Feature Article: Groundbreaking Development Plan in Downingtown, PA

Feature article written for News Writing & Media Relations course in Nov. 2017 

Borough of Downingtown Moves Forward with Groundbreaking Development Plan

The Downingtown Borough Council approved a conditional use application for the largest private investment and real estate development project in the municipality’s history.

The conditional use application submitted by the Hankin Group, a Chester County-based construction management company, was two years in-the-making leading up to its November 15 acceptance. The Borough Council’s vote, advised by the Downingtown Main Street Association, officially catalyzed the start of the project that was announced to the public in August. The plan includes the creation of the Brandywine Train Station, residential units, and retail and commercial office spaces. The site additionally proposes a pedestrian bridge that will connect Johnsontown Park to part of the East Brandywine Creek and a walking trail aggregate of the Chester-Valley Trail System. The 68 acres acquired for the project’s use will be on the former Sonoco Paper Mill property that was paramount to the past of Downingtown, a prominent Philadelphia suburb. Demolition of the property began on November 21.

“The Downingtown community is making a statement with this project,” Downingtown Mayor Josh Maxwell remarked. Maxwell, who has been a staunch supporter of the development plan since 2015 thanked the six members of the Downingtown Borough Council for their unanimous support in a Facebook post on Saturday. He also found it imperative to preserve the community’s heritage as a paper mill town while considering the long-term ramifications for Downingtown.

Formerly known as Milltown for its abundance of paper mills along the Brandywine Creek, Downingtown gained recognition for its supplying of paper products nationwide. The Downingtown Paper Company was sold as a subsidiary to the Sonoco Products Company in 1968. The Sonoco Paper Mill, which was the most substantial source of direct employment in Downingtown for more than 50 years, was closed in 2005 due to a catastrophic fire that accumulated approximately $500,000 in damages.

The destruction of the Sonoco Paper Mill marks the end of an era in Downingtown while heralding the commencement of a brighter one. The dilapidated structure of the mill projected a morbid image for the entirety of the municipality, serving as a reminder of the great loss resultant of the fire. Additionally, the mill was often frequented for drug use and other illegal activity. The project’s proposition for over 100,000 square feet for retail and commercial office spaces is particularly attractive as an initiative to increase employment within Downingtown’s community.

The generation of the Brandywine Train Station lies at the crux of the project. The station would revolve around a transit system with the expectation that this will replace the current Downingtown Amtrak/SEPTA Station, which has regularly been described as outdated. With its most recent renovations occurring in the 1990s, the train station found today only offers 360 parking spaces and has no ticket office for travelers. The anticipated changes are seen as a necessity given that Downingtown is the Amtrak station located furthest west on the Keystone Corridor and is a mere 32.8 miles from Center City Philadelphia.

Tina DiMartin, who has lived in Downingtown since she was a child, stands with the majority of residents in welcoming the approval of the Hankin Group’s conditional use application. “The Sonoco property has been holding Downingtown back for far too long,” she said. “This investment is ultimately about transforming Downingtown for families.”

The plan hopes to make Downingtown a more desirable place to live, welcoming all families. The aforementioned pedestrian bridge will link Downingtown to neighboring Johnsontown, allowing for a scenic experience that was previously unavailable in Downingtown. Establishing a walking trail aggregate of the Chester-Valley Trail System would link residents of Downingtown to other municipalities in both Chester and Montgomery County. Furthermore, the trail would contribute to a significant commuter route to offices in the Great Valley Corridor.

The mixed-use format of the plan is its most distinctive feature, addressing a variety of needs in Downingtown. “It will be transformative economically, residentially, and from a transportation perspective,” Pennsylvania State Senator Andrew Dinniman (D-19) voiced. “One with job and career opportunities, new stores and restaurants, top-notch housing accommodations, a multimodal transportation hub, and upgraded rail infrastructure.”

Concrete plans regarding the project’s future are anticipated to be released in the coming weeks. Because the proposal meets the requirements of the Traditional Neighborhood Development District zoning designed for Downingtown, officials predict that development should be straightforward.

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