prominent historical West Chester groups and individuals.

●  The Shenton mural, located above the vertical frieze on the High Street facade, should be removed and relocated appropriately.

Mosteller Department Store Complex (Gay & Church) including 24-32 West Gay Street (which were separate buildings and still have separate facades)

●  Demolish and construct new.

●  First floor be reserved only as walk-in retail stores or restaurants.

●  Incorporate a Chester County Avenue of the Arts concept. Use Church Street (between Gay & Market Sts) as an extension for periodic open air functions.

●  Focus on mixed-use development for retail at street level and professional office space in the second and third floor areas with a parking component.

●  There should be building modules with smaller footprints to accommodate the small businesses downtown is known for.

●  Create covenants for historic facades including the southern facade of the Mosteller Building on Church Street near Courthouse Alley plus 24-32 W Gay St.

●  Retain and preserve the facades of the 24-32 West Gay Street buildings.

Market Street structures (33, 35, 37 West Market)

●  Focus on private development which would provide job opportunities and divest each structure to the private sector returning them to the tax rolls.

HARB Report

Relevant information about the structures may be seen at Historical & Architectural Survey of the Proposed Justice Center Area, March 2001. This report was prepared by the West Chester Historical & Architectural Review Board in reference to the County's previous consideration of locating the Justice Center there.

 

APPENDIX A

Specific Suggestions of Each Presenter

Those who accepted invitations were interviewed on September 9, September 23, October 7, and October 21, 2009 in 15 minute intervals.

Blair Mahoney, Chester County Conference & Visitor Bureau

Pat Comerford, business leader

Dave Fairman, business leader

Bruce Cavin, architect

Jason Alexander, consultant

Karen Simmons, Chester County Community Foundation

John Featherman, business leader

Katie Walker, Chamber of Commerce of the Greater West Chester Area

Gary Smith, Chester County Economic Development Council

Ray Ott, resident

Sue Bayne, West Chester Borough Council

Wendy Hoffman & John Stanzione, Chester County Bar Association

Pat O'Donnell, resident

Walter Hipple,West Chester Historical & Architectural Review Board

Bill Scott, resident

Tom Comitta, resident

A. Roy Smith, resident

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Blair Mahoney, Executive Director, Chester County Conference & Visitors Bureau

Mr. Mahoney indicated that Main Streets of the Brandywine Valley would be the key to marketing for his agency along with the other attractions in Chester County. Tourism is a significant economic driver and is the second largest revenue generator and second largest employer category in the County.

His interest is to locate the central visitors center and administrative offices in the Historic Courthouse. That facility could house several venues such as interpretive displays (e.g., the Underground Railroad) that tell the story of the Brandywine Valley and its place in American history creating a destination for the area. There are also opportunities for outdoor functions in the front area and the fountain courtyard. Such activities would raise awareness and create opportunities for public relations and tourism development. There should be partnerships with the Chester County Historical Society and other destination organizations. 

Patrick Comerford (submitted)

Thank you for taking time to hear my suggestion for the disposition of the county properties on the First Block.

The estimated market value of these properties could be around fifteen million dollars.  The value of our Downtown is still "priceless".  With the new buildings, justice center, garages, hotels, etc., the town center needs some room to breath. This is an opportunity for the county to create "urban open space" and pedestrian easements that create corridors to our major streets (Gay, High, Market, and Church). I believe that these properties could be sold with some open space easements that a future developer might find value in.

A future developer could be subsidized by county, state or Federal grants. As you know, our county commissioners campaigned on the issue of preserving open space.  I am proposing that the same principles and methods of conservation easements be applied to our First Block.  The county requests that land owners talk with conservation groups before they sell their land.  Why would the County not consider leaving more open space around the Historic Courthouse while they still have control of it?  A portion of the north wing property could easily provide room for a pocket park, or perhaps visitor parking for visits to court room #1. This "urban open space" could  range from pedestrian easements to the demolition of the north wing and part of the Mosteller Annex.  The market value, less the value of the easements, could reduce the price to where a developer could focus on the more valuable Mosteller property on Gay and Church.

In our current economic condition, a government stimulus to a private developer might be the partial solution the county needs to divest a property of this size.   And rather than dispose the property -- begin to create a vision for the future of our First Block. 

