King of Prussia still evolving

Posted: June 17, 2008

Frederick O'Malley remembers stopping at a hotel in St. Louis while traveling on business in the 1950s.

After he registered his address and walked to his room, the phone rang.

"You've got to be kidding," the desk clerk said. "Is there actually a town called King of Prussia, Pa.?"

O'Malley assured him, "Yes, there is."

King of Prussia in those days was an obscure crossroads 19 miles northwest of Philadelphia that had taken its odd name from an 18th-century monarch.

But by 1958, with the completion of the Schuylkill Expressway to Center City, the match had been lit on a boom that would turn King of Prussia into the region's most extensively developed suburb - an edge city boasting the second-biggest mall in the United States, vast office complexes, an industrial park, even its own convention center.

Now, a half-century later, the last major piece of green space left in King of Prussia is being developed.

The 135-acre Valley Forge Golf Course will soon become the Village of Valley Forge, a "new urbanism" project that in its initial phase will include specialty shops, two hotels, and 310 above-the-store apartments, all laid out city-style. Eventually, 2,000 housing units could be built.

Recognizing the land's growing importance as other green space disappeared, Upper Merion Township - in which King of Prussia is located - fought for many years to block the golf course from being developed.

The township, belatedly, could see what land-use critics saw.

"There's just too much concrete in that area," said Jeffrey Featherston, director of the Center for Sustainable Communities at the Ambler campus of Temple University. "It's inevitable that there are problems with storm-water management and congestion."

But blocking golf-course development was like shutting off the tap after the sink had overflowed. The state Supreme Court ruled in 2003 that, after permitting so much development, the township couldn't suddenly pull the plug on the development rights of the golf course owners. It called that reverse spot zoning.

Arthur Loeben, who was Montgomery County planning director from 1957 to 1995, looks back on the King of Prussia development story as a mixture of success and failure.

"Economically, it's a huge success," Loeben said. "Physically, I think the design is pretty awful. . . . It could have been done a lot better, I think. It was done piecemeal."

But author Joel Garreau, who invented the term edge city in a 1991 book with that title, says this is the way development is done in postindustrial America - a self-contained but spread-out mix of commerce, industry and residential areas without a downtown.

The only metropolitan areas that haven't sprouted at least one edge city are those that aren't growing at all, he says. He counts Willow Grove and Cherry Hill as other examples of edge cities.

"When King of Prussia was being developed," Garreau said in an interview, "people didn't even realize that you could build a full-blown alternative to the 19th-century downtown out in places that back then were . . . cow pastures."

Superhighways converge

Cow pastures, indeed.

A 1954 photo taken from a thousand feet above the new cloverleaf pattern of the Schuylkill Expressway showed nothing but cultivated ground and a few clusters of farm buildings. The ramps were devoid of traffic.

After World War II, King of Prussia was but a pit stop on the way to Norristown. The King of Prussia Inn - named for Frederick the Great, who ruled from 1740 to 1786 - gave the area its identity.

The area might have developed into a more typical residential suburb if not for four superhighways that soon crisscrossed it, making it a magnet for business.

By 1950, the Pennsylvania Turnpike had been extended 100 miles from Carlisle to the new Valley Forge interchange.

The Schuylkill Expressway, inching toward Philadelphia, was completed to Gulph Mills in 1952, to City Avenue in 1955, to Spring Garden Street in 1956, and to Vine Street in November 1958.

Traffic spawned by these highways forced the eventual widening of Route 202, which became an expressway of its own rolling westward.

From the northwest came Route 422, the Pottstown Expressway.

Loeben, though critical of King of Prussia as a traffic "mess," said massive growth was probably inevitable.

"Whenever you go to a place where these great big expressways come together, it's bound to happen," he said.

Upper Merion planners, by 1959, could glimpse the future. The township, they wrote in a report, was "poised on the brink of becoming a center of the region itself."

Population growth

The first development wave was housing.

Families that could afford to move up from rowhouses in Norristown or Philadelphia put down payments on the two-bedroom tract houses that were springing up by the hundreds in Brandywine Village.

Barbara Scintilla and her husband, Nick, who drove a produce truck, arrived in 1963 as second owners of a house on Hillview Road. The price: $10,500. The mortgage: $76 a month.

A fireplace gave them the sense of owning a real suburban home. Children were free to run, but the noon whistle at the firehouse meant it was time for lunch. The bread man and the milk man came around a couple of times a week.

"You never even had to go to the store," Barbara Scintilla said.

During the 1950s, the Upper Merion population leaped 167 percent. In the '60s, it grew 39 percent. In the '70s, growth began to slow. Since then, population has remained mostly stable - about 27,000.

Developers, it seemed, had found more profitable ways of using open land.

Defense industry

In the 1960s, the Cold War came to King of Prussia - and, with it, thousands of well-paying jobs in the defense industry.

O'Malley, the traveling businessman, was a mechanical engineer who commuted to a General Electric Co. office at 32d and Chestnut Streets. Even then, the Schuylkill was a headache.

"Coming in and going home at night, there'd be a lot of delays," he said.

