Five years ago, New Britain Borough embarked on an ambitious strategic effort to transform the tiny town from a “don’t blink or you’ll miss it” community to a popular regional destination.
With a more business-friendly borough council and guidance from an economic revitalization expert, the borough mapped out a long-term plan to encourage coordinated development along the Route 202 corridor from Shady Retreat Road to Iron Hill Road, dubbed “University Village” because of its proximity to Delaware Valley University.
On Tuesday, borough officials held a ceremonial groundbreaking for the linchpin of their vision –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 7 acres. They expect the project to generate a wave of similar development over the next few years.
“This is a day that will transform New Britain Borough forever,” said Stephen Barth, the borough’s director of economic development, as a steady stream of traffic whizzed by along Route 202 on a chilly afternoon.
Actual groundbreaking is scheduled for next March, with completion of at least one building by the end of 2019. A backhoe sits ready to scoop the the first load of dirt from the ground.
Potential commercial tenants include restaurants, coffee shops, wine and beer tasting rooms and workout facilities, said developer Kevin Reilly of County Builders. Co-working space that will be available to residents and the general public is also a possibility, 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. It is going to be something special for this area.”
Since 2013, borough council and its community and business committee have shaped an innovative plan that included public surveys, town hall meetings, and public engagement with Delaware Valley University through a $100,000 Delaware Valley Regional Planning Commission Main Street Planning Grant. This DVRPC grant led to the award this year of a $600,000 Multi-Modal Sidewalk Grant from the state that will connect the span the entire borough from New Britain Road, its two train stations, and the university out to Bristol Road.
“Creating a town from nothing is exciting,” said Barth. “We have the opportunity to make a whole new community that works the best for everyone.”
New Britain’s University Village Zoning Overlay District has resulted in 30 percent of the properties within the district being sold, consolidated and going through varying stages of land development. The university has purchased several properties that directly border its campus and main entry at Iron Hill Road.
Without a coordinated plan, the corridor would end up with a haphazard combination of design and uses, said Councilman Peter LaMontagne.
Mayor David Holewinsky said the project finally proves the borough has shared its reputation for discouraging development.
“We used to be known as a non-business friendly community,” he said.
“That has changed over the last few years. Now, people are telling us they want to be part of the development of New Britain Borough.”
Montagne said the borough wanted to be prepared when the inevitable development pressure reached the borough.
“I just hope we got it right,” he said, with a laugh.