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David Fairman, owner of Fairman's Skate, Snow & Surf (submitted)

September 9, 2009

To: First Block Committee

From: Dave Fairman, FAIRMAN'S Skate, Snow & Surf Shop

Re: Excerpts from this morning's presentation

We are very fortunate to have such a solid base of existing businesses in our downtown; but West Chester cannot be considered the destination location that we all imagine it could be, without a clear and shared vision from all of its governing bodies. We have to be able to maintain a real downtown in order to stave off formidable competition from surrounding shopping areas that strive to look like the downtown we already have.

In my opinion, county commissioners need to relinquish control of all but the historic portion of the courthouse. It should be carefully preserved and used for special events, ceremonies and educational purposes.

The entire balance of the parcel must be sold, not leased, to a single, capable, creative, environmentally conscious developer immediately.  Knock it all down, no need to save any of the current structure.  The developer should be chosen on the merit of past work, not simply awarded to the highest bidder.  The developer must have credible experience in similar downtown settings in regards to establishing an historic feel while providing modern amenities to downtown residents and guests. The developer must also agree to meet borough requirements as to the look and use of the entire space as well as the ability to comply with aggressive deadlines for completion.

The "first block" project could and should be the jewel of our downtown. The "first block" could and should re-start the next downtown West Chester "revival."  The Borough, the BID and the Chamber of Commerce need to form an advisory committee to set strict guidelines to which the developer must adhere. The new space should be filled with quality independent and/or nationally recognized retailers that are approved by this committee.

It is ultimately critical that all of the first floor square footage of "the first block" be reserved only as walk-in retail stores or restaurants. A thoughtful mix of store sizes and product offerings is important. Residents should be able to get anything they need without ever leaving this borough.

Apparel and shoes. Dry goods. Groceries. Personal services. Perhaps an art-house style cinema. The plan could include common, open-air spaces that are both visible and accessible from multiple streets. The space should be inviting and beautiful and wireless. It should maintain the historic feel of a "walking" downtown.  Out of town visitors and West Chester University students and their families should be encouraged and welcomed. Kiosks with walking guides and updateable listings and locations of businesses should be installed on key corners.

I believe that struggling downtown retailers and restaurateurs don't care if the courthouse, Mosteller and adjoining or adjacent properties are sold as one, two or more parcels. Only that the project finally gets under way and that positive progress becomes evident. More than enough time has been wasted. A decade has passed us by. The short and long term success of the entire downtown has been compromised by the lack of action from all parties involved in this debate.

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Bruce Cavin, Architect

Mr. Cavin submitted a rendering of what could be considered for the space where the Mosteller structure now stands. He suggested more green space and a parking structure of one or two levels with the possibility of opening up a walk through space between the North Wing and the historic Annex.

See PDF of Bruce Cavin concept rendering.

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Jason D. Alexander, Principal and Co-Founder, Capacity for Change, LLC

Karen Simmons, Executive Director, Chester County Community Foundation (submitted)

Re:  The disposition of the County properties, generally regarded as the Mosteller structure (corner of Gay & Church) and the North Wing (the 1966 structure just north of the historic courthouse) plus the adaptive reuse of the historic courthouse.

Credentials

Principal and Co-Founder of Capacity for Change, LLC, a West Chester-based public interest consulting firm that works with arts and cultural organizations throughout the region; Professional planning and economic development training and experience; Maintains a donor-advised fund at the Chester County Community Foundation; Working with the Greater Brandywine Cultural Alliance and the Chester County Community Foundation on a regional cultural planning initiative for Chester County.

Testimony

1. Arts and culture matter to the future of West Chester's economic and community development.

● According to the Greater Philadelphia Cultural Alliance, arts cultural organizations and their audiences in Greater Philadelphia spend 1.3 billion, annually.

● 40,000 jobs generated by economic activity of the region's arts and cultural sector and $158 million in taxes returned to state and local communities.

● West Chester has a thriving arts and cultural sector, but it lacks a strong presence in the center of West Chester's business district. Arts improve our quality of life for all members of the community. Employers better attract and retain present and future employees where a thriving local arts sector exists.

2. The adaptive reuse of some of the entire historic courthouse as a community arts space for community-approved exhibits, performances and gatherings would build West Chester's identity as a regional center for arts and culture.

● Generate new tax revenue for the Borough from increase in visitors and residents use of nearby restaurants, shops, parking lots and other amenities.

● West Chester would benefit from having a greater arts presence in the center of the Borough; many of our arts organizations are located on the periphery or just outside the Borough -- this strategy ties into our broader regional cultural planning process.

