Newtown Twp. nears decision on center

Posted: July 11, 2007

After more than three years of debate, Newtown Township supervisors inched closer to a decision Monday night on whether to allow a controversial town-center project that would transform their pass-through Delaware County community into a destination.

At a meeting that attracted nearly 300 people, the board appointed two supervisors to negotiate modifications to a proposal by BPG Development Co. for Ellis Preserve Town Square. The square is the centerpiece of a 210-acre project at Routes 3 and 252 in the heart of the township, which lies within Newtown Square. Closed-door talks are to begin tomorrow.

The $500 million town center would combine residential, office and upscale retail, a mixed use that requires a change in the zoning ordinance. If the project is blocked, BPG has said it could build age-restricted housing and big-box retail, for which it already has zoning.

"We're encouraged they're moving the process forward," BPG president Stephen Spaeder said after the meeting, held in the Marple Newtown High School auditorium to accommodate the crowd.

Of the four supervisors present, only treasurer John DiPompeo came out in favor of the center - a position that garnered loud applause from the audience. Supervisor H. Ross Lambert, who has expressed support for the concept, was unable to attend.

The three other supervisors had a bounty of reservations: about the viability of the project's 70 stores and restaurants, fire and police costs to the township, traffic congestion, sewer capacity, and even how proposed walking trails would be maintained.

"You can go on and on with the questions," said vice chairwoman Linda Houldin, a vocal critic of the proposal.

Chairman Joseph Catania, on the negotiating team, said he had "wrestled back and forth" over the proposal. "It's not a simple choice of a town center vs. a big box."

For many present, however, it was that simple. Several audience members made clear that they had no interest in a big-box store such as Wal-Mart, and that they were weary of the board's deliberations. "Move on with it," said one resident.

Supervisors hope to vote on whether to pursue the zoning change at their next regular meeting on Aug. 13.

From the outset, officials have had concerns about the impact of Ellis Square, one of the biggest private developments under consideration in the region, on the community of 11,700.

Two public meetings in May attracted more than 1,000 people - a township record, officials said. Since then, the developer has ramped up its marketing blitz.

A rival developer, Claude de Botton, responded with mailings to tout his Marville Lifestyle Village - 330,000 square feet of upscale retail, a cultural center and a hotel, slated for the western edge of the township. The project, approved by the supervisors last year, has not broken ground.

"Do you think that the community can handle two retail upscale centers?" de Botton asked.

Another of his mailings noted ominously that national retailers aware of the BPG project were reluctant to commit to Marville for fear of commercial saturation, and that he might be forced to seek "specialty retailers of a non-high-end variety."


Contact staff writer Lini S. Kadaba at 610-701-7624 or Lkadaba@phillynews.com.

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