Rebuilding the Borough one Building at a Time

The philosophy of how ZUKIN Realty is transforming our town.

Story by – Dan Mathers

Scott Zukin, president of Zukin Realty, has a tendency to be very optimistic about the benefits of development in the borough, and considering that the company his father founded, which he now runs, has been at the center of much of that development, it’s easy to see why. Since the 1990s, Zukin Realty has played an instrumental role in transforming the real estate prospects of the borough, and Scott still remembers the town’s condition before their involvement. “People either don’t know or don’t remember what the borough looked like 15 years ago,” says Scott. “The borough used to be a really challenging place; people forget that it hasn’t been that long since 60% of the town was vacant.”

Over the last quarter century, Zukin Realty has grown from a single building to a company that owns and manages more than 400 units, transforming iconic properties along the way. “West Chester was originally just a bunch of houses,” says Scott. “There weren’t all these retail and dining spaces—they had to be created.”

Their recent project on Market Street, the space that has become Mercato Restaurant and Bar, is a great example. It was originally three buildings, all owned by the county and all in a state of disrepair. Zukin Realty purchased the property and renovated it, literally, from the ground up, all while preserving its historic exterior. “We combined the first floors of the buildings and dug out a basement to make an extra space,” Scott says. “While we sought the right client for that space, we renovated the upper levels, turning them into apartments.” They applied this same formula to Dolce Zola’s space at 134 E Gay St, when the owners who were then running the smaller iPasta wanted to expand into something bigger. Zukin Realty combined the first two floors of adjacent buildings while maintaining the exteriors and added a beautifully renovated basement, as well as space for a patio.

15 N Church Street is another source of pride for Zukin Realty. “That place was vacant for about 20 years,” says Scott. The windows were all blown out, and the building was utterly dilapidated (see the previous page for confirmation). “It could have been deemed something in need of being knocked down,” he says. Rather than demolish the building and start from scratch, Zukin Realty worked hand-in-hand with the Historic Architecture Review Board to preserve the building’s exterior, all while creating a beautiful interior space that’s become the home of Yori’s Church Street Bakery. “We wanted to maintain that character and maintain the history as best as possible,” Scott explains.

Zukin Realty’s work at 15 N Church St won them a Preservation Award, one of many they’ve earned over the years. They have also received awards for notable properties like the ones that house Ram’s Head Bar and Grill, as well as 119 E Gay St, the current home of The Social.

According to Allen Burke, chair of the West Chester Preservation Awards, much of the recognition for these projects relates back to Scott Zukin himself. “Through the years, West Chester Preservation Awards have been given to four different Zukin projects, largely in recognition of Scott Zukin’s passion for excellence in the art of carpentry combined with a love of borough history,” he said. The Social is a great example of Scott’s passion and interest in carpentry. On that project, they dove deeper than usual, conducting historical research to uncover photos and illustrations of the building’s original appearance. Rather than simply cleaning the space up, they took steps to restore the structure to its original appearance, even going so far as removing individual wooden brackets and meticulously repairing and reinstalling them.

And, if all goes according to plan, Zukin Realty will be bringing a massive new project to the borough, a six-story structure set to go up at the corner of Gay and Walnut, where the vacant property that was once Rite Aid now stands. The project has been in the works for years, as they’ve been working with the borough to get their plans approved, but Scott is hopeful they’re nearing the end of the process—he expects an answer from the borough this month. “We’ve given them everything they’ve asked for at this point, and we’ve worked very hard over the last six months to implement requested changes to the design we presented to them over the summer,” says Scott. “The ball is in their court.”

Zukin Realty hopes their hotel at the corner of Gay and Walnut will start construction this year.

What Scott is hoping to get approved is a 110-room hotel (see above), with a large first-floor restaurant space that would be sizeable enough for hosting events. Scott’s a big believer in building for a purpose, and he’s certain there is a greater purpose behind this project. “This town could use another hotel,” Scott says. “A hotel brings a population to town that’s out and about, looking for something to do after business is concluded for the day—it brings a vibrancy to the town.”

Scott’s optimistic that their plans will be approved, so he has begun to court interest from potential restaurants. Sticking to his insistence on introducing beneficial businesses to the borough, the restaurant most likely to occupy the first floor is Big Fish, a nationally recognized seafood company founded in Delaware. “This town is in a need of a seafood restaurant,” Scott says. “Big Fish have other successful locations, and they’re focused on quality to the extent that they have their own delivery trucks and go to the markets to source the fish themselves.”

There are a few consistent elements in everything that Zukin Realty does, the most well-known of which is their concentration on multi-use properties, those that allow commercial space on the first floors and living space above. “This has never been a commuter town,” Scott says. “Part of what makes West Chester special is that many of the people who shop, work and dine here live right above the businesses they visit.” Scott insists that the people who live downtown are just as important as the businesses, and that any development in the town needs to consider both sides. “We work to keep the tenants in the buildings that we buy and renovate,” he says. “In the past we’ve had tenants that we worked with, along with area non-profits, to take them from unemployed, on the verge of homeless, to paying their own bills.”

The other consistent element is a focus on maintaining character while developing properties that can benefit the current needs of the community. “We really strive to take these old buildings and retain their history while we adapt them for contemporary use,” Scott says. “I think it’s possible for responsible development to blend a property’s past with its future.”