● A cultural center in a historic courthouse could maintain a community arts calendar for professional and grassroots arts organizations and their patrons.

3. The North Wing could be developed as a mixed use commercial, residential and public building with a strong arts and cultural identity to complement the adaptive reuse of the courthouse as a community arts space.

●  The Avenue of the Arts is a good model for building an arts and culture identity for a commercial district:

●  Hotel room occupancy has risen to 73.1% in 2005 from 60% in 2001.

●  Performing Arts organizations and venues on the Avenue generate a total of nearly $10 million a year in taxes for Pennsylvania, 70% greater than the tax impact in 2001. Arts patrons spend $84.2 million at venues and organizations, which includes food, lodging, transportation, etc.

●  The PA Arts Experience Trail, a public-private partnership to bring high-end arts patrons from the Southeast Pennsylvania region here to visit the area for a week and buy local art, is coming to Chester County and could have its base of operations in the North Wing.

●  The Chester County Conference and Visitors Bureau may establish a second office in West Chester also located in the North Wing.

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John Featherman, First National Bank of Chester County 

John Featherman believes the county should retain ownership of their properties, or at least the North Wing, due to the likelihood of further growth of county services. 

There should be development of green areas throughout the complex of structures.

If the Mosteller is divested, mixed-use with retail is the best option.

The courtrooms in the North Wing and/or Historic Courthouse could be used by other state or federal justice agencies or the civil courts could be relocated there.

Expansion of Borough departments into the Historic Courthouse would be a compatible use.

A historic interpretive component should be developed for the Historic Courthouse.

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Katie Walker, President, West Chester Chamber of Commerce

Katie Walker suggested that the Chamber, BID, Chester County CVB, and even the Borough Parks & Recreation Dept. could move into the Historic Courthouse since each is compatible to the other. 

The North Wing could be remodeled into an events center on the first and second levels with offices retained in the upper levels.  Such an events center would fill a need for meetings and banquets of up to 400 persons currently missing in the greater West Chester area.  Parking would be less of an issue with an events center since users would be periodic and mostly in the evening to take advantage of flex scheduling in the parking garages.

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Gary Smith, Executive Director, Chester County Economic Development Council (submitted)

re: Comments on disposition of County properties in downtown West Chester.

The following properties are located in the First Block - (High, Market, Church and Gay Streets)

a. adaptive re-use of Historic Courthouse

b. Mosteller structure (corner of Gay and Church)

c. North wing (1966 structure, just north of the historic courthouse)

d. Plus three other contiguous properties on Market Street.

Future use of historic courthouse: the goal, here, should be to attract people to the Downtown area.  Possibilities include:

1. Agree with the county proposal to separate the historic courthouse and the north wing building, Mosteller building and two structures on Gay Street into two separate real estate parcels.

2. Keep courtroom #1 intact and make it available for special occasions, public/ceremonial use for municipal, cultural and/or historic groups.

3. Make office space in the building available for county-wide, non-profit tourism and marketing, and/or cultural groups, such as the Chester County Conference and Visitors Bureau, Chester County Art Association, American Mushroom Institute, Chester County sports hall of fame, Chester County hall of heroes, agricultural preservation groups, and small groups with a historic preservation mission.  It would, however, not appear to be a good fit for a large organization like the Chester County Historical Society, and its vast museum, library and archives collections, due to the expensive retrofit costs which would be necessary to provide humidity, conservation and security controls which do not exist there now.

Mosteller structure: focus on mixed-use and returning properties to tax-rolls:

1. Keep/Re-establish retail establishments in the existing street level storefronts.

2. Provide professional office space in the second and third floor areas.

North Wing:

1. Consider the possibilities of locating a downtown satellite location for classroom space for an educational institution such as West Chester University, Penn State University, Delaware County College, etc.

2. Bring back appropriate adult-oriented, workday exercise programs and activities of the YMCA so that people working in downtown West Chester have additional options.

3. Provide business incubator space for entrepreneurial activities for the first two years of a small business operation to reduce overhead costs and facilitate their ability to succeed and create jobs.

4. Create affordable housing units for senior citizens which would be located in a convenient downtown walkable setting, close to retail establishments, churches, medical services, social services and transportation center.

