NEWTOWN BOROUGH >> The Newtown Borough Council at its Zoom meeting on December 8 granted final approval for the redevelopment of the former Stockburger property at State and Court streets.
Under the plan, the former Stockburger auto repair garage at 215 South State Street will be demolished, the site will be remediated for environmental hazards and then redeveloped with two twin dwelling units, four detached garages and eight parking spaces.
In addition, the plan includes the redevelopment of a gravel parking located just off of Court Street with the construction of four, three-story twins containing two units each.
Attorney Joe Blackburn, representing Court and State LLC, said the developer has agreed to all outstanding engineering and planning issues and has secured the relief required from the borough’s zoning board for the project.
During its latest review and subsequent approval before council, Blackburn said the developer has agreed to plant additional shade trees along Court Street.
The project also will include the addition of a crosswalk on State Street linking the project to the Steeple View development across the street and the installation of period street lighting on South State Street and on the east and west side of Court Street.
The one thing that won’t be part of the plan will be six proposed on-street parking spaces on South State Street in front of the new development and the Bond building next door.
The developer has agreed to widen the road in front of the development, but said a study done by Traffic Planning Design determined that there is insufficient room to create the new parking spaces without negatively impacting site distance and endangering safety.
Nevertheless, Jim Steen, who owns the Bond Building, asked the borough to continue to work with PennDOT to secure approval for on-street parking either on the east or west side of the street.
“It’s important for the current people who are there, but also the new townhomes,” he said.
“I like this project,” added Steen, “but I was hoping we’d be getting on street parking in front of this building and the new State Street townhouses. Now I’m hearing that’s not happening.”
Original plans included the creation of new on-street parking spaces along State Street. The spaces were added in response to neighborhood concerns over the loss of parking in the area due to the planned redevelopment of the gravel parking lot off of Court Street.
“We’re still proposing widening the road,” said Blackburn, noting, “We’re not precluding it from being revisited in the future.”
The development has stirred a lot of concern in the neighborhood not just over parking, but also over how it will fit architecturally within the historic neighborhood around it.
Earlier in the meeting, council approved a Certificate of Appropriateness for the new residential units planned on State Street. Council also approved COAs for four proposed carriage house-style garage units facing Court Street.
Councilor Julia Woldorf voted against the garage COA.
“My concern is the view of the garages from Court Street. They look more like a loading dock and the rear of a property and don’t enhance the streetscape that much,” said Woldorf. “This is an area of Court Street that isn’t giving a residential feel. It’s giving a rear end of a commercial property feel.”
Blackburn noted what’s already there is the backend of a commercial structure. “It’s certainly an improvement to that,” he said. “They are set back from the street and they are designed to mimic a Quaker shed.”
Penn Street resident Diane LeBas echoed Woldorf’s concerns. “Court Street is one of the earliest streets in town with the Court Inn at one end and the Meetinghouse on the other. I don’t think the way this looks respects Court Street and the town’s history. Our heritage deserves better than that.”
After hearing from LeBas, Council President Tara Grunde-McLaughlin called on HARB board chair Jim McAuliffe to weigh in on the discussion and to explain HARB’s recommendation.
“Garage buildings are considered accessory uses to the main house so we look for a more simplified and utilitarian appearance to them, which this applicant has managed to do,” said McAuliffe. “Yes, these are like houses with their backs facing the street. They are basically through lots, which are a challenge. Yes, as you go down Court Street you will be looking at the rear of these properties. They are set back significantly from Court. We did consider the streetscape ... I think they will be successful. I think they will fit in over time.”
While approving COAs for the State Street properties and the Court Street garages, after considerable discussion council tabled a COA for the eight residential units planned off of Court Street.
HARB had recommended approval of the proposed new construction. Several residents, however, joined councilors in raising issue with the proposed architecture sparking a lengthy discussion with the architect.
Quigley shared with council an architectural rendering of the proposed structures as seen from the center courtyard. It depicts eight units broken up into four twins with each unit measuring 18 feet nine inches wide by 33 feet six inches deep.
“That’s a pretty small footprint. So even with two of them four feet apart it’s a rather compact development,” said Quigley. “They are very much the little sibling of the units that sit on State Street. There is the intent to relate the two through both the design and the materials selection.”
McAuliffe noted the rendering is not what HARB would have considered since it is not visible from the street. “But the character of these row homes is very visible in this rendering,” he said.
Councilor Susan Turner echoed earlier comments made by LeBas about the Court Street garages. “I just don’t think they fit the historic character of this location. They are visible from some of the houses on Penn Street and from the Meetinghouse. I just don’t think they respect the historical architecture of the area.”
Quigley disagreed. “This is a traditional form with more modern detailing to it. For a new structure in an historic district traditional form with modern components is very appropriate for historic context ... It’s new construction, not intending to replicate precisely something that already exists.”
Woldorf said her concern is building a high density housing development “that’s out of context” with the surrounding neighborhood.
“The surrounding neighborhood is the oldest section in town. Next to it you have a section of Court Street with the oldest buildings in town. They are all two story, very tiny homes with very small frontages,” said Woldorf. “What you’re putting in are three story homes so right there they are towering ... There’s no connection to anything that’s around them. They are stark. And there is nothing that says we’re modern, but we want to blend in.
“Let’s do something that enhances that neighborhood and isn’t something that’s an island onto itself and doesn’t really blend,” said Woldorf. “I’m not against change. I’m not against new style. And I’m not against modern. And I’m not against taking things that are traditional and giving them a new feel. I’m just saying this feel doesn’t feel good to me.”
Councilor Marvin Cohen said he’d feel more comfortable seeing a rendering that shows the new twins in context with the surrounding neighborhood.
“I’d like to get the true look of these buildings in the context of the existing ones,” said Cohen. “I would need that to feel comfortable.”
The developer agreed to provide additional renderings to the council to assist it in making a final decision.
Before the project can break ground, the developer will need to secure outstanding approvals from the borough’s Historic Architectural Review Board for the new construction off of Court Street in addition to proposed exterior lighting, new fencing and bollards in the broader project.
In addition to HARB approvals, the developer also will need to secure approval from the Joint Historic Commission to remove an historic shed (outhouse) located on the property.
“We did reach out to the Newtown Historic Association to see if they wanted it. There is no interest in relocating it anywhere. It’s going to be removed, probably to a dumpster,” said Blackburn.
“We don’t have too many outhouses left. We want to preserve as many as we have,” said Councilor Julia Woldorf. “I kid you not.”
According the Blackburn, optimistically the project could break ground as early as the spring of 2021.
“We have to record the plans and enter into financial security agreements. To get all the HARB approvals, plans recorded and agreements in place, optimistically we’re looking at the spring of 2021,” said Blackburn.