44 West Turning a Corner

The patience and persistence of Eli Kahn pays off as 44 West goes forward.

A story By Kate Chadwick


All design work and renderings of 44 West are the property of Bernardon.

Five Seconds. That’s how long it takes a pedestrian to decide if he or she wants to continue walking down any given urban road based on the appeal of its storefront and restaurant commercial streetscape, according to Dr. Timothy Cassidy, a principal at West Chester architectural firm Bernardon.

For pedestrians walking the streets of the borough, however, the corner at the intersection of Church and Gay Streets has become…. well, a bit less than appealing in recent years. Bleak and blighted, a large, empty building stood at one of the busiest intersections smack in the center of town, looming in stark contrast to the otherwise vibrant panorama of West Chester’s downtown scene—a sight that has probably caused many a pedestrian to make a less-than-five-second decision to head in a different direction. But perhaps the solution to an impatient pedestrian can be found in a patient real estate developer. A very, very patient one.

The patient developer in question here is Eli Kahn, and the streetscape is known as Mosteller’s Corner, a spot with a history as storied and varied as the borough itself. Tracing back to the “First Block” of the West Chester borough, starting off as a hotel called Cross Keys all the way back in 1786, it has by turns harbored Mosteller’s Inc.—once the largest retailer in Chester County—and eventually morphed into the local government offices of the courthouse complex.

But for several years now, the building has languished, and Kahn has revisited and revamped his vision for the prime parcel again and again in the face of opposition—as well as a groundswell of steadfast supporters. It’s been a long road; in fact The WC Press first talked with Kahn about this project almost exactly four years ago for our January 2015 Real Estate issue.

The wheels were finally set in motion on October 16 of last year, when Borough Council gave final approval for the project, and demolition at the site began on December 7. The new project, dubbed 44 West, is a somewhat relent-less mission finally realized by Kahn, and his hard-fought vision is being brought to life by Bernardon.

So what the heck took so long? Kahn attributes it to the previous “anti-growth council,” in a nut-shell. “We hadn’t had one in the previous 27 years, and we haven’t had one since, but we had one then, and we had to wait it out,” he told us. “If you don’t have a whole lot of patience, you’ll never make it in this business.”

While there’s a certain level of tenacity involved here, there’s apparently the ability to not play ball when holding out for what you feel is the right thing, too. Indeed, in a quote in the June 21, 2017 Daily Local News, Kahn said after a council rejection of one of several previous plans: “When council didn’t want to talk about this, we walked away.” And, in light of the final approval for the project, he had another, more recent quote for the Daily Local, he told us. “They called me for a comment when the demolition began, and the first thing I said was ‘It’s about f*#$ing time.’ They didn’t print that, obviously, but if you’re going to ask me how it felt, I’m going to tell you. That’s how it felt.”

Demolition of the old building begins on North Church Street

 

Although Kahn submitted and then withdrew several different proposals for the location since buying it in 2011, one constant remained no matter the incarnation of his various visions on paper: the present structure would have to come down. And that presented a large part of the problem, from both a practical demolition-and-construction-on-a-bustling-corner standpoint, and a very basic one: people don’t like change—particularly people who live and work in such a historically rich borough as West Chester. “It’s human nature,” Kahn said. “Familiarity provides comfort, and people will push back on change. You can’t get caught up in the emotions of it; you just have to keep pushing if you know it’s going to be a great project. And this is a great project.”

That business of pushing forward in the face of opposition is not unmined territory for the developer; it’s an occu-pational hazard. There are opponents to every project, according to Kahn. “A few years ago I built a large apartment build-ing on King Street in Malvern—there were lots of objectors, saying it was too big. Now, I literally have people coming up to me when I walk down the street there and they say ‘You know what? I was wrong.’”

Keeping his emotions in check is part and parcel of doing his job well, Kahn said. “I don’t take it personally—I can’t. Maybe I would have when I was younger, but not now. You have to keep in mind that it doesn’t really matter what you do—someone is always going to complain. It’s a damned if you do, damned if you don’t kind of thing. A lot of the objectors on this [44 West project] were fairly reasonable, in fact—and we have freedom of speech in this country, which gives us the free exchange of ideas, and that’s what makes it great.”

At the same time, Kahn does admit that there is a bit of an emotional punch here for him, which is that this realized vision will also be a tribute to his former business partner, Jack Loew, who passed away in 2014. “This project is going to honor my late partner and friend Jack, who was without a doubt one of the most influential human beings in my life. So is there emotion involved for me on this one? Yes. Absolutely.”