Three Other Market Street Properties

1. Focus on private development which would provide job opportunities and return these structures to the tax rolls.

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Ray Ott, Principal, Ray Ott & Associates

Inventory of space; concentrate on economically viable uses (a lot of planning doesn't focus on economically viable uses); nice to preserve courthouse and Court Room #1 for public functions; County should consider future space needs; Mosteller? historically significant? pretty subjective - doesn't think that important; if you're going to consider public space / park think about Gay & Church street corner.

View the market from the private sector point-of-view; i.e.: property managers and landlords.

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Sue Bayne, representing Borough Council of West Chester (submitted)

General Comments - Converting tax-exempt, county-owned property to taxable property is a good thing. I think the buildings should be sold off separately so that the historic nature of the First Block can be maintained. No demolition of the two historic buildings that are between Kildare's and the old Mosteller building.  Something that attracts visitors to town who will park in garages and also patronize restaurants in a sane and responsible manner would not be good.  Concert hall, Museum of Pop Culture (for profit, naturally), or business headquarters (i.e. QVC) would all work. Otherwise, it looks like mixed use (business during the day and residence at night).

Suggestions for use:

● First floor spaces must not become offices.  They must convert to some form of retail.

● The Mosteller and North Wing parcel must convert to some form of retail.

● Movie theatre on first floor.

● Grocery store on first or second floor.

● "It is the first time in 20 years that we have an opportunity to create a cohesive shopping district and I certainly do not want to lose that."

● "Commercial use is OK, although it is hard to imagine anything that will turn the town center into a shopping mecca as long as the malls in Exton, East Bradford, and the Goshens remain so much more accessible by automobile."

● Upper floors, would love to see them as condos.

● WCU graduate housing

● Age-qualified condos

● Offices

● Residences

● Grocery store on first or second floor

● "Residential is the best solution as it creates a tax base and keeps people in town 24/7.  That helps to keep the town safe because people are on the streets shopping, dining, and just plain living there."

Additional suggestions:

● Urban Pocket Park

General concerns:

● Any redevelopment of any part of the Courthouse property will present a strain on traffic and parking. The biggest problem with that block is providing parking for whoever lives or works there.

● Need underground parking (if possible).

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Wendy Hoffman & John Stanzione, Chester County Bar Association (submitted)

The Chester County Bar Association is a non-profit organization representing approximately 1,000 attorneys; provides legal services and various law-related programs to Chester County citizens.

The Chester County Bar Association currently owns the building located at 15 West Gay Street.  We provide many programs, services and publications to the public, including:

●  Lawyer Referral Service

●  "Access to Justice" pro bono legal services program

●  Law Reporter

●  Law-Related Education program

●  The People's Law School adult education program

●   Law Explorers

●  Elder Law Senior Guide

●  Law Day programs (mock trial, essay contest)

We support local law-related organizations, such as Legal of Southeastern Pennsylvania, the Crime Victims' Center and the Domestic Violence Center.  We also award over $25,000 per year in grants through our bar foundation that help to fund the programs listed above as well as provide scholarships.

As our building provides more space than our needs require, we have become dependent on rental income.  Approximately 4,800 square feet of space on our 3rd floor has been vacant for over a year.  In addition, a recent renovation of our building has put the organization in a more full leveraged financial position.

As the county considers the use of the Historic Courthouse (and the rest of the First Block properties), the Chester County Bar Association would like to be considered in the future plans of this historic law-related building.  The concept of offering this space to a group of publicly accessed non-profit organizations would serve the citizens of Chester County well by providing much better marketability and public access, while at the same time support the historic nature of this building.  It would also allow for the sharing of common areas (i.e. meeting rooms, bathrooms, staff rooms, etc.) that would provide substantial cost savings to each organization.  We are open to discussions on financial remuneration, as well, in order to support the ongoing sustainability of this historic landmark. 

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Pat O'Donnell, Attorney and previous Chester County Commissioner

Because there is no question of the historic value of the Mosteller structure, it should be torn down.  The building is way past its useful life.  A provision might be made for the two antique structures facing Gay Street, which are surrounded by the old Mosteller structure, and perhaps for the façade at the old Sheriff’s entrance.

While there are parking questions, a good use of that location would be a library branch and/or law library or some first floor retail use which would bring in additional foot traffic.  The Borough should adopt a zoning ordinance requirement that any building in that space must be a minimum of four stories.

