Despite a developer's attempts to demolish the deteriorating Embreeville State School and Hospital property and build 1,100 residential units in its place, the abandoned and overgrown former psychiatric hospital in Chester County is going to stand for at least a little longer.
West Bradford Township's zoning hearing board last week quashed Embreeville Redevelopment LP's zoning ordinance challenge, which, if successful, would have green-lighted the development team's path toward its proposed project. For years, the development group and local officials have squabbled over whether West Bradford was providing for its legal "fair share" of multifamily housing — and whether the developer's sizable multifamily proposal could fit into that.
With Embreeville Redevelopment's challenge denied, however, the developers' plan for a residential and commercial complex is off the table once again. Meanwhile, West Bradford is stuck with a toxic eyesore with a controversial past — one that many are concerned is dangerous to sporadic trespassers.
Reached by email earlier this week, developer Ken Hellings, part of the three-person team that makes up Embreeville Redevelopment, said the group plans to appeal the board's decision to Chester County Court. Hellings has 30 days to do so from the April 4 decision. He declined to comment further.
The decision marks one of the most significant setbacks in Hellings' nearly five-year effort to develop the land. Since he purchased the Embreeville hospital site, including the roughly 225 acres it sits on, for slightly more than $1 million in May 2013, Hellings and his partners have faced pushback at nearly every turn. While, in theory, residents, officials, and the developers all agree that the Embreeville complex — zoned as industrial and mixed-use — should be demolished, they cannot find common ground when figuring out what should go in its place. Dozens of residents attended the meeting to oppose Hellings' plan.
According to Embreeville Redevelopment's plans, the 16-building complex would have been transformed into a residential and commercial development, featuring 1,100 residential units, more than 50,000 square feet of commercial space, and dozens of acres of forest and open land. The scale of the proposal, Hellings has previously said, was necessary to offset the $13 million he estimated as the cost to remediate and demolish the hospital site, which is filled with asbestos, mold, and possible soil contamination.
Many residents want the site to remain as open land. Others said they would be agreeable to a smaller-scale development, such as a nursing home, that would not stress roads and schools.
Once one of the nation's premier psychiatric hospitals, the Embreeville hospital became engulfed in controversy when it became a smaller state-run institution for the intellectually disabled around the 1990s. There, abuse allegations began to surface — reports of rape, drugging, and assault — until the U.S. Department of Justice sued Pennsylvania and shut Embreeville down.
The buildings remained, deteriorating to the point that township officials floated the idea of providing them as a set for horror films. West Bradford, located near Downingtown, seriously contemplated purchasing the site, too.
Ultimately, the hospital site went to Hellings and his team — which includes Conrad Muhly, the CEO of Terra, an environmental remediation company, and a member of the Brandywine Valley SPCA's board of directors — in a state sale.
Around the time that Embreeville Redevelopment was rolling out its development plan five years ago, West Bradford was grappling with a plan of its own. Around June 2013, the township wrote in legal documents it had "identified the possibility" that its zoning ordinance may not provide for its "fair share" of multifamily housing. In an attempt to correct that, West Bradford rezoned industrial land to accommodate mixed-use residential developments, but did not rezone the Embreeville site that Hellings had just purchased.
The move set off a years-long legal battle — ultimately leading to Hellings' most recent challenge that West Bradford's entire zoning ordinance was invalid. Hellings argued that the township was still lacking its fair share of multifamily housing to meet the township's expected population growth.
However, in the decision issued last week, the zoning board ruled that the township's zoning ordinance was valid, arguing that at least 4.1 percent of the township's land — at least 480 acres — is available for multifamily units.
"It was the obligation of the [developer] to conduct [an] in-depth analysis and to prove … that the [zoning] ordinance is exclusionary," the zoning board wrote in its decision. "The applicant has failed to do so."
At the zoning hearing, residents cheered the board's decision. Afterward, reached by phone, West Bradford Supervisor Laurie W. Abele said it was "a well thought-out and reasoned decision."
"I think it's the correct decision," Abele said. "We could do many things [at the site] that would not have 1,100 more vehicles" on nearby roads.
Asked whether one of those things might be trying to purchase the land from the developer, Abele said the township has not "ruled that out."