Five years ago, officials in New Britain Borough embarked on an effort to transform their tiny Bucks County town from a “don't blink or you'll miss it” community to a popular regional destination.
With a deliberately business-friendly borough council and guidance from an economic-revitalization expert, officials mapped out a long-term “Development by Design” plan to encourage desirable and sustainable development along a half-mile stretch of heavily traveled Butler Avenue (Route 202) from Shady Retreat Road to Iron Hill Road. They dubbed the corridor University Village due to its proximity to Delaware Valley University, a growing private institution whose student body is just about equal in size to the borough’s population.
Over several months, the borough took a detailed look at zoning classifications along the corridor. They created an overlay zoning district to lessen restrictions on setbacks, lot coverage and building heights so developers could strive for maximum return on their investments. They outlined a streamlined plan review process so projects wouldn’t get bogged down in haggling over relatively minor details.
But most importantly, they gauged the community’s appetite for development through a series of surveys and town-hall meetings to make sure the wants and needs of residents and business owners would be met by the projects to come.
“This is a forward-thinking program that allows municipalities to control their own destinies versus reacting to unwanted development,” said consultant Stephen Barth, who developed the methodology.
About 30 percent of the properties along the corridor have been snapped up and are going through various stages of land development. Even the university has acquired several parcels contiguous to campus for offices and apartments.
In December, key players held a ceremonial groundbreaking for the first tangible step in making their vision a reality – The Gathering at University Village – a mixed-use development that will include 141 apartments and 15,000 square feet of shops and restaurants spread across three buildings on seven acres. It replaces a once-thriving wood manufacturer that closed several years ago.
“This is a day that will transform New Britain Borough forever,” Barth said at the time.
Potential tenants include restaurants, coffee shops, wine and beer tasting rooms and workout facilities, said developer Kevin Reilly of County Builders. Co-working space also may be made available to residents and the general public, he said.
“We know that when this happens, a lot more is going to happen,” said Reilly. “It’s exciting to be part of that.”
Evan Stone, executive director of the Bucks County Planning Commission, said the borough’s plan will help create a sense of neighborhood, which has been lost over the years by municipalities striving to keep strict separations between zoning districts.
“It used to happen organically,” said Stone. “People would live, work and play in the same area. A lot of that has been lost and people crave for it to return.”
While every community is unique, Stone said other small towns that have seen their downtown business districts decay could follow New Britain’s lead in creating an atmosphere in which developers can see the economic benefit of investing in their communities. Pendel, Morrisville and Plumstead currently are in various stage of similar efforts, he said.
Without a coordinated plan, New Britain would have ended up with a haphazard combination of designs and uses, said Councilman Peter LaMontagne.
Which is exactly what Barth’s “Development by Design” concept is intended to avoid. In addition to New Britain, Barth has implemented the strategy in Hatboro (Montgomery County) and Perkasie (Bucks County). He is currently working on a plan for New Hope Borough.
“Development by Design” will work in any municipality that is willing to be patient, adapt its rules and listen to the will of residents, said Barth.
“Re-creating a town is exciting,” he said. “With the right planning, you can have the opportunity to make a whole new community that works the best for everyone.”