For the North Wing: retail and/or a movie theater would be a good use.  A better choice would be to tear down the North Wing and devote the resulting space to a green/open space.  An aerial view of the site demonstrates that a public commons space would highlight and set off the historic courthouse structures and significantly enhance the block and the entire central business district.  The building which replaces the Mosteller building would be visible from High street, at the back of the public commons, and could integrate with the commons area and historic structures.

The historic Courthouse can attract people and agencies complimentary to the structure. The Visitors Bureau might work there, or the Brandywine Cultural Alliance.

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Walter Hipple, Chair of the West Chester Historic & Architectural Review Board (submitted)

Along the canals of Amsterdam, the rows of brick houses rise unbroken on either side just as they did in the 17th century.  There are no high-rises and no stylistic intrusions.  Those old brick facades, however, are the fronts of modern offices and dwellings that have been rebuilt behind them.  So Amsterdam, though it looks like an architectural museum--and thus, draws tourists from around the world-- is not really a museum.  In fact, it is more productive and wealthy, per capita, than any city in America.

Now, there is a model for West Chester.  True, we don't have canals, but we do have rows of brick facades with, as yet, not too many high-rises and stylistic intrusions.  It's part of the job of the Historical and Architectural Review Board, which I chair, to keep it that way.  We recognize that here, unlike Amsterdam, we must make compromises.  The pressure of developers who claim (truly or not) that only larger buildings are financially viable, and the pressure of the borough's own administration, focused on tax revenue, makes it impossible to keep entirely unaltered the appearance that gives West Chester its individuality.  But we can still keep enough to retain the identity of our town.

If we make the right decisions!  One of those decisions confronts us now:  what is to be done with the buildings' ancillary to the old courthouse?  No one, I suppose, advocates tearing down West Chester's most distinguished building, the Courthouse, itself.  But the ancillary buildings, some of which are part of the traditional fabric of our town center (and some of which are not) are at risk.

There are three quite different properties in that complex.  There is, first, the Courthouse Annex on High St.  Now, this is a six-story building in a more-or-less Art Deco style--not 19th-century brick like the buildings next to it (one of which, indeed, dates from the late 18th century).  The annex doesn't exactly fit in, and if it were being built today we might raise some questions.  Still, it has become part of our cityscape and it ought to be preserved.  It's an office building now:  Why can it not remain one?

Then, there are the buildings in mid-block on Gay St.  Two of them are, indeed, part of the three-story brick style that characterizes downtown West Chester.  At the same time, when the new courthouse was being planned, I and many others worked very hard to keep them.  The County had thought of tearing them down in order to put the gigantic, new courthouse there, in the town center--but was, in the end, persuaded to build on the perimeter, not in the center of town.

The County is not always sensitive to historic preservation if it interferes with some building scheme.  They wanted to tear down Joel's building on Church Street--once the office of The Village Record--and even got a compliant inspector to declare it unsafe.  But I went through that building with our own structural engineer, and we found it to be quite salvageable.  Now, as you know, it has been restored--you might say in Amsterdam fashion--and is again a viable part of the town center.

But to return to the present issue -- Those buildings in mid-block on Gay Street should be preserved.  That is, their facades should remain.  Their interiors have long been modified and re-modified--and can be re-modified again.  Like Amsterdam.

The third cluster of County buildings is the three Mosteller buildings along Church Street. The one to the South is a respectable building, with good brick and fine arched windows.  The one in the middle is totally undistinguished, either for good or for ill.  It has neither historical nor architectural value.  The third building, on the corner of Gay Street, is an affront to West Chester and should be without compunction, demolished.  My view--to get to the bottom line--is that I could see all three of these buildings go, without much regret, but what regret I would feel would be for the building at the South end.

To conclude: since I see such different values for the various buildings in the complex, I should not like to see all of them combined in a reverse subdivision, as that might imply some oversized development, together with attendant destruction of buildings significant for the town center.  There should be, in my view, at least the three parcels which I have distinguished--the Courthouse Annex, the Gay Street buildings, and the Mosteller buildings.  The buildings in the first two parcels should be preserved.

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From Bill Scott (submitted)

"Incomplete Draft" Memo

Suggested Factors for Consideration In Divestiture by the County of West Chester, First Block Properties

According to the 9/8/09 DLN front page article:

"County representatives said county officials want to get these properties off of their hands and let a private developer take care of deciding what should become of them.

And the letter inviting presenters to testify before the BID First Block Committee states:

The Committee will only address those items that advance the ability to divest the properties with the highest return for both buyer and seller ... Yet the County has asked for public input.  Hopefully, this means that the Commissioners recognize that the First Block properties are in a crucial location and are significantly unique so that the Commissioners will give real priority to the well-being of the greater West Chester area community in the process of divestiture."

