W. Bradford struggles with plans for former hospital site

Posted: January 27, 2014

WEST BRADFORD The neglected campus slopes down a hill in the middle of serene Chester County, a legion of crumbling brick buildings cordoned by chain fences and overgrown by brush.

The onetime site of the Embreeville State Hospital is an eyesore, its owners and officials in West Bradford Township agree. Both say the 20 buildings, ridden with lead and asbestos, must come down.

But what should sprout in their place has become a contentious and possibly defining issue in the heart of the fast-growing county.

The investors who bought the 225-acre parcel from the state two years ago envision 1,100 homes, townhomes, and apartments, plus stores and business, all built over the next 25 years.

Some West Bradford residents say that is too much, too fast in one spot. They also fear the project would permanently change their community's character, with a single development equivalent to a quarter of the township's current housing supply.

"They would like to soak up all the growth all at once, in a location that the residents don't think is appropriate," said Martin Tully, who lives nearby.

In December, the township took a step some say was preemptive. Instead of rezoning Embreeville for residential use, officials rezoned a similar-sized parcel on the other end of the township.

The Embreeville owners appealed that decision to a Chester County Common Pleas Court judge, while hoping to repair their deteriorating relationship with the township and community.

They contend there's a reason their proposal is the only viable one for the property: It would offset the cost - which they estimate could top $13 million - to demolish the contaminated buildings.

"The towns don't care about that," said owner Ken Hellings. "The community cares about cleaning up the property and . . . a use that would be less invasive."

The state sold the site for about $1 million in 2012 to a group including Hellings, developer of the nearby Tattersall Golf Community; Conrad Muhly, a businessman who specializes in demolition; and a third, unnamed partner.

The property they acquired has hazardous buildings, overgrown roads, and unkempt woodlands but also a rich history. The land once held the county's poorhouse, and today it is home to a memorial for Indian Hannah, who when she died at that facility in 1802 was considered to be the last American Indian in Chester County.

The property will have to be rezoned for their project, which Hellings said appeared to be well-received when he talked with township officials before buying Embreeville.

"I don't know what's changed their mind," he said, adding that he has had a positive relationship with township officials in other dealings. "There's no surprises here as to what we wanted to do."

West Bradford did have a need for more affordable housing under state law, which requires municipalities to provide a fair share of housing compared to nearby communities. The township had been short on multifamily homes, Township Manager Tommy Ryan said.

But last month, the problem was addressed when the supervisors approved residential zoning on 200 acres near Route 30 - about four miles from Embreeville.

"The folks at Embreeville didn't like it," Ryan said. "Everybody else did."

The Embreeville owners, who haven't yet filed a request to rezone it, took the supervisors to court, saying their vote wasn't properly advertised.

Hellings said he and his partners were baffled by the decision to designate another property for development. "Here you have a [site] ready and willing and able to develop," he said of Embreeville.

Ryan declined to comment on the appeal. He said the land the supervisors rezoned for housing, which is adjacent to Poorhouse and Thorndale Roads, was better suited because it's relatively free of environmental constraints, situated in a developed part of the township, and close to public transit and Route 30, meaning less impact on township roads.

County planning director Ronald Bailey agreed Embreeville isn't ideal for homes, saying it lacks close public sewer access, unlike the site chosen by the township.

"But we also recognize a portion of [Embreeville] is already developed in vacant, deteriorating buildings. So something needs to be done," he said.

Bob Portnoy, treasurer of the Marshallton Conservation Trust, a nonprofit aimed at preserving a historic district down the road from Embreeville, said that the tract can't stay as is, but that Hellings' plan is the wrong option.

"Something more consistent and appropriate for the area should be considered," said Portnoy, a township resident. But, he conceded, "We don't know exactly what that may be."

Hellings has declined to say if the project could be profitable with fewer homes. He has reached out to a third party to study other options, at the township's request, and said he would report to officials in a few months.

The current zoning would allow for an office park, prison, or educational institution, but Hellings said he saw no market for those projects. On the other hand, residential builders are lining up to take part in Embreeville, said Hellings, who is the site's developer but plans on selling the building rights.

If the township gives that path the green light, Hellings argues, negative impacts can be managed over time. He hopes to build about 44 houses a year over 25 years, enough time to improve the roads, he said. He also said he's not looking to change the landscape. More than half of the property would remain open space.

Maintaining recreational space is a benefit of high-density development, according to Jim Fuller, a vice president at the Hankin Group, which has been building the 1,100-dwelling Eagleview in Exton since the 1980s. Fuller said high-density housing creates a sense of community - with diverse residents, open space, and retail - instead of a sprawl of matching streets and cul-de-sacs.

"Sometimes communities that are fighting the change, they most usually drive the development into kind of the common denominator of quality," he said. "And often times the results are worse than what they expected."




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