Conshohocken was built as a factory town in the Schuylkill Valley, like Manayunk or Norristown, full of stone and brick houses for families who made Wood steel, Lee tires, Quaker chemicals and other products in the factories that bordered the river.
Since the 1990s, block offices, brass-trimmed restaurants along central Fayette Street, apartment buildings and factory conversions along the floodplain have amplified Conshohocken’s position, and its two SEPTA stations have helped. The borough sits between the car-dependent King of Prussia and higher-tax downtown Philadelphia.
What’s up, halfway up the hill on La Fayette, it’s a urban style redevelopment, with head office amenities. The developer, Bill Glazer’s Keystone Development + Investment, named it “Sora West”, after a sharp-billed native bird that forages in the nearby Schuylkill. Sora East is a smaller building nearby, previously acquired by Keystone in 2008.
Around a grassy plaza that wouldn’t look out of place at a state university, this $400 million cluster of newly opened buildings includes the 11-story, 430,000-square-foot headquarters of AmerisourceBergen Corp., one of the three largest drug distributors in the United States, which opened last fall; a 127-bed hotel, the West + Main, a Hilton brand; and the restaurants Hook and Ladder Sky Bar & Kitchen and 1874 social. These sites span from a new building to an older one incorporated into the complex: the former Victorian home of the Borough’s Washington Fire Co..
The hotel and restaurants opened earlier this month, delayed by the pandemic. AmerisourceBergen staff are back in the office. To accommodate commuters, on the northern edge of the square stands a new 1,500-car parking lot, packed behind a glass-walled stair tower, lit at night.
The development recalls, in its elements if not its scale, the imposing Comcast complex erected in the city center – also with its own hotel, restaurants, public transport links and parking lot – or the amenities built to improve the former DuPont Co. headquarters around Rodney Square in Wilmington.
“People think what we have now in Conshohocken happened overnight. But it was a long and difficult journey. It really started in the late 1980s,” with an earlier group of office and apartment developers, says Stephen Spaeder, senior vice president at Equus Capital Partners, a Villanova-based developer. The company’s latest suburban ventures include a 352-apartment building a few blocks away, at 400 W. Elm St.
Indeed, Glazer has been preparing this for almost 20 years. In 2003, he purchased a pair of low-rise office buildings and began litigation with the Montgomery County Development Authority over proposals for those buildings and neighboring properties. In 2013, he proposed a 250-foot-tall complex (about a quarter the height of Comcast’s Philadelphia towers), which borough leaders had him cut down to 200 feet; in the meantime, he remodeled a telephone company building for borough offices.
The fire station, which dates to the 1870s, was a key. It was opened for the Washington Fire Co. – “the Washies”, now, as in the factory years, a key institution in the borough. The volunteer company has long since moved to more modern premises; the original building the restoration, including part of the hotel lobby and upstairs dining areas, emphasizes metal and wood scrollwork, with artifacts and firefighter themes.
The grassy space in the center of the complex is open to the public, as are the parking spaces at the rear during the working day, and even more so at night and on weekends.
That’s appropriate, given the subsidies. State Sen. Vincent Hughes (D., Philadelphia) helped secure the state’s Redevelopment Assistance Capital Program funds, which totaled $11 million for AmerisourceBergen and the developers. Keystone has raised more than an additional $30 million through the federal EB-5 immigration program that grants visas to foreigners who invest in U.S. projects, and $10 million through low-interest loans backed by Pennsylvania’s C-PACE funding program for “clean energy” projects.
The project also raised $2.1 million in grants from the PennDOT Multimodal Transportation Fund for transit-related projects and $1 million from the game-funded Local Action Account.
Glazer says Sora West is similar to other developments that attract residents to public and repurposed spaces, such as the Piazza, developed by Bart Blatstein, at the site of the former Schmidt’s Brewery in Philadelphia’s Northern Liberties; the park and seasonal ice rink at Rockefeller Center in New York, whose public surface area is “about the same size” as Sora West’s field, says Glazer; and hotelier André Balazs’ Chiltern Fire Station redevelopment in London.
He also cites the Independence Beer Garden next to the former Rohm & Haas headquarters, one of several 20th-century office buildings that Glazer updated along Philadelphia’s Independence Mall. (The applicant is move own headquarters to the building.)
“We love creating large spaces; that’s what we wanted here,” Glazer says of his Conshohocken project. “This 148-year-old fire station is the icing on the cake.”
AmerisourceBergen officials did not answer questions about why they chose Conshohocken over Philadelphia or King of Prussia when they decided to leave Chesterbrook, near Valley Forge, a few years ago.
Glazer says AmerisourceBergen’s choice “was all about location.” Close to the city and mainline suburbs, highways and SEPTA trains, but without the city’s payroll and retail sales taxes, “the best and the brightest are concentrated here,” says the promoter.
And unlike square, drive-up office centres, he adds, “Conshohocken has a walkable downtown, with nearby bike paths and plenty of [free or low-cost] parking and 17 restaurants in the neighborhood at the back.”
But what urban style growth can the borough accommodate? Further down the hill, “I’m a bit shocked that they’re still allowing buildings to be built on the edge of the river, where it’s flooded,” says entrepreneur Michael Golden.
golden and sound billionaire business partner Michael Rubin sold GSI Commerce to eBay in 2011 – after which Golden invested in local businesses around Conshohocken, including that of Kevin Tierney MoreThanTheCurve.coman area news site, and two restaurants, Southern Cross Kitchen on Fayette Street and Gypsy Saloon across the Schuylkill in West Conshy.
Unlike some businesses in downtown Philadelphia, where staff have slowly returned from COVID-19 closures, Golden says he and other Fayette Street restaurateurs are “busier post-pandemic than we ever have. summer”.
He said the many financial companies that moved from Philadelphia to nearby suburbs over the years continue to increase his sales. Pharmaceutical industry companies such as AmerisourceBergen, technology companies such as Oracle, which combined several local acquisitions into a single Conshohocken office, and financial firms such as retirement advisor Hamilton Lane, which moved from the City Line area, attract travelers to hotels in the area — and “hotels send us a lot of customers,” Golden said.
But even Golden, a callback, says the borough still lacks many features.
“Conshocken and West Conshohocken suffer from the lack of real high street business [and retail] neighborhood,” he said. “Fayette doesn’t have everything. Compare it to Main Street in Ambler or Germantown Avenue in Chestnut Hill. They are pedestrian towns, with shops.
“You want to see a big supermarket. You want to see college kids. We have a few Villanova students, but that youthful energy is lacking. Our demography is super old. There is no theatre, there is no cinema, film studios, art galleries.
He said local authorities understood the message and had made it easier to close streets for parties and set up sidewalk restaurants. Yet the growth of businesses and restaurants that Conshy has benefited from quickly brought other challenges, Golden concluded: “We have lost affordable housing. It’s a huge problem. The kind of workers who lived in Conshohocken can’t afford it.
Glazer says the easy access to the borough will attract more workers and visitors as development continues.
“Conshohocken has had many iterations,” he told me, sitting in one of the plastic Adirondack-style chairs that dot the green public lawn between headquarters and the hotel on a colorful October morning. . “We now have this transit-oriented development. This is a great example of where the nation, the world is heading. We intend for Sora to be at the center of it all.