A new view, seen from the same angle and location as the previous photo.

 

We couldn’t help but notice another emotion in speaking with Kahn about this enterprise: excitement. “I really couldn’t be happier, partly because the wait is finally over, but also because all you have to do is go over there to the site and you can see it: people are talking about this, and they’re getting excited about it—because it is exciting! Every-one’s pumped, and that’s a great feeling.”

The trick with the 44 West project has been to update the location without creating something that would stick out like a sore thumb, and Kahn and Bernardon had one word in mind when coming up with the building’s design: time-less. The final version of 44 West is a four-story, 44,000 square foot building with retail and restaurant space on the ground floor and office spaces above. The building will feature lots of windows to let in natural light, something that Kahn says is in high demand for modern commercial tenants, and scarce in a town with so many historical building.

The building will be just a part of the project, however, because there’s also a counterpart—in many ways the piece de resistance: a plaza with a water feature and art installations. In fact, to hear Kahn talk about it, the out-side part of the project is what will really put it on the map, so to speak.“

Trends in architecture come and go,” Kahn told us. “We came up with a design that is timeless, utilitarian, and relevant for the building—no one’s ever going to be able to say ‘this building is out of style.’ It may not land on the cover of a magazine, but it will stand the test of time. But the building is only part of the project’s design, and 100 years from now, no one’s going to care about the building. It’s going to be all about the plaza. That’s going to be a landmark, a place for people to gather, or to tell each other when they’re making plans ‘meet me at the plaza.’ And that’s’ something that’s timeless, too.”

A cohesive element with the neighborhood area surrounding the buildings is also a critical component of a project like this, particularly in a historically significant borough like West Chester. “The building’s architecture recognizes some of the historic significance of West Chester architecture,” said Neil Leibman, principal at Bernardon. “It’s important to continue with a building vernacular that will enhance and compliment the borough. The plaza and the building need to be in unison with each other; even though they’re two buildings, it is one project. We needed to create storefronts for prospective retailers or restaurateurs that would want to take advantage of Gay and Church Street streetscapes as well as the Plaza.”

The public space at 44 West will be a common area open to all in the borough

 

That’s not to say that there were no obstacles in coming up with the project’s blueprint. “One of the challenges was that the proposed design changes the landscape of a premier corner of West Chester,” Leibman said. “By removing the buildings that currently define the corner of Church and Gay Streets, it creates a new environment of not only a building but a plaza that will redefine that portion of West Chester and create an essential gathering place for residents and visitors.”

Kahn said that while paying attention to and honoring the history of a place is always a consideration for any project he undertakes, the history of a town needn’t (and shouldn’t) necessarily preclude changes that will keep it relevant and help to propel it forward into the future. A rich backstory needn’t mean “no change, ever.” In fact, to his mind, it’s counter-intuitive—just as we shouldn’t be blindly tearing things down, we shouldn’t automatically react to forward motion negatively. “There’s such a thing as being stuck,” he said. “In the end, change is one of the only constants in life.”

The 44 West project is expected to entail a couple of months of demolition prior to the construction phase, which is expected to take approximately 10-12 months. This means if all goes well, the project will meet its targeted completion date at the end of this year. As for the tenants who will occupy the new space, well, Kahn seemed pretty enthusiastic about that as well.

“I can’t make a formal announcement on that,” he told us. “But let’s just say that I am presently oversubscribed. If I could have added another floor to the building, I could have easily leased it.” That’s no small feat, considering that the first floor can accommodate up to four commercial tenants, and the office space floors can accommodate up to six office tenants on each floor, according to Leibman. “However, they can be of varying sizes and will depend on the tenant, so an exact number of offices per floor is not known at this time,” he said.

Either way, it’s pretty impressive, given that the fate of Kahn’s vision for re-imagining the corner of Church and Gay has been in peril on several occasions—never mind over the course of several years—and Kahn feels good about it. “I don’t do projects that I don’t feel good about; I’m proud of everything I’ve done,” he said. “I’m not interested in pushing things on people, but when you know that some-thing is right for the town, you just have to stick with it.”

In the end, though, Kahn feels it doesn’t really matter what he says. He believes that the finished product will speak for itself. “I couldn’t be happier about this project, and I’m confident that everyone will be pleased with the way this turns out. Whether they admit it or not is another story. But I can’t worry about that.”

There is a great Bob Dylan quote that seems to fit both Eli Kahn and the fruition of the 44 West project: “Everything passes, everything changes. Just do what you think you should do.”