First Block Historically Commercial Buildings

 {To be added}

The Historic Courthouse

The Historic Courthouse should remain in County ownership for use by County government, especially the commissioners, themselves, their immediate staff and, beyond that, whatever County offices sensibly fit.  Courtroom 1 could be the Commissioners' Public Meeting room.  There is plenty of good, usable space in the 19th century Courthouse to accommodate the Commissioners and their staff. Both Courtrooms 1 and 2 are gems that must be preserved.  I cannot conceive how they can be used appropriately for other than public meeting rooms.  Keep in mind that our Chester County Court predates the United States Supreme Court.  I know that There is a plan for the Commissioners to move into new construction on the 300 block of West Market.  Nevertheless, my suggestion is that when the Commissioners make their space plans, they begin with the premise that they will end up in the Historic Courthouse.

The 1966 North Wing

The North Wing should not be demolished.  The County ought to hold on to it and lease it.  If a long term lease is negotiated, the tenant should be made to do the necessary renovations.  If the County is intent on selling the North Wing, it ought to sell to a purchaser that will adaptively reuse the building without changing the height or the front and its monumental (for West Chester) vertical frieze.  First floor retail is always desirable.

The Shenton Mural in the North Wing should be removed and relocated appropriately.  The mural was commissioned at the time that the wing was first constructed.  The artist was noted Chester County writer and illustrator Edward Shenton and it depicts the history of Chester County.  It is on to he South wall of what was originally the Orphans Courtroom located on the first floor.  My understanding is that it can be moved even though the painting is on a plaster wall.

What follows is the first item that came up in a Google Search of Shenton.  The illustration is an example of his work; not the North Wing mural:

"An illustrator, author, poet, and teacher Edward Shenton earned special distinction as the illustrator of the 1938 novel, The yearling, by Marjorie Kinnan Rawlings.  He also illustrated Tender IS The Night by F. Scott Fitzgerald, Green Hills of Africa by Ernest Hemmingway and books by Robinson Jeffers, Thomas Wolfe, William Faulkner, and Alan Villiers.  Beginning in the late 1920's, he was the illustrator for many years for Scribner's Magazine."

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Tom Comitta, Principal, Thomas Comitta Associates, Inc & Landscape Architects

The First Block should be developed to include a Civic Space.

There should be building modules with smaller footprints to accommodate the small businesses downtown is known for.  It is easier to re-occupy and re-populate small space.

There should be a public outreach process stating that the committee has come up with findings but asking the question: did we miss anything?

There could be a Transfer of Development Rights (TDR).  Although it might be a stretch, TDR could be evaluated as a tool to make two (2) or more downtown projects viable. I would be available to explain how TDR might work.  Realize that TDR in Chester County has been primarily focused in suburban and rural communities.  However, TDR was born in New York City and potentially still has a place in an urban environment.

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A. Roy Smith (submitted)

A Vision For Gay and Church Streets (previously presented in 2001)

I think we need to agree on what we want for the properties to be vacated along Market, Church and Gay Streets by the County, and then determine how is the best way to achieve that vision.  From my perspective, I would like to see:

1. The first floors of all properties would be converted to a combination of retail and service shops.

2. The second and third floors would be converted to a combination of commercial and residential.

3. The corner of Gay and Church (only the portion now covered with corrugated siding) would be demolished and a new, architecturally compatible building would be constructed per items 1 & 2 above.  I could see this building being perhaps as many as five stories tall, especially in those additional stories were devoted to residential. Alternatively, this space could be used as the site of a small arts theatre.

4. All facades (other than Gay and church) would be rehabilitated, with inappropriate changes that occurred over the past several years being removed.

5. Some of the additions to the rear of the properties could possibly be removed to provide additional off-street parking, especially for residents.

6. Several of the properties (e.g. the three on Market) could be combined on the first floor to provide larger retail spaces that are not now available in the Borough.

7. While the County will not be vacating space probably before early 2006, there should be an effort to obtain the Village Record building immediately (used only for storage by the County) so as to preserve it and to demonstrate the viability of the reinvestment proposal.  The Borough may have to play a significant, direct role in making this happen.

So, how do we get there?

