Tuesday, May 14, 2013

Could Regional Rail Extension Boost Redevelopment Efforts in West Chester?

Gay Street was not the only place my wife and I strolled along while in West Chester.  We also walked along portions of Market Street.  High Street, which is the main street running north and south, essentially splits the borough right in half.  West Market Street sees more in the way of pedestrian activity with numerous offices and a few restaurants and shops.  Walking down East Market Street, however, we saw fewer restaurants and shops, especially beyond Walnut Street, which is the next north-south street over from High.

Gay Street, both East and West, experiences a great deal of pedestrian activity as there are a plethora of restaurants, bars, and shops as well as businesses along this street.  Market Street sees such activity primarily along West Market while East Market is all but devoid of pedestrian activity.  I have a theory as to why this may be, and I think it has to do with the rail line that once provided SEPTA regional rail service to Media-Elwyn and Philadelphia.  SEPTA discontinued regional rail service in September, 1986, due to deplorable track conditions.  Instead, they decided to upgrade facilities along the Pennsylvania Main Line, along which SEPTA operates the Paoli-Thorndale line.

The Borough of West Chester and West Chester University are just a couple of the various groups who emphatically want regional rail service restored.  In 2010, I completed a research project on this matter while pursuing my masters in geography from West Chester.  I concluded that the area along the line has seen a significant amount of population growth that should support such service.  In addition to the population data, I also observed traffic and land use patterns and found strong similarities between the abandoned portion of the Media-Elwyn line and the active Paoli-Thorndale line.

Aside from this line providing direct access to Philadelphia and other points in between, I also believe that such transportation access could bolster demand in the struggling eastern part of the Market Street corridor. In fact, I noticed a sizable mixed-use project that apparently has been stalled for several years.  It calls for ground-level retail space with residential uses occupying the upper three or four levels, and its location is only a block away from the abandoned rail line.  In addition to this project, there are underutilized parcels of land within immediate proximity of the rail line.  So here is the question.  Could a reinstatement of regional rail service restart the aforementioned stalled project and encourage development of other adjacent underutilized parcels into more of a transit-oriented community?
Above is the decaying stalled project that was intended to be a mixed-use development.  Apparently, the only completion so far has been the partial demolition of an existing dilapidated structure.  It should also be noted that this part of town was likely an industrial section given the location of the rail line.  Below is the more commercial western corridor of Market Street.  Office buildings are clearly visible, and in the distance is the Chester County Courthouse.  Behind me is High Street, and most of the restaurants are within the block between High and Church Streets.

I suppose there could be a follow-up question.  If it has not done so already, would it be beneficial if the borough implemented a change to its zoning or land use ordinance to encourage more commercial development in the area along West Market Street?