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Jan
08

Once ‘sleepy’ King of Prussia is booming with development

January 8, 2020

Source, Philadelphia Inquirer, Katie Park

By virtue of its name, King of Prussia was known for its mall, a behemoth ranked just below the nation’s biggest, Minnesota’s 96-acre Mall of America. But even as shopping thrived, the area’s industrial business district sagged, leaving behind bleak buildings bloated with abandoned cubicles.

Those hired a decade ago to fix the problem devised a plan with two notable prongs: First, modify the kind of building allowed in the industrial district so people could live, eat, and shop there.

Then, launch a public-relations campaign to polish the image of King of Prussia, an 8.5-square mile neighborhood in Upper Merion Township that historically — and somewhat unusually — counted more commuters than residents, a ratio of around 60,000 to 30,000. King of Prussia would be sleek, modern, progressive, marketers promised. The place for businesses to be.

It worked.

In came the Brazilian steakhouse, the breweries, fast-casual burrito joints, and gourmet doughnut chains.

Local developers built hundreds of luxury housing units, and then developers from Virginia, Maryland, Tennessee, and Texas joined in, lending hope that perhaps King of Prussia could mirror successful commercial hubs in Northern Virginia.

“They’re taking off in a different way,” said Rose Grosso, permits officer for Upper Merion Township, where the median income is $91,515. ” … There’s a massive amount of redevelopment.”

A new KoP

Today, the area brags of new offices, thousands more workers, and more homes.

But development has wrought some unwelcome changes, too. Roads are snarled with traffic, walkability is limited, and renting an apartment costs on average at least $1,500.

It’s quite a turnaround from the end of the Great Recession, when high-end commercial office space vacancy in King of Prussia was a concerning 17.9%. Companies were believed to be avoiding the area because of the township’s business taxes.

Eric Goldstein — since heralded as a “change agent” and “visionary” — was hired in 2010 as the executive director of King of Prussia District, a nonprofit started to “collaboratively improve the economic environment.”

Put more plainly, King of Prussia had to be less boring. “Sleepy,” he said, describing the area. “That was exactly it.”

Some residents liked it just fine. Real estate, they said, was reasonable, and traffic manageable. They were content to let the crowds flock to the ritzy Main Line and quaint little towns in Philadelphia’s collar counties.

Back then, commuters weren’t buying or renting homes in King of Prussia, Goldstein said, even if it meant they’d be closer to work and could avoid the daily gridlock. He suspected one reason was lack of supply. Land had to be carved out for residential development.

“Everyone’s always looking for the new, shiny thing,” said Goldstein, who lives in South Jersey’s tony Moorestown. “And for 10 or 20 years, King of Prussia wasn’t the new, shiny thing.”

In 2014, with nudging from the King of Prussia District, Upper Merion changed the zoning of the area’s industrial district to mixed use, which allows houses and retail. The former industrial complex was renamed Moore Park in 2018 as a nod to the historic local Moore-Irwin House, where Revolutionary War Gen. Peter Muhlenberg stayed during an encampment in 1777-78.

A ‘great influx’

By most accounts, Upper Merion’s building process was fast and straightforward.

“There were no incentives … from a financial perspective,” Goldstein said, adding that he didn’t think they were necessary as long as Upper Merion was able to avoid raising taxes. “In the Pennsylvania suburbs, financial incentives like that to attract or lure corporate business are few and far between. That’s usually reserved for urban environments.”

In 2012, Philadelphia-based consulting firm Econsult Solutions found that Upper Merion’s tax burden fell about in the middle of neighboring towns. By 2018, Econsult said, Upper Merion had the third-lowest area tax burden surpassed only by Tredyffrin and Newtown.

Tom Bentley, chief executive of Chester County-based Bentley Homes, bought an unused industrial building in Moore Park for $6.5 million. He would convert the double-walled, windowless space into what he and project partner Cornerstone Tracy named Park Square, a 313-unit luxury apartment complex on 20 acres.

The developers sold the property for $108.5 million to Colorado-based real estate investment trust UDR Inc. in March, when the complex had leased out 70% of its homes. At one point, Park Square rented out 40 units in a month, Bentley said. A studio starts at $1,500.

“What we were able to do is really have a suburban apartment complex as opposed to an urban apartment complex in the suburbs,” Bentley said. “It was very unique in the marketplace.”

Park Square was built in the same neighborhood as the Valley Forge Casino Resort, the American College of Financial Services, a recreational axe-throwing and escape room venue, and SKYE 750, a 5.2-acre, 248-unit apartment complex. This year, the Pennsylvania Department of Transportation is expected to construct a $33 million traffic management center in Moore Park.

At the same time, the King of Prussia District has thrown its support behind a proposed 4.5-mile SEPTA rail line between Center City Philadelphia and King of Prussia.

On the commercial side, some construction has been geared toward new offices for King of Prussia’s most popular industries, which include aerospace, defense, and life and medical sciences.

In February, Main Line Health and Axia Women’s Health is scheduled to open a 94,000-square-foot, seven-story facility with a specialized women’s care center in The Village at Valley Forge. In the same complex, Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia is planning its first inpatient center with an operating room outside of the city.

These projects are all expanding King of Prussia’s footprint, but it’s the new housing and residents that are creating a noticeable impact.

“Apartments are going up. That’s the great influx,” said Grosso, the township employee. “That’s what people are seeing.”

Residential developers include well-known Toll Brothers, Korman Communities, and Morgan Properties. Morgan is the largest owner of apartments in King of Prussia with 919 units, according to the King of Prussia District. Morgan says occupancy is 95.35%.

Today in King of Prussia, it’s often hard find a parking spot and, at times, to snag reservations at once-languid restaurants. Grocer Wegman’s, the anchor tenant at the King of Prussia Town Center, is open 24-7, hours rarely seen even in Philadelphia. The King of Prussia District says it’s among the top two businesses in Pennsylvania that boast the most sales per square-foot.

Development, Grosso said, has been a continual story in King of Prussia, adding that the township has approved construction of a new firehouse and new police outpost to handle the rapidly swelling population.

“It’s been going on since they started developing the golf course,” she said, referring to a series of legal disputes between developer Dennis Maloomian, president of Realen, and King of Prussia in the late 1980s, when he proposed building homes and shops in the face of fierce community pushback.

In 2003, the Pennsylvania Supreme Court ruled in Maloomian’s favor, who built what is now known as the King of Prussia Town Center. In 2014, Wegman’s moved in.

“Now it really is more than about the mall,” Goldstein said. “The mall is a huge revenue base and an amazing amenity, but the community has definitely expanded.”

‘It was a nice, quiet little place’

Not everyone sees the development boom as an improvement.

“You can’t walk around,” said Robert Zanazanian, 81, who lives in an old home on a narrow road with a direct view of the King of Prussia Mall. “They’re overdeveloping the place. It’s everywhere.”

Indeed, Upper Merion’s population has grown by about 4,000 in the last decade, Goldstein said.

For rentals, King of Prussia ranks among the most costly in the suburban area from Upper Darby to Ardmore to Phoenixville, according to real estate trackers.

“They’re going to develop every inch of land,” Zanazanian said. “It was a nice, quiet little place.”

The King of Prussia District has argued the development, though rapid, is responding to demand. Developers built around 2,000 luxury apartments starting around 2017. The homes rented quickly at around 19 leases a month, higher than the regional average, according to CoStar.

“What we had to do … is to resurrect the image of King of Prussia again,” Goldstein said. “I think we’ve done that pretty successfully.”

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