Since the County has expressed no desire to be involved in the redevelopment process, it is up to the Borough to take the lead.  However, a panel of interested and knowledgeable persons should convene to assess all of the possibilities and make a recommendation to Council as to how it believes is the best way to proceed.  The BID is in the best position to do this, but it does add another thing to the BID's already full plate.

First Block Development Thoughts (presented 9 - 9 - 09)

1. Get advice as to whether or not it might be better to sell off the properties individually, at the very least the North Wing, separately from the Gay and Church Street properties.

2. Consider including facade preservation restrictions for the Gay and Church Street properties, excluding the Gay and Church Street corner building.

3. Give incentives to a purchaser (e.g. accepting a lower price) who presents the best renovation and rehabilitation for the historic properties.

 

APPENDIX B

Additional Comments

Note: Citizens are encouraged to submit their comments. As with the presentors above, only submissions with the authors name attached can be considered. Email your comments to Malcolm Johnstone.

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February  9, 2010
 
To: Chester County Board of Commissioners
 
From: H Paul Fitzpatrick
Chair, West Chester Business Improvement District Board of Directors
 
re: Recommendation for First Block Development
 
In the spring of last year the Board of Commissioners requested that the West Chester Business Improvement District (BID) assist them in gathering information regarding the disposition of the County properties on what has become known as the "First Block" (bounded by Gay, High, Church and Market streets). The BID organized an ad hoc committee referred to as the First Block Committee composed of representatives from the County, the Borough and the BID to conduct interviews with individuals from the public and private sectors.  The results of these interviews (17 in all) were compiled into a summary document (Compilation of Comments) provided to you on February 9, 2010.  Although this document included comments and recommendations from the interviewees, neither the Committee nor the BID made comments or recommendations at that time.  

Below are comments and recommendations that have been agreed to by the Board of Directors of the BID at their meeting of February 9, 2010 for your consideration.

Comments & Recommendations
1) The County should retain ownership of the Historic Courthouse and use it (Courtroom #1, especially) for ceremonial purposes and as a space for local non-profits, including the Chester County Conference & Visitors Bureau. Courtroom #2 still retains its original historic integrity and should be preserved.

2) The North Wing should be considered for use as a resource center for a variety of uses such as presentational, educational, entertainment, banquet, office and professional space; and, potentially for future County space needs.  

3) The County should advise potential buyers of concerns regarding parking for future uses. The scale and character of development proposals need to respect the historic qualities of the town center, specifically following the Design Guidelines for the West Chester Historic District. Development plans should include ground floor retail/commercial activities which will bring activity and life to the town center.

4) The County has been discussing how to dispose of these properties for nearly ten years. Some of the properties have been vacant for over a year. There is concern that if the historic properties remain vacant for a prolonged period of time they could deteriorate to the point where appropriate rehabilitation and renovation would no longer be possible.  The County needs to determine its disposition program and initiate it as soon as possible.  In doing so the County should reconsider the pros and cons of selling the real estate entirely to one developer or selling to separate buyers including: the time that it would take to sell and put into use the property(ies); the legal and governmental complications involved; the dollar amount realizable; the consistency with land use policies developed and funded by the County such as Landscapes; and the relative ease or difficulty of utilizing preservation easements/deed restrictions that may prove desirable. The BID will assist the County in whatever way it can to ensure the program is effectively and efficiently implemented.

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From: Bill Scott

DRAFT  18 Dec. 2009

Suggested Factors for Consideration in Divestiture of County Properties on the Gay/Church/Market Street Portion of West Chester's First Block

1. Six Historic Buildings Should be Adaptively Reused/Preserved/Saved

A.  Identification
In 2001 the West Chester Historical and Architectural Board of Review (HARB), at the request of Borough Council, issued a Report concerning possible demolition of the Western portion of the First Block by the County.  It concluded that demolition of six of the buildings, which are now soon to be sold by the County, would be an irreplaceable loss to the historic character of downtown West Chester.  As a result of the circumstances at that time, West Chester was placed on the Pennsylvania historic properties endangered list.  Ultimately, the County changed its plans and developed the 200 block of West Market instead of the First Block because of the advantages that that location provided and the limitations evident on the First Block.

The six buildings are:
32 W. GAY STREET;
34 W. GAY STREET;
17-21 N. CHURCH STREET;
33 W. MARKET STREET;
35 W. MARKET STREET;
37 W. MARKET STREET

The specific information on each of these six buildings are included in the HARB Report.