He was delighted in 1962 when GE moved his division to its new Space Technology Center on 131 acres next to the turnpike.

King of Prussia already was becoming a jobs center. A 600-acre industrial park had opened in 1958 and was drawing employers such Western Electric, Robertshaw-Fulton and Crane Co.

But it took the arrival of GE to begin transforming the Route 202 corridor into the high-salaried corporate area it is today.

The 1960s were the peak of Soviet-American tension, and GE was a major defense contractor. Outsiders were never quite sure what GE was doing "on the hill," as the plant area was called. It had something to do with missile technology for nuclear weapons. Security was as tight as at a military base.

Today, part of the site is occupied by a movie-theater complex.

But Lockheed Martin, which took over the GE facility through corporate mergers, still employs 4,000 people at six buildings around King of Prussia.

Mall just grew and grew

The M.A. Kravitz Co., in the early '60s, didn't set out to build the country's second-biggest mall.

All it had in mind was a strip shopping center, with an E.J. Korvette discount store and a supermarket.

The mall just grew and grew and grew.

Within four years of opening in 1963, the King of Prussia Plaza had about 140 other stores.

By the late '70s, the owners were in talks with New York department stores - led by high-fashion Bloomingdale's - that wanted to expand in the Philadelphia market. In 1981 came the Court at King of Prussia, with an additional 125 stores.

With the Pavilion addition in 2001, the mall counts 365 stores and 40 restaurants. Its scale has left its public-relations consultants straining for metaphors big enough to describe it.

"The footprint . . . is large enough to accommodate five of the Great Pyramids," a sheet of "fun facts" reports.

With an estimated 26 million shopping visits annually, it's the main draw for the nearby Valley Forge Convention and Exposition Center, which opened its two hotels in the mid-'70s.

"I've heard stories that people come up from Bermuda with empty suitcases, stay at a motel, and go home with their suitcases full," O'Malley said.

For King of Prussia itself, mall growth has meant hassle - traffic, traffic and more traffic - but that has come with one really big bonus.

Because of commercial tax collections, Upper Merion residents pay no income tax and have one of the lowest real estate levies in the region.

"It's fantastic," Barbara Scintilla said. "When I hear about the taxes other people pay - oh, my God."

Differing views

By the 1980s, most of today's King of Prussia was set in place.

Anthony Volpi, a D-Day veteran who got into carpentry after coming home from the war, can hardly recognize the community in which he started building a few houses in the '50s.

Of course, he's partly accountable for the change. He ended up building thousands of houses himself.

His assessment of King of Prussia today: "I think it was overdone, and it's still being overdone."

Volpi served as an elected township supervisor for 16 years.

He often differed with other board members and was on the minority end of a lot of 4-1 votes.

"There's a lot of developments that shouldn't have been built where they're built," he said.

The result, he said, is a "traffic quagmire."

Scott Sibley, chairman of the supervisors, disagrees.

He said that road improvements, paid for mainly by developers, have reduced congestion in the last decade.

"I think, on the whole, [King of Prussia] has been a success, considering the pressure to grow," he said. "Everyone wants to be here, and everyone wants to live here."

Golf course development

Now comes the Village at Valley Forge.

The project won't be the last in King of Prussia. Smaller lots will be developed. Parking lots could be converted into buildings. Low-rises could become high-rises. An old stone quarry has been rezoned for future residential use.

But the golf course development - one-third the square footage of the mall - will be the last of its scope on virgin land.

Dirt began flying on the $1 billion project in the fall. The developer declined in an interview to say when the first phase of the project will open. But the project's Web site says it will be next year.

Located within the crossing pattern of the four major highways, the village will offer direct access to the turnpike and the expressway.

Dennis Maloomian, president of Realen Properties in Berwyn, says the stores will be "high-end, new-to-the-market specialty shops." But he is mum on what those may be.

Maloomian promises something King of Prussia has not yet seen - new streets laid out in a grid pattern with rental lofts and flats above the stores; a community amphitheater; restaurants and sidewalk cafes - even ice skating in winter.

This, he said, could be the walkable downtown that King of Prussia has never had.


Development History

1958

The Schuylkill Expressway is completed from the Valley Forge interchange of the Pennsylvania Turnpike to Center City.

King of Prussia Industrial Park opens, beginning the transformation of a farming and bedroom community into a jobs center.

1962

General Electric opens its Space Technology Center at the turnpike interchange, marking the start of the Route 202 corridor as a high-tech sector.

1963

J.C. Penney and E.J. Korvette open as the initial anchor stores in the new King of Prussia Plaza.

1979

Construction starts on a huge addition to the mall, to be called the Court at King of Prussia. This will lead eventually to making the mall the second largest in America.

2003

Pennsylvania Supreme Court rules that Upper Merion has illegally blocked development of the Valley Forge Golf Course, the last big piece of open land in the area.

2007

Earth-moving equipment goes to work at the golf course site, for what soon will become the Village at Valley Forge.
Contact staff writer Tom Infield at 610-313-8205 or tinfield@phillynews.com.

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