The time is right in Quakertown.
A burgeoning economic redevelopment movement is building a more active urban environment:
• At 18 S. Fifth St., around the corner from the main business corridor of Route 313, construction continues on the Best Made Center project, where Gorski Engineering is transforming an underused mill into fresh technology space for several firms.
• Developer John Schlupp is restoring the old Palace Theater, a 10,000-square-foot vacant building that could house a new restaurant, said borough Councilman Ed Scholl.
• Now, Village Centre Properties, a company based in Blooming Glen, is planning a $6.2 million proposed office suite project that would include retail and restaurant space on the first floor and two floors of office space above, according to Dave Halliday, owner of Village Centre Properties.
If approved, construction on Halliday’s project, tentatively called Quakertown Gateway, could begin late this year or early 2015. And it could be the linchpin for the revival of the entire downtown.
“It’s an exciting time to see this town come back to life,” Scholl said. “What the [Village Centre] project is going to do is almost complete what’s missing from our downtown, which is that one anchor building that will tie everything back together.”
He said the project is an example of controlled, aggressive growth, and that council wants to attract the right kind of developers and businesses.
“That’s exciting for us, so see the level and quality of developer we are attracting,” Scholl said, referring to the projects Gorski, Schlupp and Halliday are undertaking.
Halliday’s site is known as The Triangle, an underused parking lot in the center of the downtown on Route 313. Halliday noted that Village Centre looked at doing a development project in Quakertown for years, but the time never seemed right and interest waned.
That was until borough council and the borough manager began to build an economic development plan aided by a report by Delta Development Group Inc. that analyzed the commercial zone of Downtown Quakertown. Their actions helped change Halliday’s mind.
“Quakertown has such a potential for downtown. It wasn’t right for us before, until council came up with a vision,” he said. “We believe council has the desire to make it happen, which gives us enough confidence.”
Shortly after winning a 2010 Montgomery County revitalization award for its renovation of a factory in Souderton into new office suites, Village Centre Properties was approached by Scholl, Halliday said.
The councilman asked Halliday’s firm if it would be interested in an economic development project in Quakertown. After receiving the Delta revitalization report, which included a recommendation to reconfigure Route 313, Halliday saw the potential to draw more business from the big box stores to the downtown.
“There’s a huge demand for big box stores that draw people,” Halliday said. Often these people drive from 45 minutes away or farther.
“We are looking at drawing those people,” he said. “People don’t think of Quakertown as a destination.”
The goal, he said, is to create a site where people want to stay and shop.
“The parking lot is an underutilized site for the downtown; if we had more shops in the downtown, we would have more diversity,” Halliday said.
Village Centre Properties received a $2 million grant in Redevelopment Assistance Capital Program funds out of the state’s office of the budget and will apply these funds toward the project, Halliday said. The borough owns the site, and Halliday said his firm is looking to acquire it and should finalize the sale in the next few months.
Halliday’s firm has developed several executive office suite projects in Souderton, Pipersville, Blooming Glen and, most recently, Emmaus.
Scholl said the council will vote April 21 to move the project to the next phase. This involves beginning the transfer of property to Quakertown General Authority, an organization that takes ownership of the property until the developer owns it. Scholl said the council’s action allows for an agreement to be in place to show the property was transferred.
“Three major properties are already moving forward, and there are a few others on the horizon,” Scholl said. “This is the first step … getting buy-in from the developer. You have to move forward with the right plan and the right information, and that’s what we’re trying to do.”
He has gotten feedback from other businesses, both for and against the project, but said the project would support the businesses Quakertown already has in its downtown.
The Best Made Center project would bring more than 100 jobs and the Quakertown Gateway project about 80 jobs, Scholl said.
Halliday said he is looking to attract a regionally known brewpub to the first floor space, but the project could also include other restaurant and retail use. Overall, the three-story project would bring about 60 to 80 new business people to the site who are going to want to shop and eat locally, Halliday said.
The 10,000-square foot building footprint will enable developers to have 15-foot-wide sidewalks on the one side, which allows for outdoor dining and promotes pedestrian traffic, he said.
For parking, Halliday said, 60 to 70 spaces in the nearby transit lot will be dedicated to the building. Nearby Triangle Park will remain intact, he added.
Halliday said he has had several meetings with merchants to discuss the project, some of whom are in favor, some not.
“In this case, we are kind of looking at the whole downtown, so we are going to have to build a new building around that,” Halliday said.
The site has been a parking lot for decades and previously housed a factory that was demolished in the 1970s.
Halliday said to achieve better traffic flow on Route 313 for the project, patterns will shift back to two-way flow, which would create safer downtown traffic. Now, one lane splits into two lanes and creates a dangerous condition, he said. Most of this infrastructure work would consist of line striping on the road and not much else, he added.
“What we are encouraging them to do is create a pedestrian-friendly downtown,” said Teresa Sparacino, vice president of community and economic development for Delta Development Group, a consulting firm in Mechanicsburg.
The removal of buildings to create parking lots in the middle of downtowns is one of the most common mistakes cities and towns make, she said.
As it stands, the parking lot creates an unsafe environment for shoppers and presents a conflict between pedestrians and vehicular traffic, she said.
“Our role is to encourage Quakertown to create opportunities for that infill development, having some outdoor cafes, additional restaurants and adding to the business mix,” Sparacino said.