B.  Extent of preservation of the six historic buildings.
Preservation, as used herein, refers only to the original portion or core of a building and not to additions constructed at the rear.   Demolition and expanded replacement of such additions will often allow owners a significantly greater ability to adaptively reuse the original structure and lot.  Likewise, preserving only the façade does not preserve the integrity of the structure and creates a transparently artificial streetscape that is inconsistent with the character of West Chester.
 
Preservation in West Chester does not contemplate Williamsburging -- the maintenance or rehabilitation of a structure with rigorous historical exactitude.  The Borough Code and guidelines are adequate in this regard.
 
Selling the properties with preservation easements in favor of a trust, such as the Brandywine Conservancy, should be explored.  The up-front fee required by a trust for monitoring and enforcing an easement would be the obligation of the buyer.
 
C.  Importance of saving the six historic buildings now:

As a collective ASSET
West Chester is now nationally recognized as a model community, especially for the character and integrity of its Business District.  This is an asset that draws visitors, employers, employees, shoppers and others seeking to do business.  It is an asset that enhances the quality of life of those who live here.  It increases property values through out the town. Together, the six buildings are an integral part of the character and integrity of West Chester.  They are in the heart of the heart of our town and should be preserved.
 
As part of preserving the historic DEVELOPMENT and FABRIC of West Chester
The six buildings do not just represent parts of irreplaceable streetscapes.  Collectively, they represent the growth of our town over time, especially the growth of our Business District and are irreplaceable for that reason as well and should be preserved.
 
To DIVERSIFY OWNERSHIP on the First Block  
Towns such as ours have been burnt when one large business owner or entity controls an excessive amount of space and activity, especially in the heart of town.  They either wind up seeking to expand their foot print by eating up adjacent properties or they fold, leaving a white elephant that becomes a downer for the community.  By selling off the six historic properties separately, the result will be a more stimulating composition of business ownership.  The result will provide for greater competition and room for the small businesses that the town has always and will continue to need.
 
To realize a GREATER SALE PRICE
For the First Block properties to be sold off separately, as set out in this recommendation, it is possible, and could be likely, that the aggregate return to the County Treasury would be greater than a sale to a single buyer.  A potential purchaser of the whole ball of wax, in justifying his or her offer, will certainly be asking the County to consider the significant cost of demolition of buildings that should be preserved anyway.  And even if separate sales would result in a somewhat lesser return than would one huge transaction, County policy must be factored in.  An essential aspect of the County land use plan, Landscapes is the smart development of Urban Centers such as West Chester.  In furtherance of that plan the County has given millions to improve West Chester and is likely to do so again in future years.  The County now has the absolutely unique opportunity to cooperate with the community in maximizing the chances for a better future for West Chester by wise divestiture of the First Block properties.  Under the circumstances, it would be pennywise and pound foolish for the County to turn the First Block over to a real estate agent for one big sale.
 
To AVOID FUTURE DIFFICULTIES
Many in West Chester are painfully aware of the difficulties and the tension involved in the Borough's attempts to preserve the character and integrity of West Chester in dealings with property owners, especially developers.   It can be acrimonious, excessively time consuming for many individuals and with results that are not always satisfying.  Law suits have been filed.  As a seller who has a vested interest in West Chester's well being, the County is now in the unique position to sell the First Block properties to buyers who will know that they are buying within a framework that is consistent with maintaining the character and integrity of our town.  All would benefit if the County would actively work with the community, now, in the divestiture of the First Block properties.
           
2.  Opportunities for Significant Smart Development/New Construction on the First Block.
The Mosteller Corner, consistent with preserving the six historic buildings, is a foot print bounded on the East by the Western wall of 34 W Gay, ( the Charles Burns Building), and on the South by the Northern wall of 17-21 N Church, (the original 1920's Mosteller Building).  That foot print covers about 8,500 sq. ft.   A newly constructed building on that corner extending 60 ft. high, (the height of the Greentree and Darlington Commons, each of which is a block away in either direction), would provide about 32,000 sq. ft. of brand new and highly desirable floor space in the heart of West Chester.  It is recommended that the Mosteller Corner, as here defined, be sold as one parcel to a developer qualified to build a structure suitable to the place of prominence in West Chester that it would occupy.
 
Additionally, the nondescript building at 24-30 W Gay, (just next to and West of Kildare's), is not considered historic in nature such that it needs to be saved from demolition.

 

 
 

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